When Censorship Is Disguised as Respect

A “safe space” brings to mind a place where children play peacefully or cyclists circulate without fear of autos. However, in many North American universities, the concept of a “safe space” has to do with the control of words and ideas. “Safe space” policies have been multiplying for years; they were created to guarantee an inclusive attitude in which no minority could feel discriminated against or offended.

A positive mission lies at its heart: creating a respectful environment in which everyone can participate and be heard. However, this policy is increasingly used to prevent someone from having to hear or debate ideas that could be uncomfortable to them. For this reason, more than a few observers regard this behavior as a threat to free speech precisely in the environment intended to open a student´s mind to new ideas and teach him the value of debate.

The “safe space” philosophy can be observed in the policy of Columbia University (in theory, a champion of liberalism) that asks students to place a notice in their dorm rooms declaring that “homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, classicism and discrimination are not allowed,” and that “no one should feel oppressed” during their interaction.

In practice, however, anyone can say he felt “offended” by certain words, which then closes the debate that was happening in class, the dorm or an activity. As the writer Wendy Kaminer says, “These days, when students talk about threats to their safety and demand access to ‘safe spaces,’ they’re often talking about the threat of unwelcome speech and demanding protection from the emotional disturbances sparked by unsettling ideas.”

The fear that someone could feel upset or traumatized has also led to the proliferation of trigger warnings within course materials. These notices warn about certain “potentially traumatic” materials that could cause problems or episodes relating to a wide range of negative experiences (from racism to sexism to anti-Semitism). Thus, a lecture on Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” must warn of its anti-Semitism, and a lesson on Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” must be very cautious with its use of a racist word like “nigger.” According to “safe space” policy, using a word in the context of a quote can be just as bad as using it in an abusive scream.

All of this creates a climate that the critics characterize as intellectual conformism and censorship. Their exasperation is reflected by a student at Columbia who labeled his room an “unsafe space” and posted a notice: “Whether you’re black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, bi, transgender, fully abled, disabled, religious, secular, rich, middle class or poor, I will judge your ideas based on their soundness and coherence, not based on who you are.”

But this reaction makes “safe spaces” advocates nervous. An open confrontation of ideas without taboos, which has always been a university trademark, could endanger the intolerance of the politically correct. In the end, a policy that raises the flag of universal acceptance ends up excluding certain debates and even sanctioning those who dare to elicit them.

The puritanism that was so reviled in the past returns to protect new victims. Certain words and certain ideas are discarded not through intellectual exchange, but instead through the destruction of the ideas themselves. Some words could hurt the feelings of certain groups, just as some others could have offended the ears of Victorian ladies in the past.

In this way, “safe spaces” become areas in which censorship is disguised as respect. The important thing now is that no one from any group feel upset in the face of ideas that could challenge their intellectual conformism or go against their lifestyle. This sensitivity creates a victim and then gives him the right to shut his opponent’s mouth.

In the past, when a dissident faced the power of censorship, he at least had a rebel´s halo. Nowadays, in contrast, the person who challenges censorship is deemed intolerant. Orwellian Newspeak is the official language of “safe space” students.

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