Free Speech, Censorship, And Safe Spaces

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The reaction to the execution of convicted murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, illustrates the fragility of the right to free expression. On January 4th 2011, Qadri achieved heroic status in Pakistan when he shot and killed Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab.

Qadri confessed that the motive for the murder was Taseer’s criticism of Pakistan’s archaic blasphemy laws. Public opinion was directed against the Pakistani government’s decision to convict Qadri and a mosque in Islamabad was even erected in his honour. Qadri became a martyr when he was executed on February 29th 2016, his funeral procession attracting a crowd of tens of thousands. Condemnation of Qadri’s death also came from British Imams Muhammad Masood Qadiri and Muhammed Asim Hussain, who expressed support for Mumtaz Qadri’s actions. The latter commented that this was a “dark day in the history of Pakistan”, claiming that Qadri was wrongfully executed and further criticising freedom of speech.

Despite being enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, free speech is clearly not an ideal widely shared. Whether an issue of great severity, like the Pakistani blasphemy laws, or something milder, such as safe space policies, no expression of opinion ought to be suppressed or excluded. To deny anyone a voice is to censor them, even if their views are unpopular or utterly profane. Salmaan Taseer should have had the right to freely criticise censorship and speak out in support of those such as Asia Bibi (a Christian woman sentenced to death for the ‘crime’ of blasphemy), even if many of his countrymen found his opinions deeply offensive.

But what does this have to do with safe spaces? In short, safe spaces are antithetical to the process of open public discourse, where ideas are freely examined and challenged. No one viewpoint should be immune from critique.

A definition should clear this up: safe spaces are places for protection, offering security over open debate and respite from uncomfortable or hostile viewpoints. They are controlled environments in which people can express only that which is deemed acceptable. Rules dictate the subjects or opinions that are not up for discussion. They are spaces where certain political or social beliefs are required in order for one to participate in conversation. They restrict content that may cause offense or distress; they are often intended to be places where mutual respect and support are mandatory. Safety takes precedence over liberty.

For an example of safe space policies on campus we can take a cursory glance at the situation over the last year. In October, Manchester Students’ Union banned Julie Bindel and Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking (the topic, incidentally, was “Does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?”), on the grounds that such a debate would constitute a “breach of the safe space policy.” Also last year, at Georgetown University, students were directed to a safe space in case the ideas expressed by guest speaker, Christina Hoff Summers, upset them; they were granted shelter from differing opinions. This culture is further illustrated by the somewhat infamous words of a Yale student to faculty member Nicholas Christakis: “It is not about creating an intellectual space…it’s about creating a home here.” The desire for safe spaces demonstrates a willingness to avoid critical thinking.

However, retreating to a safe space when confronted with bigotry and prejudicial attitudes is intellectually irresponsible. Expressing one’s opinion only within the confines of a safe space leaves these bad ideas unchallenged. Withdrawing to sanctuary, rather than facing confrontation, is in effect a concession of the argument. If voices of reason are not expressed in the public sphere, then they cannot be used to tear down irrationality and bigotry. The way to oppose bad ideas is not to leave them unopposed while you wrap yourself in cotton wool.

It has been argued that not all speakers are equally loud and the only way to ensure that minority voices are heard is to provide an area where only they may speak. However, it should be obvious by now that the response to the silencing of minorities is not to institute safe spaces. What is needed is to more rigorously uphold the ideals of free expression, not for the marginalised party to retreat into an echo chamber. The principle of free speech already protects every individual from being censored or drowned out; it is a universal right. Safe space environments stand in stark opposition to this, entailing that certain contrasting viewpoints are denied expression. Therefore, in a safe space, not everyone enjoys the same rights to speak freely. Safe spaces are, at their core, unequal. It is contradictory to adhere to the principles of equal rights and freedom of speech while simultaneously advocating for safe spaces.

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