This week witnessed the journalist Brendan O’Neill talk to the UCLU Libertarian Society on the topic of the right to offend. It was a sustained attack on student unions, which have operated so called ‘safe spaces’ on their campuses in order to protect minority groups and reduce antagonism.
Ironically, O’Neill’s presence was for some a violation of that same safe space policy. Indeed, many regard him as an offensive figure who damages the environment of university campuses.
Nonetheless, the Editor of Spiked presented a logical and well argued case in support of free speech and the right to offend. He advocated that students have a duty to ‘violate’ safe spaces in order to uphold freedom of speech, maintaining that safe spaces promote a discourse of vulnerability by assuming that some groups are less capable of defending themselves than others.
When questioned, O'Neill drew attention to the recent campaign at Oxford University to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a nineteenth-century imperialist, that forms – quite literally – the fabric of the Oriel College. O’Neill suggested that those leading the campaign were middle-class students who have borrowed the sufferings of previous generations to justify a political campaign that was, in his opinion, unreflective of their own experiences.
In sum, O’Neill claimed that safe spaces promote the logic of censorship and are bad for both those who operate within the safe space and also those who are excluded. In justification of this, he pointed to France, which has suffered severe anti-Semitism since the prohibition of Holocaust denial in 1990. Censorship such as this, he claimed, allowed abhorrent ideas to remain unchallenged and, in so doing, gave the propagators of such ideas a sense of martyrdom. O’Neill insisted that supporters of ISIS should be allowed on university campuses in order to allow their ideas to be fully interrogated and ridiculed in public. His message was simple: only by publicly challenging extreme ideas can they be overcome.
It is clear, however, that such an argument is not welcomed by many student bodies that claim to be sensitive to issues such as race, gender and class. Indeed, some members of the audience criticised O’Neill for suggesting that misogynistic views should be given a platform at university. They felt that the presence of such individuals or groups made them feel unsafe and, therefore, should be banned from student campuses.
This led to a provocative philosophical moment in O’Neill’s argument, where he claimed that we, as individuals, do not have the right to feel safe. Whilst we have the right to be safe, O’Neill argued that feeling safe was purely subjective and therefore was not protected by the law. Although this was not the thrust of his argument, it was the exposition most open to question. Surely any definition of ‘safety’ is subjective? Someone may feel safe but be unsafe; someone may feel unsafe, yet be safe.
However, despite this slight ambiguity, it is difficult for anyone who claims to advocate freedom of speech to quarrel with the sentiments espoused by O’Neill. Student campuses have drawn increasing attention from the media in recent years. As an affluent and largely middle-class body of students fight for the current causes of the day, it seems that in some universities the basic freedoms of speech and expression have been suppressed.
I have no reservations in supporting the arguments put forward by O’Neill. He makes his case in a logical and humorous manner and certainly challenges the orthodoxy of the campus groupthink that has intoxicated many British universities. I can only hope his message arouses the vast student body that for now lays dormant and disorganised over an issue that any critical person should attach more significance to.