Creating a safe space for one may result in unsafe spaces for others
Creating a safe space is a double-edged sword. Yes, we want people to be able to say things. But the things that they presumably want to feel safe saying, may create an unsafe space for others, editor-in-chief Tore Oksholen writes in response to a challenge put forth in an opinion letter.
.In an opinion piece I am challenged, as UA-editor, to «acknowledge its active role in moderating controversial debates.» The challenge is put forth by associate professor Mari Haugaa Engh and PhD candidates Angelina Penner and Maria Kirpichenko at Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, Faculty of Humanities.
Should UA adopt a more restrictive publications policy, through actively screening opinion pieces and accepting only those which meet a set of cautiously formulated standards? Such standards, as suggested in this piece, would be pro-democracy, pro-equality (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation), anti-racism, and anti-authoritarian.
If I were to take this approach further: Should UA suppress opinions claiming that climate change is questionable, a green transformation not possible, nuclear power is good? Or what about taking this argument to the limit, however absurd: Should UA deny the publication of arguments like those put forth by the author J.K. Rowling, essentially that persons with penises should not be allowed to change in the women's wardrobe?
I could take it even further, but I trust my point has been made: As editor-in-chief I could adopt a modern version of the ancient Henry Ford axiom, used when marketing Ford’s Model T : «You can choose any color you want, as long as it is black.» In our context, a similar axiom would go something like this: «We accept your counter arguments, as long as we don’t feel offended by them.»
I quote from their piece: «It is part of a newspaper’s responsibility to select, however, how much space should be given to opinionated columnists, especially when these opinions could be seen as offensive.»
Regrettably (or luckily, as some might say), most people occasionally are confronted by opinions they find offensive. This is life, and we just have to cope as best we can.
Further: “In a serious public debate, a media(tor) makes sure that the debate doesn’t slide to attacks. That means that the moderators (e.g., newspaper editors) recognize poor arguments, offensive language, repetitions, and baseless accusations and at the very least contextualizes them as such.”
I admit there are situations where such contextualization is appropriate – the US media, for example, mark Trump’s false comments about the 2020 presidential election as lies. Still – how far can we take such contextualization? I leave possible answers to the reader. As a publisher, however, my answer is this: As long as the arguments are in accordance with Norwegian law, are not clad in a hateful and/or contemptuous prose, and are deemed relevant to the NTNU discourse, they are publishable in UA.
The three opinion writers argue that «(F)or all people to feel welcome to speak up, the moderator is obliged to create a safe space for the flow of response.»
If that were to be the case, I, as editor, would be expected to assume some sort of responsibility for the emotional reactions of UA’s readers when they read certain pieces.
Also, consider this: Creating a safe space is a double-edged sword. Yes, we want people to be able to say things. But the things that they presumably want to feel safe saying, may create an unsafe space for others. If there are criticisms and accusations, well, even if they are limited to purely work and academic topics, it is very hard to separate out personal elements. Who gets to decide whose feelings count in this?
The opinion writers continue: «People raising the uncomfortable issues and adding their voices are mostly students, temporary staff, and early-career researchers — those who inhabit a fairly precarious position in the university hierarchy. Already vulnerable, they expose themselves to have their credibility and intelligence attacked and ridiculed.»
Well. Having your credibility and intelligence attacked and ridiculed may be perceived as an integrated part of working in Academia. Students as well as early-career researchers cannot be expected to be shielded from such unpleasant experiences. What they – as all of us – should expect, is to be treated in a respectful manner.
Again, there are situations where the criticism of younger staff is being dismissed rather harshly, which may be felt discouraging to them. That is not a good thing. But you also find younger researchers who can be odious, self-righteous, opinionated, and occasionally, dead wrong.
At the end of the day, by putting limits on what one side can say – say, the older, more established staff – but different, lesser limits on the comments of others, would not remove power, only redistribute it.
To the extent that I and my colleagues in UA make poor decisions when deciding to publish or not to publish, such faults should, when recogniced, be admitted openly. We make publication decisions every day, and from time to time we make wrong decisions. But the standards by which we make these decisions must be right.
The three commentators writes: «we want to ask UA what they consider their own role to be in working against discrimination at the University» and continue: «Running a newspaper comes with responsibility. In this regard, we are also concerned about where UA — as a university newspaper — stands with respect to the legal obligation to actively counteract racism».
I reply: As is true of any other independent newspaper or medium, UA is required to adhere to Norwegian law, as well as Vær Varsom-plakaten together with Redaktørplakaten. With respect to racism, which is prohibited by law, we are obliged to banish all racist/hateful speech. We are not obliged to propagate any policy goals; however worthy they may be.