After wiling away a free hour yesterday watching a YouTube documentary on student protests in the USA over the last year, I felt moved immediately afterwards to compile a list of the most infuriating politically correct buzzwords and phrases that have gained baffling in acceptance in 2015. While ‘trigger warning’, ‘cis-gender’ and ‘problematic’ (within a certain context) are all infuriating in their own right, nothing inspires waves of apoplectic nausea quite like the phrase ‘safe space’.
I initially hesitated about writing this, as it is such an easily ridiculed notion and South Park have already done a more comprehensive job than I could hope to, but it is not its susceptibility to satire that moves me to comment on it. It is all very well to mock those who believe they have a fundamental right not to be challenged or offended (an important task in itself) but we also have to acknowledge that this, quite aside from being utterly moronic, is a sinister and retrograde concept.
It is nonsensical intellectually because of its fundamental conflation of every response other than obsequious agreement and acquiescence with “violence”. It comes from the same tumescent family of rhetorical nonsense as “micro-aggression”. It is essentially a bizarre reversal of the old schoolyard adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”. Words and speech are not violence. Words might upset or offend you but you have no right to be shielded from offence, nor does being offended bestow any additional rights upon you, especially not the right to curtail the free expression of others.
What bothers me most about it is that it originated on university campuses. Anyone who has followed any of my recent work will know that I have a big problem with the direction campus culture is heading; the warning signs were there a decade ago when I was an undergraduate but in the idea of a ‘safe space’ this academic degradation has reached a new low. What summed this up for me was a video showing the rantings of one entitled urchin at Yale University (of all places) to Professor in residence, Nicholas Christakis, after he very diplomatically declined to enforce regulation of ‘offensive’ Halloween costumes (citing rightly the utterly nebulous and arbitrary nature of such an activity),
“It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here”
After watching the squealing self-righteousness on display in this video I am flabbergasted at how anyone can take intellectually retrograde journalists like Lindy West seriously when they defend this action and make absurd claims like the idea that political correctness is complementary to free speech rather than corrosive.
How far the intellectual gangrene of political correctness has spread. What kind of useless excuse for a human being expects to be kept safe and comfortable while pursuing higher education? Nothing could be further from the whole point of attending university. I would have considered my university education a waste of time if I was not challenged and provoked, forced to question my ideas and moved to question others. The offer of “safety” in an academic environment is the offer of something not worth having. If you are offended by something you can challenge it out in the open, just as those who have offended you are out in the open. If you were right to be offended by what they had to say, their ideas will be exposed for all to see.
This is discourse. This is education.
There is a reason we employ the phrase ‘dangerous ideas’ affectionately (though at this rate perhaps not for much longer). Knowledge is forbidden fruit; the life of the mind is inherently treacherous, sexy, frightening and precarious and we should not want it any other way.
Further, the concept is dangerous. Take for example the treatment of the atheist left-wing activist, Maryam Namazi, when she was invited by the Atheist Secularist Humanist society of Goldsmiths to give a lecture. Several members of the Islamic Society, who objected to her invitation on the grounds that it violated their ‘safe space’ disrupted her lecture by shouting her down, turning off her equipment and threatening attendees. They felt completely justified as their objection was essentially defensive; when she berated them for their behaviour, one of these self-righteous thugs repeated several times that “she is intimidating me”. After the incident, which was caught on film for all to see, leaving no doubt about the behaviour of the aggressors, the Feminist Society of Goldsmiths actually sided with the hecklers. Safe spaces create room for anti-intellectual, anti-free speech and even threatening behaviour to be justified in ‘defensive’ terms. Discourse and dialectic are ‘violent’ or ‘aggressive’ infringements on student safety and are met with aggression in kind and throughout this process. Conversation, intellectual debate and cognitive liberty are eroded beyond recognition.
A university education should be a boot camp for the mind, to prepare young people for the intellectual and emotional rigours of the world outside of their comfort zone, beyond the bully-proof walls of their safe space. How can anyone who has been sheltered in this way expect to make something of themselves in a challenging and competitive field?
In this way we are raising a society of pliable cry-babies, hyper-sensitive volatile bullies and thought-police enforcers. What kind of future will this generation create? The censorious mentality is inherently totalitarian because if you have never been challenged you will lack the necessary skills to challenge yourself and others.
To quote Christopher Hitchens (himself paraphrasing John Stuart Mill):
If all in society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person, it would be most important, in fact it would become even more important, that that one heretic be heard, because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.
Featured Image Credit: Clip taken from South Park’s “In my safe space”.