In a recent debate at the Oxford Union, Peter Tatchell spoke in support of the motion “A University Should Not Be a Safe Space”. The gay rights rights campaigner justified his rejection of such a policy by claiming that it would allow a self selected group of people to set the parameters of acceptable speech, consequently excluding those who dissent from their appointed limits.
Of course, it seems sensible that people have the right to freely associate with one another; to form a society with goals, aims and dogmas, and to withhold membership from people who don’t support these. To say otherwise is to attack a fundamental of any thoroughly liberal democracy.
In a sense, entering a university is about entering such an association. Arguably however, the goals, aims and dogmas of a university should not be constituted by any particular theory of morality or politics, as this would necessarily exclude those who dissented; such exclusion is anathema to what many consider the purpose of a modern university to be.
The catalyst which lead to the establishment of the first university safe spaces was noble; protecting vulnerable people from ideas they found harmful and offensive. Despite this commendable aspiration, the cost of implementing a safe space policy as a university wide initiative is too great. If such a strategy were enforced, we end up protecting those who claim vulnerability at the cost of the pursuit of ideas which may or may not be true.
Ditching the pursuit of truth so as to protect the holder of a particular dogma from offence is a reversion to something we often celebrate having left behind. It is a positive development that a religious test act no longer applies to those entering a university; I say no longer, because less than 150 years ago, members of English universities were expected to assent to the truth of the Articles of Religion. In effect, a similar policy existed at Dublin University until the late 1800s, meaning that many nonconformists and Roman Catholics wouldn’t matriculate and couldn’t take high office at Dublin for fear of transgressing their conscience.
Enacting a safe space policy at university would be the reintroduction of a test act by the back door. Instead of priests insisting on a system of absolute values which must be assented to, we could see secular clergy, appointing the limits of their orthodoxy, which must be upheld to enter their sacrosanct institution. This would be a retrograde, illiberal step which would achieve nothing but the protection of a minority of easily offended people, and the stifling of a large swathe of opinion.
Instead of shutting down dissent in some forms, a university should encourage it in all forms, in the pursuit of truth, even when ideas being discussed appear offensive or dangerous to some. This should be the guiding goal, aim and dogma of the contemporary university; it’s what a university is for. Many particular ideas can thrive alongside one another in a variety of free associations. At Dublin University members of the LGBTQI+ community and their supporters can meet at QSoc; people of any given religious conviction can network through their own religious societies, and Marxists can meet in the English School! These microcosms of thought, these microcosmic safe spaces, all have rightful place within the macrocosm which is the modern university. None of these particular strands of interest however, should have the right to determine entry into the macrocosm, neither should any have the right to police another’s discussions in the name of safe space. To claim otherwise is to desire a less vibrant, less liberal university.