The idea of ‘safe spaces’ has turned on itself to exclude everyone who dares to differ

In 'Groupthink: A Study in Self Delusion', Christopher Booker writes about how the idea of ‘safe spaces’ came about in college campuses in the US and UK.

(Representational image) | Manisha Mondal/ThePrint

In recent years little had done more than the internet to contribute to a much wider sensitivity, on both sides of the Atlantic, to what it was now socially acceptable to say or even be suspected of thinking. First, through ‘trolling’ on website comment threads, then dramatically more so with the advent of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, this had given a powerful new platform for individuals or co-ordinated groups holding politically correct opinions to broadcast their views to others. Partly it enabled them to indulge in what came to be known as ‘virtue-signalling’.

This was the desire to flag up their view on any particular subject to demonstrate that they sided with those who were morally ‘virtuous’. But even more, it allowed them, often anonymously, to vent personal abuse at anyone expressing opinions which in their view should not be allowed. It was this new aid to the contagious effect of politically correct groupthink which contributed to the emergence of what was, psychologically, one of the most remarkable products of the entire story, which had begun way back in those days of ‘toleration’ and ‘equality’ in the 1960s.

This was the movement, particularly centred on university campuses in America and Britain (foreshadowed by what had happened to Stanford in the late Eighties), to create what became known as ‘safe spaces’, where students could be guaranteed protection from anything which contradicted their rigid views on all the issues of the politically correct lexicon.

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By the time the ‘safe space’ movement began to sweep the universities around 2015, the list of issues on which students wanted such protection had broadened out from race and gender to anything from support for capitalism to ‘climate change denial’. Under what they called their ‘No platforming’ principle, the students wanted to ban any lecturers or visiting speakers whose views they considered ‘offensive’. They demanded the right to be given ‘trigger warnings’ when a set book contained passages which might be found ‘disturbing’, such as Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, because it includes scenes of ‘violence by men against women’.

They condemned as ‘cultural appropriation’ any ‘patronizing’ Western borrowing of the customs or clothing of other nations or tribal groups, as when calling for student canteens to stop serving ‘Tunisian stew’, or the playful wearing of Mexican sombreros. It was this wish to be protected from anything which contradicted their own rigid ideology that caused these ultra-sensitive souls to be ridiculed as ‘snowflakes’. In 2016 even the gay celebrity Stephen Fry mocked them for having been ‘infantilized’. But the ultimate irony here was what had happened to that central principle of political correctness. Like an idea come full circle to the extent that it had finally turned in on itself, the real victims now seen as needing official protection were the ‘snowflake’ students themselves.

So fierce was the groupthink intolerance (not to mention group hatred) behind all this that it threw up many other contradictions, such as when in 2015 students at Cardiff University wanted to ban a lecture by the onetime feminist icon Germaine Greer. Their charge was that she was guilty of ‘transphobia’, for saying that she couldn’t regard a man who wished to switch gender as really a woman, because he hadn’t grown up with the experience of being a woman from birth. In April 2016, when an LGBT campaigner refused to share a platform at a meeting at a Kent university on ‘re-radicalising queers’ with the veteran gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, he was astonished to be accused of having signed a letter which had ‘incited violence against transgender people’, and of having used ‘racist language’. He cited this as an example of the ‘witch-hunting, accusatory atmosphere’ closing down ‘open debate’ on campuses.

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Hitting the news and the internet in the summer term of 2017 was a perfect illustration of what Peter Tatchell was talking about when a small US college was engulfed in mass hysteria which echoed what happened to Stanford in the 1980s. After a politically correct sociologist became president of Evergreen College in Washington state, he had set up a ‘Committee on Diversity and Equity’ to look into how far the college was infected with ‘racism’. Packed with black and white radicals, the committee had produced a wildly partisan report, finding that racism at Evergreen was indeed ‘rampant’, and recommending drastic measures to root out this evil. One faculty member, Bret Weinstein, for 14 years the college’s professor of evolutionary biology, held impeccably liberal, non-racist views. But he was so disturbed by the nature of the proposed measures that he began to question in meetings and through emails whether they would not in effect close down free speech, preventing the college from functioning in the proper open-minded and truth-seeking spirit of a university.

By May 2017, with Evergreen now almost wholly in the grip of the radicals’ ideology, Weinstein had been branded as the chief hate figure on campus. Fearful of incurring the militants’ rage, students and other faculty members who privately sympathized with his views had been cowed into silence. Events came to a head when the militants proposed that all whites should leave the campus for a day, or be attacked for not showing solidarity with their ‘anti-racist’ agenda. A video posted by the militants themselves shows Weinstein surrounded by a screaming mob of black and white students, trying to engage them in reasoned dialogue while they chant, ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Bret Weinstein’s got to go.’

When the situation got out of hand someone (not Weinstein) called the police. Attempts were made to deny them entry to the building and the campus, until the president asked them to leave the college. For a couple of days Evergreen was reduced by raging mobs to anarchy, with occasional acts of violence against those identified as dissenters. Weinstein himself, faced with death threats, decided to remove his family from the area to a place of safety. A month or two later, he was informed by the president that the college no longer wanted his services.

This excerpt from Groupthink: A Study in Self Delusion by Christopher Booker has been published with permission from Bloomsbury India.