Safe Spaces? Censorship on Campus

‘Well I am just a student sir, and I only want to learn / but it’s hard to read through the rising smoke of the books that you like to burn’.

These lines from a mid-sixties protest song by Phil Ochs convey the same message as many of the era: cultural and political conservatives had, for years, tried and succeeded in policing what students could read, watch or listen to, but it was time to challenge old authorities.

More recently, there has been a trend which can be seen as an inversion of this model. Student campaigns, considered broadly left-wing, have been advocating, with some success, various forms of modern day censorship. The chances are you’ve heard of some of them – the removal of (often seemingly benign) texts from syllabuses, or the addition of misrepresentative ‘trigger warnings’, the cancellation of speakers, or the removal of items such as building names or statues from university campuses.

The general aim has been to create and protect ‘Safe Spaces’ for those often marginalised or discriminated against. No doubt well-intentioned, the trend is nonetheless disconcerting.

It’s an emotive topic, and it seems wise first of all to explain what this article is not. It is not an argument against the concept of Safe Spaces, the idea that universities should take into account the sensibilities of an increasingly diverse student population.

I will not be arguing that white, male, straight people are the real victims of discrimination nowadays. They aren’t. Neither is it an argument in favour of untrammelled free speech. There have always been laws and customs limiting free speech, and rightly so. I will, instead, argue in favour of open, honest, challenging academic debate. This cannot always, or perhaps shouldn’t always, be comfortable. To use a word well-worn by the advocates of Safe Space, censoring things that might offend is, in the least, problematic.

There is a precedent of left-wing censorship at universities, including for less-than-honourable ends, as any reader of Malcolm Bradbury’s satirical campus novel, The History Man, can attest. But in general, forces of the Right were the ones (usually not literally) burning the books. On the Left, the obvious antecedent is the longstanding NUS No Platform policy on racist parties like the BNP. As a student, I supported this, but now, I’m not so sure.

What were we afraid of – that impressionable students would be converted into fascists by one of Nick Griffin’s half-wits? No, we don’t want them goose-stepping all over campus beating up ethnic minorities, but letting them have their say is a different matter. Racism is easy to defeat in open debate, and we shouldn’t have been afraid to do so.

No Platform has now been extended, on different campuses, to all sorts of speakers from feminists to UKIPers. But whatever their views, is it justifiable? In a university of all places? It makes us look frightened, like we don’t trust people with certain arguments. Let’s treat people as rational adults who can make up their own minds. I don’t like Germaine Greer’s views on transsexual people (or her views on men for that matter) but I don’t see any inherent harm, as students at Cardiff evidently did, in letting her have her say.

The now well-known Rhodes Must Fall campaign to remove colonialist Cecil Rhodes’s statue from Oriel College, Oxford, is symptomatic of the movement. It seems like a good idea at first glance, proposed by people whose motivations are understandable. But Britain’s troubling colonial history is surely addressed best head-on, not swept under the carpet.

Contextualisation, not deletion, might help: a plaque describing, in soberly factual terms, what Rhodes actually did. This view is hardly tantamount to colonial apologism, as some would have it.

The problem with censorship, or even the perception that it is being pushed for, is that it encourages taboos. Taboos become cool and subversive to defy, giving rise to a narrative of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘snowflake’ (i.e. hypersensitive) students.

I instinctively dislike the tendency to pile-on, mob-like, to decry an individual or book as racist or misogynistic; there’s something of the witch hunt about it. It looks closed-minded and reactionary, and it feeds this narrative. The Left shouldn’t end up as a mirror image of the Right’s moralising censorship, setting itself up for challenge by daring convention-breakers.

There’s another problem inherent to this type of identity politics: it can lead to competitive, sometimes directly contradictory, grievance raising. One group’s affirmation of safe space may be the violation of another’s, as was the case in the odd events involving the ex-Muslim Iranian human-rights activist Maryam Namazie at Warwick and Goldsmiths universities, recounted here.

The criticism of those arguing against censorship is often that it’s easy for privileged people (white, male, straight etc) to denigrate Safe Space; we’re not the ones who need it. For people like me, they say, the presence of a particular speaker is merely a philosophical issue, whereas for minority groups, it’s an act of aggression.

I don’t agree. I’m not telling any less privileged group what they’re allowed to be offended by, although I appreciate it may sound worryingly close to that. If words hurt, then the best way to counter is to argue back. Education should thicken the skin and broaden the mind. This ought to apply to those demanding Rhodes’s removal, as well as those who cannot countenance any questioning of his existence without crying ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Universities must, first and foremost, be centres of febrile and fearless discussion. So, by all means, protest, counter-argue and demonstrate. Campaign for syllabuses to recognise different perspectives or be less Eurocentric. But censorship of academic work or political speakers is an apparently easy fix that’s more likely to foment opposition than solve structural prejudice.

Perhaps the trend is just a side effect of the marketization of higher education; students, paying exorbitant tuition fees, see themselves as customers and therefore entitled to complain. This may well be true, but as a society that aims, however falteringly, towards multicultural integration, we need to find ways of balancing respecting the sensibilities of others with free and open debate.

Universities, often a microcosm of, and trendsetters to, the wider world, are the perfect place to work out how.

Five assumptions of the Left

People make assumptions all the time, not least about what lefties believe. How many times, for example, have you felt like an argument boils down to “so, you’re left-wing, so you must think X”?

But what assumptions about left-wing people are appropriate? As well as being critical of the wider problems in society, we need to turn our examination inwards and look at ourselves. This is how we build a robust movement. To that end, I have drawn up a list of five basic assumptions I feel it is necessary to make to be on the left. It is not exhaustive, but I do think that if you feel any of these points are invalid, then you are probably not leftwing. In my opinion, they represent core underpinning beliefs.

1. Privilege exists

Or - that the world is unfair. It is important to acknowledge that everyone is given different advantages or disadvantages in life purely based on the circumstances of their birth.

This isn’t to say hard work shouldn’t be valued – it is an unfair accusation that the left favour dependency or handouts. It is to say, though, that if you are born into a well off family you are more likely end up wealthy yourself. Being successful in life (i.e. having lots of money) is not automatically a function of how hard you work, but is determined by how fortunate you are in your birth.

Accepting privilege is an essential leftwing belief. It runs under everything else and is connected to all the other points on this list. It also connected to the idea of questioning authority and what privileges brought someone into a position of authority. Being a woman, from an ethnic minority, gay disabled, or a whole host of other things means you must work harder to be successful, as well as being more likely to face obvious discrimination and harassment compared to a group society has favored with more power.

The Right claim everyone is given an even footing and that success is a result of hard work. But privilege is the crux of what makes society unequal. Biology should not be destiny. The circumstances of your birth should not determine your lot in life.

2. Rational people can be irrational

Not every decision everyone makes is always clearly thought out and considered. This may be obvious, but it’s also very important. Consider the reverse of this point. To lean to the Right you must believe that everyone is rational all the time: criminals make rational choices to commit crimes; addicts choose to continue their addiction; the poor are responsible for their own poverty. This underpins a lot of right-wing policy: criminals should be harshly punished because they chose a life of crime. That the poor deserve to have their benefits cut because they chose not to get a job.

To lean the left is to say that some things are beyond your control and that society should step in and help out in these circumstances. Not just to correct privilege, but because people make irrational decisions and need help to get them out of the situation they have found themselves in. To be left wing is argue against the sentiment ‘you made your decision and now you must pay for it’.

3. Inequality is a bad thing

Having an uneven distribution of wealth and power does not create incentives for those at the bottom of the pile to better themselves but instead creates social strife which in the long run makes us all worse off. This is linked to questioning the fact that those at the top of pile did not get there through their own hard work but through unfair advantages. Why else, for example, are there so many people from rich, privately educated backgrounds in the Cabinet – pure coincidence? Inequality in wealth and power is a symptom of the sickness of privilege.

One of the things I find very strange about the right is when they claim that those who have less should work harder to have more, but society clearly throws obstacles in the way of some and not others. This right wing argument boils down to saying that women should work really really hard to be successful and that men just need to work hard to be successful. Claiming that inequality is a good motivator is just silly.

To be on the left is believe that inequality is caused by privilege and not laziness, and that to defend inequality is to defend a society that privileges some over others.

4. Collaboration is preferable to competition

More can be accomplished by working together than in fighting each other. The free market does not lead to the most socially beneficial allocation of resources. Competition favors privilege – this is why the wealth gap has widened so much in the past three decades.

The right argues that free market competition creates incentives for innovation and that, if left to its own natural devices, it will allocate society’s resources to where they are most needed. Those who are left-wing dispute this and claim that the free market allocates more of society’s scarce resources to the most privileged, rather than to where they will do the most good.

To be on the left is to argue that by working together, through government, collectives or other means, we can achieve a more socially beneficial resources allocation that overcomes privilege. That together we are stronger and that competition divides us.

5. One size does not fit all

Also know as diversity, a phrase much mocked by the right. We are all different, as are our needs. Yet in general society doesn't take this into account, and benefits some over others. This is essence of privilege.

The right argues for a universalist approach. But measuring everyone by the same standard in a clearly unequal society does not work. In contrast, diversity also means accepting that there are valid lifestyles different to yours. It can be hard to accept that others value things differently, some value family more than others, for example. Some value their peers more than their family. It can be hard to understand people with different lifestyles, but everyone deserves dignity, compassion and respect. It should be accepted that one size doesn’t fit all.

Accepting diversity, and that other people live lives completely differently to your own, is essential to being left wing. It is also important to accept that there is not always a single standard of behavior or proper way to do things.

I wanted to show how these problems are interlinked through the idea of privilege, in other words that the circumstances of your birth determine a lot about your life and that society is deeply unfair. Ideas that are essential to how we see the world – and the problems we want to fix.

It is important to always question our own ideas, our own assumptions, and our own privilege. This contributes to both a stronger ideology and a broader movement.

Reaching to the Converted: Creating safe spaces and activism

Everyone knows I am a lefty and a bit of an old-Labour type, and as such I enjoy a bit of Billy Bragg every now and then. A lot of my student days were passed to the sounds of the Bard of Barking, especially Brewing Up With Billy Bragg. It was the time in my life where I discovered the most about my musical and political opinions and Billy Bragg spanned them both. Other artists were important, from Phill Ochs to Anti-Flagg, but among my friends Billy Bragg way always the favourite. Not just the political songs, although To Have And To Have Not is a stirring tune, my favourite songs were Levi Stubb’s Tears and From A Vauxhall Velox.

Like any good fan, I saw him in concert. The first time was on the night when Boris Johnson was originally elected mayor of London and the tide started to turn in favour of the Conservatives. Throughout the evening Billy Bragg had kind words of encouragement and hope. He reassured us that all was not lost and that a better world could be won through action locally and nationally. It was exactly what we needed to hear. At times he was emotional and at times logical about the state of the left today. As well as a concert and a political talk, the man gave us hope and solidarity. I would urge any lefty to go and see Billy Bragg in concert as what he has to say today is as relevant as it was in 1984 when Brewing Up was first released.

But therein lies a problem. I said I would urge any lefty to go and see Billy Bragg in concert. I doubt there was anyone in the audience who was not already sympathetic to the values Billy Bragg stands for. There might have been a few music journalists or fans of the singer-songwriter genre there who were not lefties, but by and large I think everyone there broadly identified as left wing either then or at that time or at some point in their lives. No one’s opinion was changed that night. No one started to support left wing principles who did not believe in those principles already. Some people who were armchair lefties might have been galvanised into action, but no sweeping changes in views were made.

This is a problem with the left in general. A lot of events organised with the best intentions end up preaching to the choir. Arguments beautifully laid out and thoughtfully composed fall on the ears of those who already agree with what is being passionately argued for. The support base is not expanding through readings at a Marxist book group. The masses are not being converted through a night of protest music attended only by fans of protest music.

Billy Bragg’s message did reach a wider audience when he was more popular in the 1980s. It is slightly unfair to focus solely on Billy Bragg as it is difficult to stay consistently popular for such a long time as well as staying relevant and keeping to the ideals one originally set out with. Billy Bragg has balanced all this very well but the underlying point remains that there is a strong tendency on the left to preach to the converted.

Events such as the aforementioned night of protest music do not convert the undecided to the cause. They create a safe space for likeminded individuals to express themselves in the knowledge that they are among their peers. Bold expressions of left wing values can be met with ridicule in the public sphere and it is important to create spaces where people can be themselves. The same is true of gay or trans-gender events which also create a safe refuge for those in a minority against the harshness of the outside world. This work is very important but it should not be confused with activism.

Activism is something different. It involves talking to people who may not necessary agree with everything you have to say. It involves going out and finding these people to engage with. Not in an aggressive way but it does involve stepping outside of your comfort zone. Activism is a painful and at times boring process which takes up a lot of time, produces little visible results and receives little praise. At times it is even met with brutal repression and the costs can be dear. All this is less than appealing to a lot people and so there is a tendency not to want to leave the safe space or worse, to rebrand the safe space as activism. Gathering a lot of likeminded people together in one location who all generally agree with each other can look a lot like activism but that can be misleading. Unless there is an engagement with the opposite opinion or the establishment then an event or piece of art is not activism.

Organising safe spaces for likeminded people to express themselves is important. It is the necessary flip side to activism. Where activism breaks down resolve due to the slow pace of progress, the safe space steps in to remind people what we are fighting for and why our work is important - however creating a safe space must not be confused with activism.

Different causes require different mixes of safe spaces to activism. LFBT causes require more safe spaces to be established because the harsher responses society has to identifying as gay compared to identifying as broadly left wing. Similarly traditional left wing causes would benefit from more activism and less of an emphasis on safe spaces because of the privilege most white, middle class, straight lefties have. From a traditional left wing point of view more direction action would be better for two reasons, firstly to counter the general culture of self-congratulation around organising events which only create safe spaces. Secondly to break down the bubble that some lefties live in where they believe everyone agrees with their values.

I left the Billy Bragg concert with a renewed sense of purpose which the best safe spaces bring to activists. It encouraged me to keep fighting the good fight and not to lose faith through lack of success or the election of Boris Johnson. This is something I clung to even when Boris was elected a second time.

Reaching to the Converted is an album Billy Bragg released in 1999 and it is my preferred expression to describe the left wing tendency to create safe spaces which at its worse can be preaching to the choir masquerading as genuine activism. Safe spaces have an important part to play in being a modern lefty but let us not forget the need for direct action to defend left wing values and to grow the movement.