Cecil Rhodes protest (Getty Images)
Cecil Rhodes protest (Getty Images)

POLITICS

Why we should never mock young women for wanting safe spaces

There’s a tendency to disparage students for so-called attacks on free speech but it’s important to remember the threats and the discrimination that make women ask for safe spaces, says Gaby Hinsliff

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

We need to talk about Generation Snowflake.

You know the ones; those spoilt millennials supposedly hellbent on turning the whole world into one big padded “safe space”, where nobody can ever offend anybody else again. The precious petals who are forever in the news for trying to no-platform Germaine Greer, or put trigger warnings on Shakespeare, or tear down statues of anyone vaguely associated with colonialism; who are so hysterically over-sensitive that they wouldn't survive five minutes in the real world. Right?

Or rather, wrong.

You’d never know it from the headlines that greeted a new report this week on student attitudes to censorship. But read the actual report itself, and a rather different picture emerges.

Let's be honest, student politics can be verging on organised lunacy. But then it always was. (Remember the 1980s, when some Tory students wore “hang Nelson Mandela” stickers?) “Student politics” is an insult at Westminster precisely because not everything you passionately believe at 19 is wise or proportionate.

But it’s a big leap from acknowledging that some student activists are as irritating as ever, to branding twentysomethings in general – and young women in particular, since they're usually keener than men on censoring offensive content – whiny and hysterical. If you really want to know what the majority of millennials think about giving and taking offence, then you need to ask them. And that’s where the survey from the higher education body HEPI is genuinely interesting.

Attacks on Generation Snowflake are just a bit too reminiscent of what's dished out to adult women who complain about hideous everyday discrimination

Half of the 1,000 students interviewed thought free speech should never be limited, however offensive. Only a tiny six percent wanted all memorials from bygone days – like the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford which triggered recent calls for its removal – taken down.

Headlines about students wanting to ban racist and sexist books from libraries meanwhile overlook the inconvenient fact that three quarters of students either didn’t want anything removed from libraries or would only ban “extreme and illegal sexual images”. Yup, we're talking here about the censoring of porn so violent that it's, um, censored already by law. Only nine per cent wanted overtly racist texts removed.

And while there was widespread support for the NUS’s “no platform” policy, that refers to members of a list of “racist or fascist” organisations like the BNP. It’s got nothing to do with Greer. And while it’s obviously faintly weird that nearly one in four students would ban UKIP speakers if they got the chance, how seriously should you take that when six per cent also suggested banning Tories?

Free speech at universities matters, and academics are right to defend it. Nobody should feel compelled to take Othello off the English syllabus because of its problematic racism and misogyny, or encourage students to skip the darker bits of The Great Gatsby (as some American student campaigners have suggested) in case they're triggering. Bad stuff happens in novels, and if you really can’t bear to read about it – well, don’t do an English degree.

But it surely wouldn’t be the death-knell for education if law lecturers, say, announced in advance that next week’s lecture will be on rape law so that anyone who might suffer flashbacks to an attack can be prepared.

There’s a balance to be struck always between censorship and respect for potentially vulnerable people's sensitivities and some of the attacks on Generation Snowflake are just a bit too reminiscent of what's dished out to adult women who “can’t take the heat” (translation; complain about hideous everyday discrimination) for comfort.

So instead of scoffing at teenage girls for being keener than teenage boys on “safe spaces” – or debates conducted in a non-threatening and non-discriminatory way – maybe the grown-up response would be to ask why they feel the need for something that makes many of us uncomfortable.

Who, exactly has had the sharp end of unfettered free speech on the internet – the rape threats on social media just for expressing an opinion, the endless below-the-line bile? Could it be that a free-for-all has worked out great for straight white men but not for everyone – and if so, what's the answer? Because if you're a middle-aged man who can’t bear to have your cosy assumptions about what's acceptable questioned by a stroppy teenager – well, who’s the special snowflake now, eh?

@GabyHinsliff

Cecil Rhodes protest (Getty Images)
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Gaby Hinsliff

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