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7th December 2015

Safe and senseless: Why university safe space policies trigger me

Ryan Khurana, the organiser of Milo Yiannapoulos’ upcoming talk, gives his view on why safe space policies have no place in universities

This weekend I met Milo Yiannapoulos, the controversial journalist, who was banned earlier this year by the University of Manchester Students’ Union, accused of misogyny. He was a quite nice individual, and spent time talking to everyone at his party, openly considering whatever anyone was saying, never rude or self-interested. When I asked him about the decision taken by universities across the country to ban him, he said that their claims were unsubstantiated, and it was a means to censor dissenting opinion.

This is a view to which I have come to sympathise with as a result of my recent experience with the Safe Space policy. It is my belief that it is responsible for a culture of fear on campuses.

Milo agreed to give a talk at St. Anselm’s Hall on the 10th of December, on issues facing young men today, such as the trends of men falling behind in school, and the high rates of mental illness found in boys. The talk, not organised by the Students’ Union, would not have come under the jurisdiction of the Safe Space policy, as there is no formal adoption of such a policy by the University.

This however, did not make it any easier to arrange such a talk. I received concerns from many people regarding the repercussions of hosting such a talk, and the University in the end allowed us to host it, on the condition that the topic be changed. Instead of focusing on pressing issues facing young men, the discussion must now be framed around his personal experiences, as to avoid students being offended. It baffles me how men’s issues are considered offensive, and even worse, how an institution committed to intellectual growth can be afraid of causing offence.

I have come to realise this fear of offence is not a result of any formal policy, or the actual content of the talks being given, but rather a student culture that has come to dominate academia. I cannot comment on whether it is the views of the majority being taken into consideration, or rather a very vocal minority, but what is clear is that higher education institutions are afraid to go against consensus.

Yale University’s recent protests serve to highlight this, as staff positions were called into question as a result of dissenting against the Safe Space prescriptions given. This culture—one that believes students ought to be protected from offence, and that criticism is identical to hate—is harming intellectual discourse at universities. It is not the role of a university to mollycoddle its students, nor to provide a safe space to indulge in self-righteousness. Universities ought to be a place to be challenged, and if necessary that can include being offended, for that is how personal growth can be achieved.

Offensiveness is provocative and it starts conversations; offence that is purposeful is the root of intellectual development.

A retort I have heard to this claim is that universities have an obligation to prevent hatred and bigotry. This, however, is not the point I wish to make. No-platforming a journalist is different from no-platforming a random racist. There is a difference between a researched and well-formed, albeit controversial, argument, and uninformed hate speech. The former must be encouraged, the latter, acceptably discouraged. If one does not confront dissenting opinion, just because it can be found offensive, neither group can learn or challenge the other.

A culture that aims to protect one’s right to have an opinion, without scrutinising said opinion, encourages complacence of thought, and is not intellectually stimulating. A dialectic between point and counterpoint is necessary for growth to occur. This is seriously lacking when safe spaces become the norm.

This all brings me back to my experiences regarding this policy, and to explain the fear it causes me. Since inviting Milo to speak—which I must make clear is not an endorsements of his views, but a belief in the value of free speech and open discourse—I have been made to feel insecure about my decision. My role as the President of an extreme-poverty charity has been called into question; my personal political views have been called abhorrent and immoral; and I have been worriedly ruminating over the effects of my actions on my future career prospects.

None of the insults or claims have been substantiated, and I feel there is no reason my work ethic or beliefs should be questioned as a result of my actions. The issue is that my conservative views do not fit with the popular narrative that exists among students. There is a perceived monopoly of righteousness held by left-leaning students that brands me hateful and evil, simply by virtue of my beliefs. I am caricatured as a result and a tactic of fear is the only way that this culture achieves its’ ends. This desire for hegemony of opinion is killing academic discussion, and there must be a better alternative.

I do not believe in a monopoly of righteousness, and I strongly believe there is a benefit to the plurality of opinion that university campuses are expected to have. Open debate must be allowed on campus, because I guarantee there are students who have become afraid to share conservative views as a result of this culture.

This culture encourages conformity instead of personal development, which is contrary to the goals of a university education. This is why I stand by the decision to host a talk by Milo Yiannapoulos, and hope to invite many more controversial speakers in the future. This is why I believe that there must be more discussion of opinions commonly disagreed with, whether they be based on political, economic, religious, or social beliefs. Only a culture that rules by reasoned argument, and not fear, is worthy of being present at university campuses, and I hope enough students will begin to question the complacence surrounding them.

If you are willing to be challenged and to listen to unorthodox opinions, please do come to the talk on Thursday the 10th of December. I will discuss with Milo, through the frame of personal experience, his journey from Manchester to success, his battles with modern left-wing culture, and the issues he faces as a homosexual, Catholic man today.

‘Milo Yiannapoulos: The Man Behind the Views’ is a free event, but has limited seating. Tickets can be found on the Facebook event of the same name.

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