Is the "Safe Space" Mentality Making British Universities Unsafe?
|A protester with the student group Action Palestine holds up a Palestinian flag outside an event at King's College London. Photo: Haaretz|
I was in London this past week to defend my doctoral thesis. While I was there, my university, King's College London, showed up on the home page of Haaretz, a (left-leaning, pro peace) Israeli newspaper. Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel's internal security service and now a left-wing politician and peace activist, had been invited to speak. Protesters gathered outside, initially handing out leaflets, shouting, and otherwise exercising their right to freedom of speech and promoting a diversity of views on a college campus. Then, however, things got violent. No one was killed or seriously injured, thankfully, but a window was smashed, chairs were thrown, fire alarms were pulled, and the police were called to escort attendees out a different exit for their own safety. None of this surprised me. Israel/Palestine is an emotive issue. It is nevertheless disappointing, because this sort of thing should not happen, especially on a college campus.
Ayalon speaks in favor of accommodation with the Palestinians. It is still completely understandable that Palestinian supporters would protest his presence, however. The security service of which he was once head is responsible, among other things, for gathering intelligence on the Palestinian territories and keeping them quiet. It is reported to use everything from bribes to blackmail to gather information and turn informers. It is no surprise that Palestinians hate it and view it as the main, though mostly invisible, tool of Israeli oppression. Regardless of how any non-Palestinian might view it, it would be stunning if Palestinians, in light of their relationship with Israel's security services, didn't protest.
Nevertheless, this was also a missed opportunity for Action Palestine (AP), because here is someone who used to work to hold down Palestinian violence and prevent protests now arguing that Israel's course is wrong. Ayalon is now a potential ally of the best sort: An insider from the other side. Rather than seizing that chance to pull someone across the aisle, the protesters who became violent (it only takes one or two and I am not aware that AP as a whole intended this outcome) have instead made Palestinians look violent and made Ayalon look naive in the process—quite the opposite of what one would assume was AP's goal.
This is about more than just a missed opportunity for ostensible peace supporters to join forces, however. This is about what it means to have so-called "safe spaces" on college campuses. Initially intended to provide victims of violence or trauma with places to go where they would feel safe, the concept has expanded to cover the voicing of ideas that allegedly make people feel unsafe. Students today now seem to think that objectionable ideas have no place on university campuses. This is false. Vladimir Putin is suspected of killing dissidents like Alexander Litvinenko on UK soil (and others elsewhere, "disappeared" on the streets of Moscow, for example). And yet, a college campus would benefit from hearing Mr. Putin's views because they matter in a global way, whatever we think about them or him. Anti-Putin protests and leaflets reminding people of his wrongs, perceived or otherwise, would be appropriate. Violently breaking up the talk, endangering fellow students in the process, would not. I would say this even if the speakers were known jihadists or Klu Klux Klan members. The appropriate action against them would be legal, or in the case of Mr. Putin, foreign-political. Breaking up a talk does nothing but prevent understanding—precisely the purpose of a university. We should seek to understand as much as we can, even if some of those things are repugnant to us. After all, could we seek to counter crime, violence, or Putin's Russia if we did not understand them? The answer is no.
Universities should be safe for all students and this is actually best promoted by ensuring all students feel free to express themselves and share ideas. This means that universities are not and cannot be "safe spaces" for ideas. They are battlegrounds of ideas. To fight, counter speech with speech.