Call for university ‘brave spaces’ to protect free speech – response

Article by Caitlin Thomson*

Nicola Woolcock is not the first to shed light on the issues that many critics have with safe spaces in education. The safe spaces in university are frequently mislabelled as a restriction of education and a threat to free speech.

Much like ‘trigger warnings’, safe spaces have been subject to scathing criticism by the Far Right and Conservatives, for example Milo Yiannopoulos stated that any student who asks for a safe space or trigger warnings should be “immediately expelled”, for failing to meet the “requirements of their course”. I was unaware that university courses now require one to be repeatedly reexperiencing their trauma. This kind of thinking and language perpetuates the mental health crisis in universities; more than one in four students have mental health issues (YouGov poll 2016). What we should be doing is tackling this issue and praising the use of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ as they aid mental health awareness.

Ian Burrows wrote an excellent article in The Guardian, which is well worth a read, titled ‘Warning my students about a lecture on assault does not make them snowflakes’; this is a retaliation to newspaper coverage of trigger warnings about Shakespeare plays at Cambridge. Burrows highlights that the trigger warnings were for an in-depth discussion about sexual assault in drama. This extensive detached focus on traumatic experiences would literally force a rape or sexual assault survivor to confront their trauma head-on, in a public environment. This is completely inhumane; I had a recent experience which was strikingly similar.

Midway through an hour-long talk about sexual consent and assault, I decided I couldn’t wait it out any longer and consequently left in tears and hyperventilating, which precipitated a frighteningly long panic attack. Occurrences like this can be easily avoided with a trigger warning, so that unsuspecting survivors are not thrown into a conversation which is a little too close for comfort.

Should critical debate occur at the expense of basic courtesy and humane discussion? No, trigger warnings and safe spaces are essential, especially on university campuses where many suffer with mental health issues, like PTSD and anxiety, which may potentially be worsened by unfettered free speech that may raise triggering topics.

In her article, Woolcock assumes a privileged, oblivious tone of someone who has clearly never experienced a traumatising event, such as a hate crime or sexual assault. This is apparent as she states that safe spaces ‘protect the feelings of sensitive students’ - a grossly inaccurate declaration. Safe spaces provide a social space for marginalised or mentally ill students to come together and safely communicate. By calling such students ‘sensitive’, Woolcock undermines the pain or trauma they have experienced, as a direct result of their marginalisation or mental health issues.

In opposition to safe spaces, the proposed ‘brave spaces’ would allow offensive or controversial debate. The very name of ‘brave spaces’ is problematic; it implied that safe spaces are utilised by people who are weak, the liberal ‘snowflakes’. This subtle mockery of trigger warnings and safe spaces is incredibly backward and damaging. The audacity of this rampant derision is unbelievable – it is only outdone by the shameless labelling of survivors of assault and abuse as ‘weak snowflakes’. This is wholly incorrect and quite the opposite is true - they are some of the strongest people alive.

Safe spaces and the concept known as ‘no-platforming’ comes hand in hand. Recently, an online petition demanded that Germaine Greer be prevented from speaking at Cardiff University due to her views on transwomen. Her statements that transwomen are not ‘real women’ are quite evidently transphobic and she has unashamedly criticised a female-only college in Cambridge (Murray Edwards College) for accepting transwomen. Should universities really be giving a platform to people like Germaine Greer, whose hate speech about transwomen is backward and completely unacceptable? In this way, I would argue that safe spaces are not about limiting or preventing free speech, but allowing such people to have a platform to express their hateful or offensive speech effectively allows and condones it.