People need to learn to cope with distressing topics
St Andrews is by no means a haven for people to say everything and anything they’d like. According to spiked-online.com, St Andrews “has chilled free speech through intervention”. 39 per cent of universities fall into this category, taking a “vague, yet in some ways more insidious approach, by placing restrictions on offensive or insulting speech”. But St Andrews has no recorded bans on speakers or events, something to be thankful for.
The Tumblr page Safespacenetwork defines the phrase safe space as “a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation… or physical or mental ability”. Safe spaces and trigger warnings can be useful for protecting trauma sufferers from taking part in discussions of domestic abuse statistics if they themselves have been abused, or discussion about gang violence if they have lost loved ones in gang wars, the list goes on.
But they have, in the last year at least, gained national and international attention for the suppression of ideas and the censorship of views and speakers that offend and challenge the cosy and familiar viewpoints of mostly fragile, liberal university students who cannot cope with distressing and mildly upsetting topics.
Here at St Andrews was a tutorial last academic year on Livy’s description of the Rape of Lucretia, a famous episode in the founding of Roman society. The tutorial group were told that we could leave the tutorial if we didn’t wish to discuss such a topic as rape, even though we were talking about a possibly fictional episode from many centuries ago. Was this a useful trigger warning or an over-the-top example of safe spaces undermining student education? It’s a cliched phrase, but as Katie Hopkins rightly said in an LBC interview, in the real world there are no safe spaces; life is rude, unfair, loud and insensitive and we’d better get used to it. University students would do well to listen.
Don’t get me wrong, protesting is an integral part of liberal society that allows us to show our dislike for certain government policy, reminding me of the 2003 “million march” against the Iraq War. However, protesting, especially at universities, has become far more trivial in the past few years. For example, US students have been protesting to silence the right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro from giving his university tour about, ironically, censorship and diversity on college campuses. I am glad that the call to protest over the students for life society was not heeded as it would only have entrenched the idea that the progressive left cannot stand views and opinions that contradict or challenge their comfortable world views.
There have been criticisms over speakers invited to give talks to the pro-life society over the last year. In November of last year John Deighan, a member of SPUC, gave a talk to the society about the history of the Scottish pro- life movement. Even the title of the article, written by the current news editor, was written in such a way as to cast aspersions over the correctness of the society. The society was described as “anti-abortion” rather than pro-life, a small but significant jibe at the society. Controversy arose not only for the talk existing in the first place, but for Deighan’s views on abortion where he compared it to slavery, which on first glance seems a horrific comparison, but coupled with the idea of the foetus being a human being at the moment of conception makes some sense. In slave driven America, because a slave was on the property of the slave master/ plantation owner etc he had no rights and was bent to the will of the slave master. This argument is used by Deighan saying that simply because the foetus is property of the mother does not mean its rights become subservient.
We should however be extremely glad that we even allowed the students for life society to make an appearance at fresher’s fayre. In 2014 Dundee university banned the popular pro-life group SPUC, the Society for the protection of unborn children, from appearing at their fresher’s fayre, their reasoning being the nature of the societies’ “extreme campaigning”. In addition, the vice-president of Dundee University Students Association said that because a number of students on campus had had abortions and that there was “clearly some distress felt by a number of the students”. While it is perfectly understandable that those coming to terms with abortions would not wish to go through the distress of it again by seeing a fresher’s stall promoting a pro-life group, this is a local example of the wishes of the few winning over the wishes of the many. Those affected need only avoid the stall or go somewhere else, it is facetious to ban the group entirely because some students feel distressed.
It is clear that in this case the safeguarding of emotions has been put above the education and engagement of its students, something that has become worrying trend in British Universities. One of the more ridiculous stories of the last year came when a student at Edinburgh University required a vote of expulsion over a student who broke the ”safe space” by raising her hand during a union meeting, or myself not getting a jibe at religious charlatan Peter Popoff for praying on the weak and vulnerable by God’s offering of “Supernatural debt cancelation” because it wasn’t relevant to the money section. Censorship, educational safe spaces and no platforming must be fought and opposed to safeguard our education and make sure that we are prepared for the wider world rather than going for a job and craving a safe space.