The safety of safe spaces

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.


9 thoughts on “The safety of safe spaces

  1. There is no need for universities to provide “safe spaces.” Every university student has his/her very own safe space to go to, and that safe space is “mommy.” Anyone that is so immature that they can be traumatized by mere words needs to go home to mommy. This will create space at the university for responsible adults that want to engage the world.

    If words could actually injure (or even “offend”) someone, the same thing said (to an English speaker) in (say) Chinese would also produce injury–and it does not.

    Nothing anyone says can offend you. You can choose to take offense, or not to take offense. Any unpleasant feelings that you experience as a result of words are not caused by the other person’s action, but by your own reaction.

    My maternal grandmother had only a third grade education, but she was wise. She would respond to any insult by shrugging and replying, “Says you.”

  2. Your post has insufficient relationship with reality to reasonably drive any policy decisions. You don’t seem to grasp the point of words or of safe spaces. You haven’t heard of the wider category of stress disorders, only PTSD. You haven’t considered the effort required to implement your recommendation.

    If listeners alone determine the meanings of words, and they are free to determine those meanings arbitrarily, then communication is a futile endeavor. In practice, I am trying to understand what someone is trying to communicate to me. Meanings of words are determined through many such attempts across many different people. It would be irrational of me, and deliberate miscommunication, to interpret slurs as being respectful. Moreover, there is no sharp divide between listeners and speakers; everyone who listens speaks and vice versa. Your analysis doesn’t acknowledge that.

    Deciding not to be bothered when someone tries to insult you or denies your basic rights at least takes effort. It’s not free, as you imply. It’s a source of stress. For personal insults, we’ve decided it’s mainly rude, nothing more. Slurs have subtext on a spectrum starting at “members of this group are less worthwhile beings”. Knowing that someone dislikes you personally can be stressful; knowing that someone thinks you shouldn’t exist or shouldn’t have basic human rights (as is often the case with terms forbidden in safe spaces) is worse.

    Words lead to actions. They can have threatening subtext. That subtext is a major thing that safe spaces try to protect against. Safe spaces are about allowing people to be themselves without judgment and without others giving them stress over their identity.

    Sufficient stress can cause mental and physical health problems.

    How problematic censorship is depends on what organizations are doing it, how they are doing it, what they’re censoring, and what repercussions are applied.

    The rule of “do not suggest that your fellow humans’ identities are invalid or that they are any less deserving of rights than you” probably won’t stifle any worthwhile ideas. There are a few contexts where we might reasonably discuss things turned slightly in this direction (such as who to save first if we had to evacuate the planet with only limited capacity, or what legal rights associated with marriage can easily be extended to polyamorous marriages), but they don’t have the core problem that safe spaces try to address.

    • Not once did I state that listeners alone determine the meanings of words. Note the sentence “It is always an effort of both parties to communicate meaning.” The point is that the meaning of the words is most critical to the listener, and they may choose to be deliberately offended, or assign unnecessary malevolence. Most of your post is combatting a strawman, or a deliberate misrepresentation of what I did say. As you said: “I am trying to understand what someone is trying to communicate to me.” Listeners make a conscious effort to understand what the orator says. They have leverage with interpretation here, able to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt or give him no such benevolence.

      I employed “Listener” as opposed to “person who hears” purposefully to indicate the active role of interpretation on behalf of the receiving party. Subtext, or innuendo, is, in the cases we’re interested in here, often on the listener’s behalf the majority of the time.

      Words can lead to actions; that doesn’t mean words are violent. That doesn’t mean the words themselves need be suppressed. It certainly doesn’t mean action is the probable outcome when controversial speakers address college audiences.

      Again, you target a strawman when you allude to speakers that attempt to invalidate other humans’ identities. Only in paranoid universes is this the majority of speech targeted with censorship across campuses. And while things that cause stress can lead to mental and physical problems, they can also make their bearers more resilient and ready for the open world: something college is partially about.

      “Knowing that someone dislikes you personally can be stressful; knowing that someone thinks you shouldn’t exist or shouldn’t have basic human rights is worse.” Of course. So is ignorance, as opposed to knowledge, much better? It doesn’t change the fact that people that hold those beliefs exist out there. It doesn’t change the fact that undoubtably those people will be encountered in the real world. And suppression in college certainly doesn’t make things better by not preparing students for a world in which prejudices still thrive. In college, at least, the ideas can be combatted; they can’t be combatted if no one is allowed to talk about them.

      Censorship is always problematic, because it doesn’t occur in a vortex.

      That said it might be worthwhile to make a follow-up and respond. I did have a section on why listeners aren’t able to freely choose the meaning of received speech but I removed it. I concede here.

      • “Not once did I state that listeners alone determine the meanings of words.”

        “The listener has to want the word or phrase to mean whatever it means to him or her”

        “Meaning isn’t revived, resusitated or reinvigorated in L: it is wholly created anew from his brain.”

        “each person creates it fresh and idiosyncratically”

        Close enough for government work.

        Regardless, people often express vitriol against particular groups, and it is both rational and good communication to recognize this when it happens. I hope we’re agreed on that.

        “Words can lead to actions; that doesn’t mean words are violent. That doesn’t mean the words themselves need be suppressed.”

        People can communicate nonviolently, so communication in general doesn’t need to be forbidden — I think we agree there.

        That still leaves the possibility of communication that is violent and should be forbidden — and indeed, some communication is already forbidden. Threats, harassment, and libel, for instance.

        “you target a strawman when you allude to speakers that attempt to invalidate other humans’ identities.”

        No, I’m really not. White supremacism is on the rise. Trans hatred is already pretty strong. We still haven’t gotten past hatred of homosexual people. Sexism isn’t at the point of denying women’s right to exist — that’s never been its character — but plenty of people think that women should justly be forbidden from certain roles, which is a more restricted version of the same thing (women have the right to exist provided they follow certain restrictions).

        “So is ignorance, as opposed to knowledge, much better?”

        Ignorance is happier. Knowing that people like that exist lets me make better decisions. Having my face rubbed in it all the time without a safe space where I can take a break would be fucking terrible.

        “And suppression in college certainly doesn’t make things better by not preparing students for a world in which prejudices still thrive.”

        That perspective assumes that universities explicitly opposing prejudicial speech, with associated repercussions, would not reduce prejudice. It assumes students can’t find enough of this type of thing before and during university but outside campus to figure it out on their own. It assumes it’s better to learn about it when you’re eighteen than when you’re twenty-two. It fails to explain why universities already have harassment policies, why there are anti-harassment laws, and why there are no classes to teach kids how to deal with problems like this.

        Finally, the mechanism is terrible.

        If you’re training to get used to a physically stressful environment, you don’t start out at the deep end without an instructor. You build up to it slowly, under controlled conditions, with someone who can watch how you’re doing and pull you back if there are problems. Temperature tolerance, depth, light and dark, iocaine powder, it’s easier and safer done gradually.

        Similarly, if you have arachnophobia and are attempting to address it with exposure therapy, you don’t tell everyone around you that they can throw spiders at you without warning. You start in a controlled environment, where you know there will be a spider before you enter, where you can leave if you need to, where you have support, where you don’t have other stressors to bother you. You gradually build up to the point, ideally, where a spider being near you doesn’t cause you any stress. (Though that might be an unattainable goal.)

        So even if we accept your position that university should train people to tolerate this kind of vitriol, we would expect it to be restricted to certain times and places, announced well in advance, with counselors on hand for support. We would expect people to gradually be exposed more over time with the approval of a licensed, trained practitioner.

        “Censorship is always problematic, because it doesn’t occur in a vortex.”

        You mean _void_. A vortex is a whirling mass of fluid, such as a tornado. A void is an expanse of nothingness, such as the vast emptiness of space.

        When I attended university, they had me sign a code of conduct that forbids threats, intimidation, and bullying, among other things. Do you think that was a bad policy, since it amounts to censorship? Do you think it would be a bad policy if it specified it covers behavior that targets social groups instead of individuals?

        Forbidding that sort of censorship is the same as mandating that universities provide a platform for whatever hatred anyone wants to spew. Providing a platform is tantamount to endorsement. Organizations have a right to choose who to endorse.

        There’s also a problem of: you have a right to speak, but you have no right to force me to listen to you. We lack proper techniques for enforcing that distinction, unfortunately.

    • You don’t have to interpret a slur as being respectful. You can just take it literally, which is, “This person said this.” But why do you care what some random person says about you, or some group that you identify with? Or, you can interpret a slur as “This person is afraid of something.” Or, as “This person is having a bad day.”

      Here is a tip, though. You can only be upset by a “slur” that you believe is true. If you go up to Michael Jordan and say, “Hey, shorty,” he will probably look behind him to see if you are talking to someone else. He will be puzzled, not upset. Or, he may laugh.

      Look at what upsets you, and you will see that this is true. You can only get upset by a “slur” that voices something that you fear is true about yourself. In that case, it is your fear that is the problem, not that someone named it.

      • “You can only get upset by a ‘slur’ that voices something that you fear is true about yourself.”

        You really don’t understand the main idea behind slurs. (Unsurprising; you’re white and male and almost certainly straight.)

        If someone called me bisexual, I’d just shrug. If someone called me a faggot, I’d have a strong negative reaction.

        The person calling me bisexual is stating a simple fact. It’s true. I acknowledge it and don’t want to change my sexuality. There’s no shame or fear about it.

        The person calling me a faggot is indicating their disapproval of my sexuality, and that’s a spectrum that goes from “stay away from me” to “you should be sent to a camp and tortured into being straight”. They are indicating their support for something in that spectrum. At best, it’s grating; at worst, it’s a threat on my life.

  3. I still never said meaning is entirely up to the listener. Your selections support that.

    Communication is never violent when it’s just speech. The trend of calling speech “violent” is mostly a brandishment of people that have never been subject to real (physical) violence.

    Do you really think white supremacism is on the rise? Somehow I doubt it. I think this election certainly brought it to the forefront – it’s an ugly underbelly, still in some locations in America – but I don’t think it increased the amount. There’s just more news coverage about it. That means it will be on the surface to be argued against. Coverage is good: it means the ideas will start to face open criticism, and closeted supporters of supremacy will see theirs ideology trashed again and again in the marketplace of ideas.

    Your examples – about swimming and arachnophobia – are perfect buttresses for my argument: university is a practice for the real world. By starting in the university with an exposure to alternative mindsets, some of which might be highly controversial, you start in the shallow end of the miles-deep pool which is the real world.

    Providing a platform is not tantamount to endorsement, at all. This confusion signifies your very real misunderstanding of the purpose of free speech. Of course universities have a right to do whatever. The question is whether or not it’s beneficial or sensible.

    These comments are too long to continue replying. If you create a blog post or something as a reaction, that’d be easier to respond to. You’ve already launched into ad hominem territory with the other fellow so I don’t see a reason to continue arguing, at least here.

Please keep it civil

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