Churches Higher Education Liaison Group

Free Speech or Safe Spaces

Feedback from the CHELG day workshop on Tuesday May 15th

As the day conference drew nearer it was clear to us that the relevance of this topic had, if anything, increased in the months since the day was decided upon. We explored the issues surrounding free speech and safe spaces, looking in particular how these issues played out on our campuses and how it affects the role of chaplaincy. As the day wore on we became increasingly aware of the false dichotomy between the idea of free speech and that of safe spaces. We ended up looking at what type of spaces we as chaplains can help facilitate in order that students can explore and discuss issues freely. How do we create safe spaces in which free speech can take place effectively?

Looking at the landscape

The day started with comparing notes on the sort of issues which were being played out on our campuses. Some of the points of friction were to do with intra-faith and interfaith conflict – how do we cope theologically with the other? There was the issue of how global conflicts can be responded to in an offence-taking competition of different groups – for example accusations of Islamophobia or of anti-Semitism can make discussion of Middle East issues even more toxic. There are problems when the exercise of faith takes on a form that causes offence to other groups. Examples range from aggressive and insensitive forms of proselytisation to attempts to “speak out with a prophetic voice” which end up appearing as personal attacks on other   groups. Examples of the latter are personal attacks by the “pro life” lobby at demonstrations and criticism of LGBTQ+ staff and students by various religious groups. And there is the problem of how the Universities and Students’ Unions handle problems of extremist groups such as the Far Right. One method is the creation of mechanisms such as “no platforming” which can have the side effect of stifling other less contentious discourse.

Snowflakes and Snowploughs

We spent some time exploring the psyche of today’s student and how it may differ from that of the student of previous generations. Millennials face particular criticisms at present, much of it encapsulated in the pejorative term “Snowflake”. It is important that we appreciate the different landscape within which today’s students work. They face unprecedented pressures, both financial and social. They are under pressure to excel in their academic achievement and also to have “the time of their lives”. The pervasiveness and intrusiveness of social media adds to these pressures – it is easy to underestimate the damaging capability of these media, how easy it is to say something you regret or how intimate the hurt can be when you are subject to “trolling”. The expectation to share everything on social media can also create problems for those who have difficult things to share. The student who cannot share their “big secret” will feel particularly isolated.

Students can arrive with glaring gaps in their life skills. The pervasiveness of digital answers can lure young people into a false sense of security, causing them to arrive at University unable to carry out some very basic tasks such as reading a map or boiling an egg. Some of these problems have been attributed to “snowplough parenting” – there has been a growing expectation over the last few decades that parents do more for their children and expect them to do less. If parents act as snowploughs, sorting out all their problems, clearing obstacles out of their way, their children do not develop their own problem solving skills or personal resilience.

There was also a thought that millennials could be experiencing a huge degree of moral bewilderment. They have access to an unprecedented plurality of world views whilst being pressurised to be true to their individual identity. Whereas for previous generations, the question has largely been about how much to accept or reject the pervasive culture, for millennials there is no longer a monolithic ethical position to work with or against. This may be compounded for the “nones” by the additional absence of  any metanarrative context within which to make sense of life.

Why Free Speech?

It was helpful also to unpack what was meant by free speech and why it is seen as beneficial. It was thought that the aim is for freedom of expression, freedom to argue/question/debate or freedom to engage in meaningful discussion. What does this achieve? One of the benefits is the stimulation of thought and questioning. Another is the sharing of truth, particularly by giving a voice to those previously unheard. The aim of freedom of speech, simply put, is to change minds. On a spiritual level, freedom of speech enables us to commune with the other or to encounter God via the other through our own discernment.

Bearing these aims in mind might help us navigate some of the issues raised by the seeming conflict of freedom of speech with the safe spaces ethos. For example, the stimulation of thought does not arise from speakers taking us down blind alleys such as holocaust denial or by the recital of pre-rehearsed arguments to those who already accept them. If the effect of the exercising of free speech is that other voices are suppressed or silence the aim of free speech has been compromised. Neither does the stimulation of thought occur when dissenting voices are subjected to abuse. Creating spaces which are emotionally safe, therefore, is an effective way of delivering on the aims of free expression.

The Role of the Chaplain   

The easiest way to explore the role of the chaplain was by looking in turn at different spaces and how to make them safer and more conducive to honest, open discourse and exploration. The smallest of these spaces is the space afforded by the chaplain in a one-to-one pastoral encounter. It became clear that one of the main roles of the chaplain in this context is giving people “Room to manoeuvre”. This space, though, is not a blank slate.  As Roberta Canning put it, “We remind the people we help of the ultimate underlying truth of who they are.” This sets the context in which we walk alongside those we encounter  and might go some way to allay the sense of bewilderment mentioned above. It is important that we enable the other person to fully explore their feelings and concerns rather than self-censor. This might require being conscious of how we present ourselves as chaplains and adjusting our register if needed. Whilst offering support and accompaniment, we are to avoid becoming “snowplough” chaplains. A key to this, a key to helping those we work with develop their own resilience, is to ensure that we maintain a deep level of emotional and spiritual accompaniment, enabling them that cognitive space to explore and possibly change.

A larger space the chaplain can be involved is a support or discussion group. This might be a self-defined group such as a group for LGBTQ+  Christians. Again, the chaplain’s role is a supportive one. Such a group is a “safe space” in as much as the members of the group are less likely to be bombarded by the same repeated questions or comments as they might be in the wider community. However, in such a space, any group member should feel able to express a feeling, question or concern without incurring any kind of group opprobrium. Care should be taken that the less outspoken in particular are enabled to do this. In the context of this kind of group, resilience is high on the agenda. The group is resourcing its members in dealing with an issue which affects how they relate to the wider community.

A larger space again is the arena of political, ethical, intercommunal or interfaith discourse on our campuses. Here we considered the model of the “controlled explosion” – providing a safe environment in which frank exchanges of views can be facilitated. It was felt that fostering better relationships within our university communities does a lot of groundwork in enabling such discourse to take place in a less fraught context.  If participants in such discourse feel that they are speaking with people who respect them and are prepared to listen to them even if they might disagree, the quality of such discourse is qualitatively improved. The role of the chaplaincy then can vary from being a critical friend to university bodies and student groups to providing personal support to those affected by any issues that emerge. It is also important that chaplaincies model positive inter faith relationships.

There is a wider space than this which we hardly touched on, that being the national and global context. In one sense the whole university experience might be seen as a safe space in itself, in which staff as well as students can explore and develop ideas while being bound in a collective code that seeks to protect the  members of its community. This is an ideal the university might aspire to, but it is one in which chaplaincies should be willing partners.

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