I have become increasingly concerned about the assault on free speech taking place throughout the West, particularly in university campuses. This is being done in the name of “safe space,” that is, space in which you are protected against hearing views which might cause you distress, “trigger warnings” and “micro-aggressions,” that is, any remark that someone might find offensive even if no offence is meant.
So far has this gone that at the beginning of the 2017 academic year, students at an Oxford College banned the presence of a representative of the Christian Union on the grounds that some might find their presence alienating and offensive. Increasingly, speakers with controversial views are being disinvited: the number of such incidents on American college campuses rose from 6 in 2000 to 44 in 2016.
Undoubtedly this entire movement was undertaken for the highest of motives, to protect the feelings of the vulnerable. That is a legitimate ethical concern. Jewish law goes to extremes in condemning lashon hara, hurtful or derogatory speech, and the sages were careful to use what they called lashon sagi nahor, euphemism, to avoid language that people might find offensive.
But a safe space is not one in which you silence dissenting views. To the contrary: it is one in which you give a respectful hearing to views opposed to your own, knowing that your views too will be listened to respectfully. That is academic freedom, and it is essential to a free society. As George Orwell said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”