Free Speech and Unsafe Spaces
Date Written: 2017-04-08
Year Published: 2017
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX20617
Malik criticizes "the blinkered, self-centred, indeed narcissistic, attitudes that shape much contemporary discussion on speech and its limits. Free speech, from this perspective, requires not a robust exchange of ideas but the validation of my views. I should have the right to denounce anyone I wish, but criticism of my views is a denial of my free speech. Vigorously defending oneself against criticism is to deny safe space for one's critics."
In the Wellesley email is contained most of the claims that make up the new landscape of free speech on campus. All ideas are potentially harmful because all ideas can cause pain, injury and distress. Only those who feel distress or suffer injury can decide whether an idea or a speaker is harmful. Speakers who cause distress, or organizers that allow such distress to occur, are guilty of ‘bullying’ the ‘disempowered’. To question any idea that an individual deems central to their sense of identity is to impugn that individual’s humanity. Students should not have to spend time and effort challenging ideas that they find distressing.
These claims raise interesting questions. If distressing ideas do not have a place in a university, and all ideas are potentially distressing, what ideas can a university teach? If I, as a Creationist, say, find the teaching of evolution distressing, should my biology professor stop teaching it, so that I don’t feel injury or pain? How do we know that an idea is distressing if we cannot hear it? What is a greater assault on my humanity – listening to Laura Kipnis’ ideas or being told that I am too fragile to be able to be able listen to her ideas without being harmed? What if I claim that being forced to listen to academics describing my ideas as harmful distresses and injures me? If it is an undue imposition on students to force them to challenge ideas with which they disagree, what is a university for?
In the past, free speech was regarded as the foundation of liberty because of the acceptance of a universalist vision of political norms and moral values. From this perspective, the importance of free speech is that it creates the conditions necessary to think through problems, whether political, social, moral or personal. The conditions necessary to expand one’s own horizons, to understand the viewpoint of others, to open our own viewpoint for challenge, to be able to engage in the kind of political and social dialogue that can help create a more universal language of citizenship.
From the perspective of identity politics, on the other hand, free speech, the ability to expand and universalise experience, to question that which is seen as unquestionable, can often appear as a threat. And censorship can provide a means to shore up the broken barriers, and to exclude unwanted, unacceptable or threatening views and values.
Consider the concept of ‘safe space’. Over the past half century it has moved from meaning a protection against physical harms to a shelter from cultural and psychological harms. What makes a space safe today is that it provides for the affirmation and protection of an individual’s identity. As Betty Jo Barrett, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Windsor notes, ‘from the perspective of the students, safety in the classroom is defined by an uncritical acceptance of students’ contributions, both on the part of their professors and their peers.’
A safe space, in other words, is a place of safety from challenge. ... Where free speech creates an open forum for all views, a safe space is inclusive only of views that are deemed not to be threatening, and that will validate other views within that space. The space of free speech includes all, but refuses to validate all. A safe space validates all within, but excludes any that refuses to accept all views as equally valid. In reality, then, it is the space of free speech that is truly inclusive, and the safe space that seeks to exclude.