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Women in Secularism 4, Safe Spaces September 29, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Responses.
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There were a lot of great talks at WIS4, and again, I’m not going to rehash the details of any of them, because it’s already been done.  For that, remember to go here:

CFI Live Women in Secularism

But there was one panel that I want to discuss at some further length, and that was the one on safe spaces.  The panelists were Maryam Namazie, Melanie Brewster, Sarah Haider, and Diane Burkholder, moderated by Ashley Miller.  Much of the discussion revolved around an incident involving Maryam, where a university talk she was giving was interrupted by a group of noisy male Muslim hecklers who wanted her silenced.  The panel discussion at WIS4 focused around university safe spaces in particular.

Here’s some video of the incident:

The Muslim hecklers complained that she should not be able to speak about how Islam harms women, because the university was a “safe space” for them.   Surprisingly, the administration and several left-leaning student groups that you would think would support freedom of speech sided with the Muslims.

I learned several things about Maryam from the panel discussion.  First, she is very passionate and devoted to the cause of freeing Muslim women from religious oppression, which I admire.  But I also realized that she is probably a very challenging person to work with. Almost every response she gave to the other panelists was “I disagree completely” and she would then make a passionate argument about the question she wanted to answer.  She constantly reiterated that a university is a place to challenge ideas, not protect them, even when that wasn’t the question she had been asked.

But what most frustrated me about the discussion was that people seemed to be talking past each other on different aspects of the issue, without first defining terms so they could make sure they were actually talking about the same things.  So I’d like to spend a little time on definitions, so that if I’m involved in a discussion about these issues in the future, I can refer people back to this post for clarification.

So, considering university “safe spaces” I think the first thing that needs to be discussed is “What do we mean by safe?”

The most obvious part of “safe” is that people at a university should be entitled to personal safety.  Although it’s not happening in practice as much as it should, the ideal is that students should be safe from physical harm on campus.

The next level of safety would be freedom from personal harassment.  Bullying, stalking, threats, sexual harassment, both in person and online, all are things that should be against university rules.   Again, I think this should be obvious.

But now we get to the real question about safe spaces.  What about safety from upsetting ideas, the kind of safety that the Muslims were demanding at Maryam’s talk?  I think for that discussion we need to include a discussion of what we mean by “space”.

Missing from Maryam’s impassioned statements was the fact that a university is not a single “space”, it’s a lot of different spaces.   I think the university “spaces” to be considered would include at least:

  • Private student spaces, like dorm lounges, cafeterias and quiet study spaces
  • Campus organization members only meetings
  • Open outdoor spaces
  • Classrooms
  • Talks from speakers sponsored by campus organizations
  • Talks from speakers sponsored by the administration
  • Publications, such as the student newspaper

I think it’s quite reasonable that a university could have different regulations about what’s OK in each different sort of “space”.  While it might be acceptable for Brother Jed to shout his nonsense out on the quadrangle, the university would be justified from excluding him from a study lounge.  And to complicate this further, I think it’s reasonable to expect that a university supported by government funding would have different standards than a private university.  I would not expect Liberty or Brigham Young Universities to support the same freedom of dissent that a state school should support.  And Maryam’s encounter was at a British University, which is not under the same freedom of speech expectations that US school would have.

So when we discuss the idea of a “safe space” I don’t think it’s clear that universities are, or are not, “safe spaces”.  At a good university there should be times and places where students are exposed to ideas that they may disagree with or find upsetting.  There should be times and places where students can retreat from such challenges.  And the administration should be responsible for setting the standards for what’s allowed in which sort of space, which is no easy task.  (And at private religious universities, the students and their parents may be paying for complete censorship of challenging ideas!)

And I guess my last frustration with the panel discussion was the narrow focus on academia.  While the standards for free speech on campus are important for college students and professors, and college is an important time in the intellectual development of those who can attend, it’s a small fraction of the scope of the total free speech discussion that needs to be held.

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Comments»

1. Steve Morris - October 2, 2016

I don’t know why you wrote that British universities are not under the same freedom of speech expectations as US schools. The same expectations should apply.

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Ubi Dubium - October 2, 2016

Maybe the same expectations should apply, but I’m not sure that they do apply.

I don’t know what the exact expectations are, given that I don’t live in Britain, and don’t know the details of their civil rights laws. I know they have a state religion, so don’t have a prohibition on government showing favoritism for one religion over another.

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Steve Morris - October 3, 2016

Well, I suppose it is technically true that the UK has a “state religion”, but most British people don’t see it that way. The Church of England has a ceremonial role to play in state occasions, but in practical terms, we are a secular democracy – far more secular then the US. No British Prime Minister would ever discuss God or religion (except for Tony Blair, who was a Catholic and once gave an interview in which he discussed his personal religious beliefs – he was broadly criticized afterwards for “bringing religion into politics.”)

In the 2011 Census of England, 59% of the population identified themselves as Christian (a drop of 12 percentage points in 10 years), and 25% said they had no religion (a rise of 10 percentage points since 2001). So the UK is already secular and is rapidly becoming atheist.

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Ubi Dubium - October 3, 2016

Agreed on all of that. But do you know what the free speech rules on universities are and how much they are allowed to censor speech based on religious viewpoints?

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Steve Morris - October 4, 2016

I don’t know the technicalities, but freedom of speech and expression in the UK are at present recognised under the European Convention of Human Rights. However, there are limits. Making comments that are specifically designed to incite racial hatred can be deemed to be a hate crime. There are also restrictions on the grounds of national security, public safety, the protection of health and morals, and restrictions to prevent crime and disorder.

There are no laws forbidding blasphemy in the UK.

Universities would generally seek to uphold the right to free speech, but I hear reports of student bodies seeking to place restrictions on who may speak. This is a worrying trend, and I understand that it is happening in the US too.

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