‘Safe space campaigns’ have gone too far
CHARLIE BELL is sick of the overbearing, undemocratic campaigns that shut down debate in Cambridge
There’s a lot to like about Cambridge. It generally throws money at us, our studies, our research. It gives us a degree that will get us jobs all over the place relatively easily.
And yet so many people seem to hate it, with quite a passion.
Over the time I’ve been here, organisation after organisation has sprung up from ‘the grassroots’, ready to challenge the *insert-current-trending-term-of-university-or-college-oppression* that is ruining their lives. Whether it’s opposing the university charging fees to balance the books after the government changed the rules, or admitting conference guests to make rents cheaper, these liberation groups have one thing in common: they are, indisputably, right. They are the only group that holds the right views that decent people would hold. To disagree not only makes you wrong, it makes you morally abhorrent.
This is concerning. The ideal of a pluralist and academically rigorous university is one that Cambridge has peddled since Erasmus. However, sometimes evidence mixed with different ideologies, experiences or views can lead to more than one legitimate end result. Just because you don’t agree with a particular end result doesn’t make you stupid or evil. It just makes you different.
Shutting down debate is one of the grimmest and most pathetic tools of the charlatan self-deceiver. If people are unable to stand up and justify their beliefs, then frankly their beliefs aren’t worth listening to. Condemning others as immoral for disagreeing or challenging has got to be one of the lowest forms of this kind of trick, and one that is being ever more employed, even here.
The problem is, more and more self-proclaimed righteous groups have, I can only guess cynically, adopted this policy. Not least do they quite deliberately take offense at the slightest possible perceived insult, but then shut down debate by demanding the right not to be offended. If this is not cynical, then it is even more worrying. Students at Cambridge have finally admitted: they cannot live in the real world.
This is why ‘safe space’ is so pernicious and silly – according to our own students’ union’s rules, someone can be forced to apologise for a remark that someone else finds offensive, even if they had no intention to offend. There’s no objectivity, no discussion – you are guilty because someone else, your ‘victim’, tells you so. It’s madness, and it’s in your name. It is yet another brick in the edifice of victimhood, self-righteousness and general wankery that permeates these organisations. It completely denigrates real victims of actual abuse, and it destroys constructive debate.
The problem is that groups like this end up becoming a parody of themselves. They immediately set up their own set of extreme bureaucracy, bandying around meaningless and obsessively niche phrases and actions. At a stroke, their so-called ‘inclusivity’ becomes utterly exclusive. Organisations with supposedly good intentions end up becoming monoliths of despair – pursuing goals which they are utterly convinced cannot be challenged and which are the only thing that matters in Cambridge. Well of course they can’t be challenged – those who try get sent to the naughty corner. If they had their way, they’d probably be arrested too.
An extraordinary decision by so many of these groups is not to engage with the university, or college, with which they have a dispute. That is to turn them into determined posturing talking-shops. What a waste of time, energy and intelligence. There is another way – it’s just it’s a constant uphill struggle against this top-down rules-setting and behaviour-policing.
We should, as supposedly intelligent and thoughtful people, challenge organisations like this. The idea of grassroots groups set up to change particular injustices is not new, and they don’t need to turn into these monoliths. A university like this should be one of radical inclusivity – where people who share some common experiences or goals, or who just want to engage, can discuss, disagree, debate, offend, make up, laugh, and not constantly be at war.
At the moment, people are scared to do so – or just can’t be bothered. Why engage with a ‘campaign’ when you spend the majority of your time watching your words. If we want some things to change at Cambridge, then we should work with people who broadly share our aims – a coalition of the willing. Exclusivist and patronising campaigns that reflect almost no general support and are driven by ideology rather than evidence or facts – that’s not the Cambridge way. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
And those who often hijack these concerns to produce yet another ‘campaign’ need to chill. They need to stop getting offended at everything, and accept that even if they are offended, that’s ok. That’s human – and that’s real life. And that’s how most of the greatest human discoveries have been made.
The thing that I really don’t like about Cambridge is beautifully exemplified by those whose entire life revolves around not liking Cambridge.