Millennials, who so virulently champion safe spaces, seem clueless about the dangers of eroding an atmosphere conducive to free speech.
We’ve seen a steady rise of intolerance on the campuses of educational institutions over the last few years, and most notably at Berkeley – where the Free Speech Movement began during the 1964-1965 academic year. The involuntary irony caused by the smorgasbord of no-platforms, anti-speech protests, and rioting undermines its iconic status. In July, KPFA – the Berkeley radio station – decided to cancel their event featuring Richard Dawkins with the baseless accusation that Dawkins had engaged in ‘abusive speech’, and had offended and hurt so many people. In 2017, it seems, being offended is evidence enough to convict someone in the safe space judiciary courts, and criticising ideas is erroneously equated to criticising people.
Dialogue is abandoned in favour of censorship and totalitarianism. It is not enough to merely champion political correctness, we must now legislate so that people have no choice but to speak exactly as we see fit; Jordan Peterson’s battle with the University of Toronto being a good example of this phenomenon. The idea that liberty is not worth the cost of hurt feelings is not merely confined to satire, it is now promoted as a cogent idea. Opinion is king, and the truth plays second-fiddle to feelings. On many campuses, it seems that the recommended antidote to dis-empowerment is now a ‘safe space’ and absolute power.
The Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) survey carried out by online magazine Sp!ked makes for an interesting perusal. The student-focused survey assessed 115 institutions by examining their policies and actions, before finally ascribing a rank based on a traffic-light system. Upon clicking on a university, you can read further details and also see which colour traffic light was given for 2016 and 2015. According to them 63.5% actively censored speech, and 30.5% stifled speech through excessive regulation. The optimism of hoping your university is green for generation ‘safe space’ swiftly dissolves into a greatest hits montage of the forlorn expressions of a dystopic Elisabeth Moss. The termite has burrowed deep, and begun laying its eggs; many of which, are hatching.
Their intolerance is taught, not innate. The regressive left is responsible for this, and has made a strange bedfellow: the religious right; they pull up their offence culture duvet and pat down their matching blasphemy pillow set. Millennials are rightly brought up believing in and upholding the ideals of fairness, equality, and kindness. The danger is that when you perceive yourself to be on the side of righteousness, it is easy to pick up a sword in its defence and militate for a safe space where none of these seemingly intrude, but in reality are permeating through the walls. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and all that jazz.
In seeking to save the world, the pressures of identity politics, offence-culture, cultural relativism and perfection overwhelm. These four millennial horsemen ride zombie steeds, the fabric of their garments are Deuteronomically sound, and they chant bono malum superate in unison. The regressive left rightly deride the idea of racial superiority and purity that melanin-specific supremacists espouse, yet ironically seek an oxymoronic cultural purity in pursuing the safe space trend that can only be described as segregated togetherness.
This isn’t the pursuit of amelioration, but a totalitarian exercise in creating a utopic society. The intolerance towards anyone who doesn’t comply with the in-group is a symptom of our tribalistic human nature, and one which we must out-grow. On a university campus, the majority of problems are thought-centred, and when the only task given is to annihilate bad thoughts, then a quick fix is often sought. Free speech, in actuality, is the way in which we unshackle ourselves of bad ideas, maintain plurality, and protect the minority voice, but people are increasingly unable to join the dots.
The propensity for hyper-correction in the public sphere permeates, and speech is to be policed by a moral arbiter who wears the mask of fairness; you catch a glimpse of the totalitarian whenever it slips. Postmodernism’s toll has created a lust for a culture in which the empiricism championed by the Enlightenment is rejected in favour of many subjective truths; a post-truth era, if you will. The popularity of the notion that we need to overprotect the youngest amongst us, particularly when they are attending a university – a place exactly designed for the battle of ideas – is a distressing reality.
To believe that someone can handle you disagreeing with them is to consider them a rational, thinking being, and to afford them the respect of an equal. Constructing the cocoon of a safe space is to infantilise minority members and to practice, as Maajid Nawaz identifies, the racism of low expectations. This has led to tremendous callousness and indifference towards minorities within minorities. You cannot improve the lives of the subjugated if your gut instinct is to shy away from criticising anything or anyone outside of your ‘identity’. Your fear of appearing racist has no place trumping their fear of being murdered for merely existing. When Gandhi said change comes from within, he meant from within everyone.
It is evident that ‘anti-colonialism’ finds itself becoming synonymous with ‘anti-West’, ‘Islamophobia’ fails to separate ideas from people, and ‘white guilt’ annexes itself to the concept of original sin. No one is safe from the Christian notion of being ‘created sick and commanded to be well,’ to quote Christopher Hitchens paraphrasing Fulke Greville. Identity politics creates a prison in which the group identity supplants an individual’s identity. No one is varied and multi-faceted. A person’s argument can then be readily dismissed based not on the contents of their argument but on who they are. This prison is made of straw, and after they have fashioned it into the shape of your label – a heteronormative white cis male, for instance – with their pitchforks, they set the wicker man ablaze.
This modern McCarthyism will not wane until the desire to strive for truth outweighs the obsession of gaining power. The sword may make quick strides, but it is only the pen that can create the solid foundations required for a tolerant, plural, and fair society. The self-defeating punch-a-Nazi ethos at odds with the tolerant world we wish to create – that I wrote about way back in February – has hung around like a stale, unwelcome smell. The Antifa violence, most recently last Sunday at Berkeley, serves only to give the Alt-Right a collection of show-reel clips they can use to embolden their position.
Generation Safe Space do not, of course, confine themselves to college campuses. The inter-connectedness of all things in today’s internet age means that it’s as quick to organise a protest as it is to pre-order your favourite latte. If a comedian tells a joke, it’ll be a matter of seconds before someone forms an infallible interpretation of intent – cheers, Postmodernism – and creates an online petition to get them sacked. This quickly fills up with thousands of signatures, mainly from people who’ve merely heard about it, and are categorically appalled. Hashtag activism knows no bounds and holds no common sense. From #CancelColbert to #RespectForZayn, the ability to channel ignorant offence into social-media outrage looks set to be the perennial problem. Luckily, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher are usually equal to the challenge.
Comedy and satire shine a light on the follies of humanity, and the powerful do not respond well to having their imperfections illuminated. Humour is on the front line, and often the first speech to be suppressed and shut down in a climate of control. Comedians like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld have expressed a reluctance to perform on university campuses, and student comedians find their safe space is ever-diminishing. Once humorous speech comes under attack, it does not bode well for serious speech. When the canary refuses to go down the mine, we’re fucked.
The solution they seek is to stifle debate and inquiry, but this is directly antithetical to progress. Censorship is not built on solid foundations, and has the sturdiness of a children’s slide. Eventually, an intoxicated adult will try it out with the inevitable, schadenfreude consequences. At the side of the self-restricting slope, a millennial Martin Niemöller stands out of frame, recording everything with his smartphone, whilst reading aloud the provocative poem, “First they came…”. A new line every fifty yards. The jaws of censorship lie at the end of the slope, salivating over its juicy steak. The drunkard’s feet dangle. Make no mistake, this main course will be a rich source of irony, if served.
So how do we inoculate our youth, stop them from climbing into oxygen-sapping, neo-Orwellian bubbles, and imbue in them a braveness – and an optimism – that will help them avoid the event horizon of censorship and its effects? When every sentence uttered is judged solitarily – devoid of context – and partitioned from the person’s historical thoughts and convictions, we tread treacherous ground. ‘Tweet’ now gets a new definition: a complete and all-encompassing summary of the person’s views. Sapere aude should be a positive mantra for the progressive, but it now appears that to dare to know is to question the dear leader and to risk banishment.
The quest for infallibility should be shown to be impossible, and the solution to bad speech – more speech – should be spread and proliferated to rejoin to their natural progressive allies – that section of the left that has been seduced by the fetishisation of ignominy. The biggest fear of subscribing to the values of free expression on a university campus is that students will be awash with sexist, racist and transphobic speech. The former Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, rightly dismissed ‘fear’ as poor justification for the suppression of speech. “Men feared witches”, he said, “and burnt women.” Every person that stumbles on the ever-shifting ground of language etiquette is Cersei Lannister, paraded through the cyber-streets to chants of ‘Shame! Shame!’
Millennials find themselves being flirted at by the alt-right’s new found propaganda tool – a championing of free speech and mockery of the ‘safe space’ concept – and being bullied by the regressive left’s fixation on righteousness and moral certitude. Correctly riding the wave of liberalism and not plunging into the ocean of Trumpian Postmodernism is perilous, and identifying truth can be challenging without the right skillset. In the age of feels, it can be easy to decry one bit of fake news but incorrectly champion another. One advantage is that falsity begins eroding the moment its paint is dry. As a temporary veneer, it offers little in the way of permanence, and is weathered and damaged by the oxygen of speech.
There is a middle ground, a Dragonpit, where we must meet to confront the threat that the approaching winter brings and contemplate abandoning the concerns of language policing and safe spaces to discuss the attainment of true freedom and equality for all. Melting the pepo epidermis, outer-melon layer of this regressive ideology will no doubt require constant Promethean flame and the card-throwing prowess of Ricky Jay.
Battle of Ideas takes place at the Barbican Centre, London on 28-29 October.
Damon is a blogger and an award-winning close-up and stand-up magician