Opinion

This is why we don’t need ‘unsafe spaces’

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Niloufar Haidari
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This is why we don't need 'unsafe spaces' 1

A grammar school in Kent has found itself under fire after announcing its plans for an “unsafe space”. Simon Langton grammar school for boys in Canterbury - which was previously criticised for inviting right-wing hate monger and all-round human slug Mino Yiannopoulos to speak - has announced that it is looking to set up the forum as “an antidote to the poison of political correctness” by examining “the most beautifully disturbed and disturbing ideas, all of them presented without trigger warnings”.

’Safe spaces’ - i.e. somewhere in which a person or category of people can feel confident they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment or any other emotional or physical harm, have their origins in protest and the practice of no-platforming from the ‘70s. The idea behind them is that people of all identities are entitled to a tolerant environment to express who they are - essentially, to feel safe.

The concept of the safe space has been faced with backlash from both liberals and conservatives, with criticism usually being framed around the importance of “free speech” and the easily-hurt feelings of snowflake millennials who have never experienced war in their lifetimes and therefore have no right to complain about anything. 

The head of the school, Ken Moffat, has defended the idea and attempted to dismiss any concerns raised in a letter to parents:

“Our aim is quite simple: to continue with what we are already doing in allowing our young men and women to debate interesting ideas at the highest level possible with speakers from both within and without the school community,” he wrote.

“Just because we use the term ‘freedom of speech’ does not mean we will indulge homophobic, xenophobic, racist or sexist beliefs.”

Directly undermining this statement is the proposed debates coming up which include absolutely-not-racist-or-sexist-in-any-way topics such as “women versus feminism” and “not all cultures are created equal”. Call it a sixth sense, but something tells me the debate will not be about the inferiority of Western culture (sidenote: this would be an unsafe space debate I would actually welcome. In the spirit of protecting free speech, you understand).

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The teacher in charge of the project is Professor James Soderholm, director of humanities at the school. According to pupils, the first session will be devoted to discussing the insanely offensive memo that led to Google employee James Damore being fired. You know, the one in which he claimed that women were innately less capable as engineers, a scorchingly hot take that Soderholm seems to believe requires intensive debate rather than shutting down.

This is the thing with the obsession with ‘free speech’ and ‘unsafe spaces’: much of what is ‘debated’ in these rooms are views that are not only harmful, but still prevalent. They are the kind of the views that led to the ‘land of the free’ voting for a fascist television star to be President. As a society we should be challenging these opinions, not creating designated areas for them to be aired without judgement under the guise of ‘reason’ and ‘intellectual freedom’. Crucially, we need to ask whose freedom we are talking about. Giving a bunch of already privileged young men the freedom to question the humanity of everyone who is different to them, or giving minorities freedom from having to sit in rooms where they are told time and time again that they are less than human. 

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Students of grammar schools - home to some of the whitest, richest and most insulated people in the country, who often go on to places at top universities and jobs, do not need help becoming more right-wing, reactionary and conservative in their views regarding the rest of the world.

Speaking to The Guardian, Joanne Bartley, of the Kent Education Network said: “The social divide in grammar schools is a real problem. Grammar school pupils might be our future politicians, but how can they know about real life when they only mix with others of the same gender, class and aspirations?”

Today’s expose by Hope not Hate is a cautionary tale as to what happens when arguments about the humanity of other races and sexes are given undue credibility under the guise of ‘debate’. Labelling themselves as a right-wing ‘free speech’ group called Young Right Society (YRS), members of the private Facebook group regularly post Nazi imagery, anti-Semitic, racist and sexist memes alongside Holocaust jokes and nostalgic images of what the world could have looked like had Germany won World War II. According to known Nazi James Mac who has commented on the photo, “Think of the best looking people today, only more of them and better. Think of the most intelligent people we have today, only more of them and better. Just think of everything that is good for White people and White civilisation and make it better”. 

One post by group moderator Michael Brooks is as follows: “There is a riot happening in Dalston in North East London. In this thread we discuss the ethnicities and theories as to why they are biologically destined to engage in this behaviour :^)”. It’s not a reach to say that this ‘discussion’ is not hugely far from the suggested ‘not all cultures are created equal’ debate in Soderholm’s treasured ‘unsafe space’.

Proponents of ‘free speech’ often claim that debates such as these help students learn how to tackle extreme views, but they rarely mention that these spaces can also teach students how to back up abhorrent views with strawman arguments and fake facts. 

It’s time we stopped worrying about ‘the poison of political correctness’ and decide that some things - such as the humanity of other human beings - should just not be up for debate in a truly civilised world. 

(Images: iStock/Rex)

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Niloufar Haidari

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