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The Battle Over Free Speech: Are Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and No-Platforming Harming Young minds?

Are safe spaces, trigger warnings and no-platforming in our universities closing down debate and creating a generation unfit for the adult world?

Many would argue that these are the fundamental goals of a good education. So why has Cambridge University taken to warning its students that the sexual violence in Titus Andronicus might be traumatic for them? Why are other universities in America and increasingly in Britain introducing measures to protect students from speech and texts they might find harmful? Safe spaces, trigger warnings and no-platforming are now campus buzzwords – and they’re all designed to limit free speech and the exchange of ideas. As celebrated social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in his forthcoming book The Coddling of the American Mind, university students are increasingly retreating from ideas they fear may damage their mental health, and presenting themselves as fragile and in need of protection from any viewpoint that might make them feel unsafe.The culture of safety, as Haidt calls it, may be well intentioned, but it is hampering the development of young people and leaving them unprepared for adult life, with devastating consequences for them, for the companies that will soon hire them, and for society at large.

That, Haidt’s critics argue, is an infuriating misinterpretation of initiatives designed to help students. Far from wanting to shut down free speech and debate, what really concerns the advocates of these new measures is the equal right to speech in a public forum where the voices of the historically marginalised are given the same weight as those of more privileged groups. Warnings to students that what they’re about to read or hear might be disturbing are not an attempt to censor classic literature, but a call for consideration and sensitivity. Safe spaces aren’t cotton-wool wrapped echo chambers, but places where minority groups and people who have suffered trauma can share their experiences without fear of hostility.

On November 19th Haidt came to the Intelligence Squared stage to discuss and debate these ideas. Joining him were the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who believes that educating young people through debate and argument helps foster robustness, author and activist Eleanor Penny, and sociologist Kehinde Andrews, one of the UK’s leading thinkers on race and the history of racism.



Emily Maitlis

Lead presenter of BBC Newsnight and one of the UK’s best known broadcasters

Lead presenter of the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight. She presents general elections for the BBC and covers US politics for the programme from across America. She has won plaudits for her longer form interviews for Newsnight, for which she has interviewed Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Clinton and the Duke of York. 

Kehinde Andrews

Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University and author of The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World

Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, a regular opinion writer for the Guardian and editor of the series ‘Blackness in Britain’. He was part of the team that launched the first Black Studies degree in Europe, is co-chair of the Black Studies Association and Chair of the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity. He is author of Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century and most recently The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World.

Jonathan Haidt

Psychologist and author

Social and cultural psychologist, who is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His 2013 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, was described by the New York Times as ‘a landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself’. His latest book is The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

Eleanor Penny

Writer, activist and journalist

Writer, activist and journalist. She is the online editor at Red Pepper Magazine and a senior editor at Novara Media. Her writing has featured in publications including Verso, the London Review of Books and In These Times. Her first book will be published by flipped eye.

Rabbi Lord Sacks

Rabbi, philosopher and award-winning author

Jonathan Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth between 1991 and 2013. He is a philosopher and author of over 30 books, most recently the bestselling Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. He recently presented the acclaimed Radio 4 series, Morality in the 21st Century, in which he interviewed the world’s leading thinkers, along with groups of British sixth form students. He has a number of professorships at academic institutions, including New York University, Yeshiva University and King’s College London.