Michelangelo’s recent post on safe spaces has led me to revive an old thought I had. It’s not that safe spaces are bad, other than infantilizing students – they don’t tread on anyone’s rights. The worrisome consequence is censorship, which might arise from building bigger and better safe spaces, until eventually the university wants to consider its entire acreage a safe space, and finally the nation does too.
That concern is very real, especially given that political commentary these days is more tense than ever before, and parties may wish to retreat from every corner of the internet or any social gathering. What I want to analyze here, though, is what actually happens with speech, and the inherent problem of protecting ourselves from speech: that the consequences of words are genuinely up to us.
While developing safe spaces on universities, the idea is bannered around that words hurt, and students on campus need administration-sponsored buildings to provide a comfortable atmosphere to avoid or deal with these infiltrations on their emotional-or-otherwise safety. It’s worthwhile to preface that surely, words do hurt, in a sense; it would be ignorant to suppose that vocalizations never have any traumatic impact on the listening party. And that safe spaces are instrinsically tied to minority representation and protection is a claim irrelevant to what the actual message broadcasted by these miniature creations is: again, words hurt, and are somehow a tool of oppression.
It is politically advantageous to think of words as tools of oppression, as I noted with my experience in a multicultural and gender studies class. Attaching the label “oppressive” to an action in the cultural geist makes it far less difficult to get people to rally against that action, or even get it prohibited. However, though words might be useful tools for oppressors, the linguistic oppression is always in a very material way defended and perpetuated by the would-be oppressee.
Let’s think about messages and symbolism. There is no meaning attached externally to an object – only internal, psychological meaning(s) inside of individuals. (These might arise culturally, habitually or traditionally.) Without an existent population of individuals proclaiming that a word means something, the arrangement of squiggly lines given an arbitrary pronounciation has no relevance or meaning. If a word is antiquated it has no meaning (though it may once have, but only for an extant population). I know this position on language might be aggressively denied by some thinkers that commit themselves to this arena, but I think this formulation is adequate for now being common sensical. If it is incorrect, it is at least relevant for my main explanation of why safe-spaces are ridiculous (following Robert Nozick’s analysis of explanations, it could be thought of as a fact-defective potential explanation).
Following my point, in a very real sense, both persons make deliberate decisions through vocalization. It’s obvious that “faggot” or “dyke” are worthless without people to identify them – whether you’re an internalist or externalist with language, this formulation will still hold, thus the simplistic and applicable definition. But it is perhaps less obvious that the meaning of these words is most critical from the person that listens to their proclamation, as opposed to the enunciator.
The listener has to want the word or phrase to mean whatever it means to him or her, and want their meaning to keep. If “faggot” is a prejorative term for a homosexual man to a listener, L, it reflects his desire that “faggot” remain this vulgarity. L’s desire to interpret a word surely does not change the intention of the orator, S, in saying it. Yet if S is speaking with intent to curse provocatively, this curse – passing as a wave form to L’s ears – and its reception is wholly dependant on L’s conscious attention. There isn’t a meaning embedded in the sound wave; there isn’t a meaningfulness-mesh suffused throughout Earth’s atmosphere that attaches purposefully to human undulations that disturb it. Meaning is in S… meaning is broken as the vocalization travels… and a meaning is conceived in L. Meaning isn’t revived, resusitated or reinvigorated in L: it is wholly created anew from his brain. There is a direct, physical connection from S’s oral exercise and L’s auditory reception, but no such connection exists between S and L’s brains where meaning exists. Thus, each person creates it fresh and idiosyncratically. It is always an effort of both parties to communicate meaning.
Given this understanding, seeking protection from words is ineffective. This is not said in ignorance of some of the social research that discloses the power of words as comparable to physical violence. It has been shown that lashing out vocally can cause trauma, perhaps even on par with getting physical. Verbal abuse, the height of dangerous speech, is not the proper nor stated enemy of university safe spaces, however. Safe spaces outlaw any range of contrasting opinions, and controversial dialogue, whereas verbal abuse is, inherently, abusive, and in some degree illegal. Verbal abuse, though it might contain the same and worse prejoratives as any ordinary, disrespectful speech, is legitimately dangerous, and in a sense implies a relationship between the speaker and listener that is absent in the latter type of speech. If cajoled on the streets for wearing a short skirt, one is not verbally abused, but instead harassed (and only harassed if the speech is continuous). Regular encounters with strangers might be distressing and unpleasant, not to mention obnoxious, but they linger in an area of the violence spectrum far below verbal abuse. The verbal encounters a student has at a university with a speaker or faculty member rarely ever constitute abuse, and safe spaces are set up to avoid/deal with these encounters; so safe spaces do not deal with verbal abuses but rather arguments and disagreements.
This sort of analysis seems to assume an innate stoic element to persons, so that emotional reactions are wholly within their rational control. The intention is not to claim that veterans with post-traumatic stress, or victims of violent rape, are willing their capacity to be triggered by speech – that they are entirely complicit in their ongoing trauma. With the analysis it seems more likely that persons with genuine inabilities to “get over” distressing speech have a mental blockage that precedes the verbalization of S. While an untraumatized person has to make an effort to conceive the meaning originally intended by S, war veterans might be triggered by references that are beyond, in some way, their ratiocination; to be consistent with the rest of the reasoning here, we can say they can’t choose to choose a separate meaning.
In discussing persons that speak contrasted to persons that listen, the word “listen” is specifically important. It might have seemed appropriate, at the beginning, to portray the one that does not speak as the “receiver” as opposed to “listener”; after all, with active listening painted as a narrow skillset in behavioral sciences or therapy, far beyond simple hearing, we might not want to apply this connotational activity to the person on the receiving end of a profanity (in order to up-play that person’s role as inactive victim). Hopefully now, the importance of “listener” is clear: the receiver is indeed always L when words hurt, or when any meaning whatsoever is left intact among the orator and audience.
Now, safe spaces are a better alternative to no-platforming speakers with controversial or simply oppositional viewpoints. They are echo chambers that stifle novel opinions, for sure, but as long as their participation is voluntary, they pose no real issue.
But they cannot be justified by recourse to “protection from oppressive speech,” or buffer from profiling hate speech. Verbal abuse is almost never an occurrence at university events, and the maxim that speech somehow, as a singular action of the speaker, causes mental or emotional damage has been refuted. Unless all the people arguing the need for a safe space genuinely suffer from post-traumatic stress or another disorder which limits their ability to choose to choose, their claim for safety is far less strong than it might seem to be.