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(Cordelia Cho / McGill Tribune)

Commentary: Free speech and the hypersensitivity of safe spaces on campus

a/Opinion by

The term “safe space,” which originated from various social movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s, has since attracted the attention of educational institutions and students who are seeking to balance the need for inclusive and inoffensive communities with their duty to promote academic freedom and freedom of speech. Preoccupied with the idea of providing these spaces—figurative or physical—universities such as McGill too often ignore or overlook the possibility of potentially stifling the school’s academic freedom in the process.

Universities are, first and foremost, designed to encourage the open exchange of knowledge. However, students have struggled to find the perfect balance between maintaining an equitable learning experience and protecting students’ fundamental right to freedom of speech. For example, last year, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Council engaged in a heated debate over where to draw this fine line when a motion to ban the song “Blurred Lines” from the SSMU Building raised concerns about censorship, and ultimately failed to pass. This decision set a precedent against banning artistic content in a student building. It also sent a wider message about respecting the standards of free speech on campus.

Still, many groups continue to prioritize the safety of discussions above freedom of speech, rendering an already hypersensitive community even more so. But what will happen when students step off campus and into the real world, confronted by the very issues they were conditioned to shrink from? Infantilizing students in this mindset leaves them unprepared to tackle those controversial, yet essential, conversations later on. When faced with a societal dilemma, students may struggle to develop an informed opinion, let alone convince others of their own viewpoints.

What’s more, groups can easily abuse the notion of safe space, using it as a tool to manipulate school administration to shut down debates, or as an excuse to evade topics that threaten their own interests. Last November, at Oxford University’s Christ Church college, a feminist group on campus threatened to disrupt a debate on abortion due to the fact that both debaters would have been men. As a result, the college administration cancelled the debate. It’s worrisome that by advocating for a safe space, one group has the power to deny other students the opportunity to learn about significant issues and to eliminate a platform for individuals to voice their ideas.

Given the inherent restrictions of a safe space, it is impossible for an environment to simultaneously be completely ‘safe,’ meaning free of harassment, while remaining intellectually unrestricted.

Of course, for some students who call for a safer space, the pretense they use is, in fact, not a pretense at all but a real plea to spare those who have suffered trauma or abuse from having to relive that anguish again. However, some of the measures that McGill has taken to create the most non-hostile space possible have proven to be ineffective. Specifically at McGill, the implementation of Rez Project in all first-year residences, which aimed to improve students’ awareness of gender issues and consent, is consistently mocked once students leave residence life—hardly the intended outcome. This is not because students don’t care about social concerns, but because the casual, yet forced manner in which they raised extremely personal questions left students feeling more uncomfortable than enlightened.

Given the inherent restrictions of a safe space, it is impossible for an environment to simultaneously be completely ‘safe,’ meaning free of harassment, while remaining intellectually unrestricted. Although the principles of tolerance and respect that safe spaces aim to enforce are indisputably noble, in trying to suppress every uneasy subject, institutions are censoring and even unwittingly silencing the voices of those who are brave enough to take a stand on important issues.

Thus, instead of imposing the same definition of safe space on such a diverse student body, McGill should simply give students the resources to educate and decide for themselves what the concept means to them personally. After all, safe space is ultimately a mindset, one that learning institutions have a duty to foster, but not at the expense of academic freedom.

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