Samuel Veissière Ph.D.

Culture, Mind, and Brain

Safe Spaces and Free Speech

What do students actually think?

Posted Mar 20, 2017

Social Justice Journal
Source: Social Justice Journal

Social Justice is on everybody’s mind.  As more protests erupt on campuses in the fight against hate speech, and as more controversial speakers are prevented from giving public lectures, a growing movement of worried professors and intellectuals has begun to raise concern about academic freedom and the eroding role of universities in the pursuit of truth.

For its proponents, the Social Justice Movement carries the promise of addressing deep-rooted social problems that they perceive as having been silenced for too long.  

With new terms like “Alt Right”, “Anti-Fa”, “SJW”, and  “illiberal” gaining currency in the press and social media, polarization around questions of politics, identity, and justice seem to be on the rise.  But how polarized are we exactly, and what do young university students that are most representative of the movement actually think?

To simplify the debate, we can define the Social Justice / Anti-Oppression camp as an intellectual and social movement primarily active in Universities, with an increasing influence in public and legal spheres.  The aims of the movement are to address the injustices of colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy in general. Proponents of the Social Justice and Anti-Oppression movement strive to educate the public and inform policy on many identity-based issues, from the rights of persons of color, indigenous peoples, women, queer and transgendered persons to disability rights, environmental issues, and sexual violence issues. Decolonizing universities, putting limits on hate-speech and microagressions, providing safe spaces and more inclusive mental health services for victims of oppression are key demands of the Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Movement.   

Critics of the movement have expressed worry that it places limits on free-speech, that identity-based demands for recognition and accommodation increase social polarization and inter-group conflict, and that the focus on safe spaces and "adverse mental health outcomes" further promotes a culture of victimhood that discourages resilience.   

But what do students actually think?

As a professor, I have at times welcomed the increased politicization of my students (they care about issues greater than themselves!), and at times found teaching environments too fragile, dogmatic, and hostile. For the most part, I have simply noticed that many students feel empowered by the Social Justice movements, while others privately express their fear of voicing views that challenge or question what they perceive as a new dogma. Like many of my colleagues, I have also become concerned with the increased vulnerability and decreasing coping skills of my students.

In an anonymous survey targeting Arts undergraduates at my university in Canada, I found that students were often divided on the question, but tended to side with the Social Justice Movement.

49.39% of respondent (n=124) agreed with the statement that the Social Justice Movement was finally addressing issues that had been silenced for too long, while 20.16% worried that it put too many limits on freedom of expression, and 34.68% felt neutral about the question.

14% of respondents who identified with the SJ movement felt scared to express their views in public, compared to 15% from the group who did not identity with the movement. This suggests that while two-thirds of students are firmly committed to the anti-oppression paradigm, only a minority of students (from both side of the divide) express concerns about their freedom of speech. Professors, conversely, report being afraid of their students.

On the topic of the prevalence of mental health issues among students and the need to address them, a solid 50% of students “strongly agreed” that the issue was in urgent need of recognition, with 39.5% indicating agreement, and a mere 2% stating disagreement, a mere 1% voicing strong disagreement.

So what is going on?  

Why are we so divided on these questions? How would older people, students outside of the humanities, or people from other countries or outside universities think of these issues? Is the Social Justice project really just, or is it going too far? Is it correct and helpful to describe and experience “oppression” issues as “mental health issues”? If enough people believe in the Social Justice project, does that make it true and desirable?

Let’s find out.

In this quick anonymous survey (which takes about one minute to complete), please tell us a little about who you are and where you come from, and how you think about these issues. 

I will report on the survey results in my next post.

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