Oxford, 'sensitivity readers' and the trouble with safe spaces

22 June 2021

8:52 AM

22 June 2021

8:52 AM

The list of things that students must apparently be protected from grows longer every day. Controversial speakers, rude comedians, sombreros (banned at the University of East Anglia in 2015 because apparently it is racist for non-Mexicans to wear them). And now, their own student newspapers.

Yes, the list of terrifying things that might offend students and ever so slightly dent their self-esteem — the horror! — now includes the student press. Officials in the Oxford Student Union are thinking of setting up a Student Consultancy of Sensitivity Readers to check the output of the university’s newspapers and make sure that no ‘insensitive material’ is published.

It really is as chilling as it sounds. Under these plans, ‘sensitivity readers’ would be elected to keep a watch on Cherwell, the Oxford Student and other Oxford media outlets. They’d keep a beady eye out for ‘problematic’ articles, including material that is racist, sexist or just generally ‘insensitive’.

The aim? To protect Oxford’s students from the ‘potential damage’ they could suffer if they read something they dislike or disapprove of.

It’s like a Student Union Stasi. Filtering the media to ensure that nothing ‘problematic’ gets through is straight out of the old Eastern bloc playbook. For a Student Union to even consider so flagrantly interfering in the freedom of student newspapers to publish whatever they like is a disturbing sign of the times. So much for the broadsheet left’s insistence that there’s no free-speech crisis on campus.

As the seasoned broadcaster Michael Crick says, the Oxford SU’s plans are ‘horrific’. Crick, a former editor of Cherwell, says ‘if you’re going to have a boring, dull, vetted newspaper…nobody’s going to read it’.

He compares SU officials poring over articles for any sign of ‘insensitivity’ to government officials inspecting newspapers prior to publication. Exactly right. The core principle of press freedom is that people in authority — whether that’s a hyper-woke student rep or a stiff government bureaucrat — have no right to tell media outlets what kind of ideas and views they may publish.

‘Sensitivity reader’ is such a telling term. These readers have been around for a while. Big publishing houses use them to probe manuscripts for anything remotely un-PC. The potential deployment of ‘sensitivity readers’ at Oxford really sums up how students are viewed these days: as sensitive. As fragile, easily wounded creatures who must be bubble-wrapped against the ups and downs and disagreements of everyday life.

Students should be outraged by the idea that they need sensitivity readers to guard their allegedly delicate eyes and ears from offence. It’s like having a mental chaperone, some technocratic know-it-all who will cleanse the press of certain ideas so that you never feel sad, challenged or conflicted.

Let’s not forget we’re talking about young adults here. People who are old enough to get married, join the army, buy cigarettes (not for long, though — Oxfordshire wants to become entirely smoke-free by 2025). Having someone at Uni who erases ‘insensitivity’ on your behalf would be as mad as having someone on call to wipe your bum. You’re grown-ups. Take care of yourselves.

Forget the ‘damage’ that can allegedly be caused by reading something insensitive in a student newspaper. The really damaging phenomenon on university campuses these days is the ideology of the Safe Space. The idea that young people must be afforded protection from controversy — from challenging speakers or from gender-critical feminism or from general insensitivity — is bonkers. It stymies intellectual growth. It threatens to turn out a new generation of graduates whose instinctive response to intellectual tension will be to flee to a controversy-proofed bunker.

Safe spaces, vetting for insensitivity, No Platforming those who make you feel uncomfortable — none of this is conducive to learning. Your mental and moral muscles will grow weak if you never allow yourself to be exposed to alternative and contentious ideas and beliefs. As Cardinal John Henry Newman said, ‘The human intellect does from opposition grow’.

Students shouldn’t hide away from ‘insensitivity’ — they should seek it out, engage with it, and sharpen or maybe even change their minds as a result. The Safe Space is a dogmatic trap. Break out.

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