In efforts to turn their campuses into over-sanitised and politically correct “safe spaces”, British universities deny the “intellectual challenge of debating conflicting views” leading academics have warned.
Professor Richard Dawkins recently told students who cannot handle hearing anti-transgender views to “leave, go home, hug your teddy and suck your thumb until ready for university,” however it seems more politically correct students with a preference for ‘safe spaces’ over genuine academic inquiry hold sway.
A group that includes academics from the universities of Buckingham, Canterbury, Derby, Kent, Liverpool and Sheffield has written to the Daily Telegraph to warn that politically correct student power in universities is seeing freedom of speech “being curtailed as never before.”
The blame is not put wholly on the shoulders of the universities or their students, the authors of the letter concede that “the Government’s anti-terrorism legislation, known as Prevent, imposes restrictions on who can and cannot speak on campus and forces academics to police students and each other.”
Nevertheless the authors’ main target is student-driven censorship regimes under which “the list of speakers banned from unions by students is growing, and even banned artefacts: from pop songs to sombreros.”
The crux of their argument is that the rise in tuition fees has meant universities changed their attitude towards students, now seeing them instead as “customers”. Universities therefore feel a growing pressure to give their customers what they want such that “in turn, many of the most vocal students feel they have a right to demand protection from images, words and ideas that offend them.”
The letter writers then turn their attention to “safe spaces” to reinforce their case, explaining:
A small but vocal minority of student activists is arguing that universities need to be turned into “safe spaces”. This represents an attempt to immunise academic life from the intellectual challenge of debating conflicting views. Banning speakers from campus is not new; there has never been a golden age of free speech at universities. Two things, however, are new: the number of bans being enacted has risen, and the targets are much more nebulous.
Unfortunately the authors do not see an appetite for defending free speech among their academic colleagues, with only very few willing to challenge “censorship from students”. Calling for more anti-censorship academics to join their ranks and “take a much stronger stance against all forms of censorship”, they add:
It is important that more do, because a culture that restricts the free exchange of ideas leaves people afraid to express their views in case they may be misinterpreted. This risks destroying the very fabric of democracy.
An open and democratic society requires people to have the courage to argue against ideas they disagree with or even find offensive. At the moment there is a real risk that students are not given opportunities to engage in such debate.
One of the letter’s signatories who is not herself an academic, the secular human rights activist Maryam Namazie (pictured above, centre), has herself been banned from speaking at universities, and even threatened by students when she has been able to address them.
The letter concludes with its own less combative version of Professor Dawkins’ comment above:
“Students who are offended by opposing views are perhaps not yet ready to be at university.”