John Kane-Berman says the war has shown a coddled West what danger and suffering really means
Safe spaces. In Ukraine they include underground metro stations and other places where thousands upon thousands of people are sheltering from the missiles, shells, and bombs that Vladimir Putin has unleashed upon them.
In Britain and America, a “safe space” can be a university lecture room or elsewhere on campus where students are sheltered from pronouns that might offend them, ideas that might upset them, or images that might hurt them. So statues must be torn down, libraries purged of offensive books, and buildings renamed - all to avoid upsetting some of the most privileged people on the planet, university students in some of the richest countries on the planet.
Nor is the problem confined to universities. It extends to schools, public squares and parks, and even to industries such as publishing, where an author who thinks that biological sex is a physical fact can be blacklisted for fear of offending those who think biological sex is a matter of choice and will countenance no other viewpoint.
Now the British government is promising to make the United Kingdom (UK) the “safest place to be online in the world”. Earlier this month it published an Online Safety Bill which seeks to impose a “duty of care” upon social media firms. Such firms will be legally required to prevent users from seeing both illegal content and content which is “legal but harmful”.
The bill does not define what actually constitutes “harmful content”. However, spiked-online.com reports that if a 2020 white paper is any guide, it is likely to include content which might cause “psychological harm”. The government will be empowered to add more categories of harm; firms that fail to comply with the new duty-of-care requirement can be fined and their executives jailed.
In The Coddling of the American Mind, published in 2018, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that “safetyism” is a belief that safety, including emotional safety, trumps all other practical and moral considerations.
As we have seen in recent years, the offshoots of this concept include withdrawing invitations from speakers who might upset students, “trigger warnings” about upsetting bits in books, encouraging people who are offended to lodge anonymous complains against their teachers, creating incentives for one or another group to see themselves as victims, sniffing out “systemic racism”, and promoting the notion that published material should be scrutinised for “micro-aggressions”.
According to a recent article in The Spectator, more than 50% of universities in the UK restrict speech, especially certain views of religion and “trans” identity. In September last year The Economist reported a 2019 poll which found that 68% of four-year college students “cannot say what they think because their classmates might find it offensive”. The paper also reported a survey as having shown that 40% of millennials favoured suppressing speech in various ways, but that older people were much more tolerant.
People with conservative views – including classical liberals – are among those who fall foul of what The Wall Street Journal recently described as the “hostile climate that sustains the progressive consensus that has developed in many faculties over the past four decades”. Now, the paper says, seven out of ten American academics say they “self-censor” in teaching, research, and academic discussions.
Suppression of speech is quite obviously inimical to the very idea of a university. But the ideology of “safetyism” has spread far beyond academic institutions.
According to an editorial in The Economist, “as young graduates have taken jobs in the upmarket media, and in politics, business, and education, they have brought with them a horror of feeling ‘unsafe’ and an agenda obsessed with a narrow version of obtaining justice for oppressed minority groups”. Hence, says the magazine, “the influence of the new social-justice mindset is now being felt in the media, the Democratic Party, and, most recently, businesses and schools”.
The demands of safetyism – protecting people from ideas they dislike by “deplatforming” those who express them – go further than seeking justice for oppressed minority groups, however. Some social media companies also suppress the opinions of those who challenge the views of people promoting the notion that “climate change” threatens to destroy the planet.
This type of censorship – that of alternative thoughts and ideas - goes far beyond refusing to publish racial abuse or material calculated to promote violence, both of which may be legitimate.
And the practitioners of censorship go beyond academia. Earlier this month Fraser Myers, deputy editor of spiked-online.com, argued that “Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become increasingly censorious, cracking down on dissenting views and offensive speech”. “Big Tech,” he adds, “has relished this role as the unofficial arbiter of acceptable thought.”
Now, Mr Myer observes about the new Online Safety Bill, the British government is “outsourcing” censorship to private companies by imposing on them the duty to care and penalties if they don’t.
Meanwhile, in Russia, Alexei Navalny has had another nine years added to his current prison sentence for exercising the right of free speech to mobilise opposition to Mr Putin. People in Russia - and elsewhere – are imprisoned for exercising rights which Americans, Britons, and others have long taken for granted.
Yet academic institutions, business, and social media, along with some governments, are seeking to cancel those very same rights in the complacent democracies in which they are fortunate enough to live.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.