Meditating on “safe spaces”

“For a man can lose neither the past nor the future; for how can one take from him that which is not his?”

One can imagine the statue of Marcus Aurelius muttering this under its breath during the Middle Ages, when Christians began destroying all images of past pagan rulers. Aurelius’ statue was only spared because it was mistaken for Constantine, the first Christian emperor.

Some may quote Aurelius at recent cries by students to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford. Rhodes was a South African imperialist who bestowed his fortune to the college, and founded the university’s famous Rhodes Scholarships. He also has a terrible reputation as a colonizer and oppressor who held racist views.

The movement to remove it has laudable larger aims, in present-day South Africa, but their efforts to expunge the past seem misplaced. The past doesn’t belong to these students, and rather than censoring it, they might do better to engage intellectually with their university’s ugly ties to dirty money than pretend it never happened. Especially when there is present-day dirty money to worry about: the university’s brand new Blavatnik School of Government has seen it accused of selling its reputation to Russian oligarchs.

Many commentators have cited the Rhodes controversy as one of several recent events that undermine the vision of universities as places of debate. Other examples of “no-platforming” include the banning of Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde from speaking at public events, and cancelling debates on abortion at Oxford University.

Then there is the parallel concern that students might find themselves “triggered” by others’ words or actions, as in the Yale Halloween controversy. “Triggering” has seen literature take a serious bashing in the US. Oberlin College, in Ohio, nearly excluded Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart lest it “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”

Other books under threat of censorship include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (depictions of misogyny) and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (anti-Semitic references).

One of the ironies of this is that liberals have traditionally been against censorship. Not any more. A free-speech index compiled by Spiked, an online magazine, found that 135 bans of various sorts had been imposed within university campuses in the past three years in the UK alone.

Much of the censorship arises from a desire to not offend, calling for classrooms to become “safe spaces” where students can be sure there won’t be any mention of ideas they may oppose or find traumatic. This stage of education is supposed to provide students with the tools to argue against views they don’t agree with and tackle them in a rational rather than an emotional way. The danger is that safe spaces will damage a generation’s ability to think critically in later life.

The frustrating fact is that debate is not just being removed from universities but from our everyday existence. Certain features of social sites are designed on the basis that we don’t like to read about opinions that conflict with our own. Gilad Lotan has documented fascinating research that displays how Facebook’s algorithms tailor your news feed to avoid showing you ideas you may oppose. Using the example of the Israel-Palestine conflict, he shows how supporters of each side never come into contact with the alternative interpretation of events.

Many philosophers (Marcus Aurelius among them) have been aware of the human tendency to shy away from ideas we don’t agree with and create safe spaces. Knowing that “life itself is but what you deem it,” Aurelius developed techniques to help think more clearly and critically.

We agree with Aurelius, and hope that our library can provide an “unsafe space” where ideas are discussed, disagreed with, and above all appreciated for their contribution to the debate.

Oxford students would do better to look the Rhodes statue right in the eye and develop solutions to stop those past mistakes being repeated in the future. And read Aurelius’ Meditations.