Phi Beta Cons

Liberate Yourself from ‘Safe Spaces’

On January 23, UC-Irvine hosted a conference entitled “What Cannot be Said” and one of the speakers was Brendan O’Neill, who edits Spiked. Today’s Wall Street Journal includes some of his remarks in its Notable & Quotable feature. I copy it in full:

This censorship is more insidious than the old censorships. It is vast and unwieldy and can turn its attention to almost anything: magazines, clothing, monuments, jokes, conversational blunders. It’s as if students feel they deserve their own personal blasphemy law to protect them from scurrilous comments or images or objects. . . .

Campus censors can’t be held entirely responsible for this therapeutic censorship. In fact, in many ways they are the products of a culture that has been growing for decades: a culture of diminished moral autonomy; a culture which sees individuals as fragile and incapable of coping without therapeutic assistance; a culture which treats individual self-esteem as more important than the right to be offensive; a culture that was developed by older generations—in fact by the fortysomethings and fiftysomethings now mocking campus censors as infantile and ridiculous.

Yes, we should mock these little tyrants who fantasize that their feelings should trump other people’s freedom. But we must go further than that. We must remake the case for robust individualism and the virtue of moral autonomy against the fashion for fragility; against the misanthropic view of people as objects shaped and damaged by speech rather than as active subjects who can independently imbibe, judge and make decisions about the speech they hear.

The Safe Space is a terrible trap. It grants you temporary relief from ideas you don’t like, but at the expense of your individuality, your soul even. If you try to silence unpopular ideas, you do an injustice both to those who hold those unpopular views, and also to yourself, through depriving yourself of the right and the joy of arguing back, taking on your opponents, and in the process strengthening your own mental and moral muscles. Liberate yourself—destroy the Safe Space.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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