On the trade off between the rule of law and lower taxes

The recent Carrier deal has caused some controversies in liberty-oriented circles. For example, The Mises Institute published a defense of the deal, arguing (along other lines, please read the article yourself):

there is nothing inherently wrong with an administration focused on keeping jobs in America — especially if this is accomplished by relieving tax and regulatory burdens.

The point I wish to make here is a general point, so I won’t go into the specifics of the Carrier deal. Among other reasons: I don’t know the specifics of the deal (I don’t know the content and I don’t know how the deal came to pass.) What I wish to do here is to argue the general case on how to view these kinds of tax exceptions.

The point we ought to remember, I think, is that there are a trade offs between two important liberal values, although they are important in different ways. On the one hand, we have the idea of rule of law, the idea that the law is general, not specific, applies to everyone rather than some, and that it’s not designed to favor some because it should serve an open-ended order. Things that contribute to such a legal order are ipso facto prima facie good, things that take away from such a legal order are ipso facto prima facie bad.

On the other hand we have the idea that taxes are bad. Things that lower taxes are prima facie good, things that increase taxes are prima facie bad.

But neither of these things trump all other considerations. Let me give you two examples.

  • Suppose there was a law that said that the taxes on, for example, business started by family members of politicians are automatically exempted from taxes. Would this be a good law?
  • Suppose there was a law that said that everyone has to be drafted and has to serve mandatory military service overseas, except the family members of politicians. Again: would this be a good law?

In both of these questions, the answer depends on the liberty-inspired framework you use to answer the question. If you think the value of the rule of law outweighs the value of individual liberty of those family members (who are, after all, not responsible for the actions of their political family members) than you think these are bad laws. If you think the increase in individual liberty for those family members is more important than the violation of a rule of law principle, than you think these are good laws. My point is not to say how one should determine this, my point is that there are two liberty-inspired frameworks that can justify an outcome, and both of these frameworks are relevant in determining what kind of laws we ought to support.

To make the issue slightly more applicable: is the increased damage on the rule of law (created by allowing a specific exception on the general laws on taxes) larger or smaller than the benefits that allow a company to have less taxes?

Some people have tried to argue by analogy – for example, comparing it to the draft. The problem is that analogies quickly run into the problem of changing the relative values of the two important concepts. For example: is it a good thing that women are exempted from the draft? Yes, this seems like obviously a good thing. Would it be a good thing that male children of politicians would be automatically exempted from the draft? This seems like less obviously a good thing.

Would it be a good thing if white people were automatically exempted from the draconian drug laws? Maybe it would, but maybe that also lowers the chance of getting rid of the drug laws altogether. Different margins matter in these kinds of evaluations.

The wrong thing to think is that all policies are pro tanto good just because they increase liberty on some margin for some people, especially if this allows for the prolonging of bad policies by the current ruling class. Some policies can be bad on some margins and good on others and reasonable people can disagree whether the complete net effect of this is good for all.

Maybe it’s a good thing that some people are exempted from evil laws (such as taxes), but it’s not good that the political class gets to choose who does so. Because those who will be exempted will be those who are connected to the political class. So one can absolutely like lower taxes, oppose politicians’ power to choose who is exempted and oppose that, and still be happy for a company that they got a tax cut. (Unless, of course, the company itself is evil. This is certainly possible if they are partners in, for example, the wars that the USA commits.)

So tl;dr. As I posted somewhere on facebook:

Rule of law and lower taxes are two good things. A president (or important person connected to the ruling class such as the president elect) getting to pick and choose winners isn’t desirable, but a tax break is. A higher tax isn’t desirable, but a rule of law is.

Trying to argue the case based on principle seems wrong. It depends on the margins. In the case of the draft, the margin *against* rule of law seems important enough to say it’s a clear victory for liberty to not have women included.

In the case of tax breaks, this is less obvious and reasonable people can come out on different sides of this, I think.

What if fake news was merely an attempt at political entrepreneurship?

Fake news! The new plague that besets mankind! That is largely the new name given to what 19th century folks would have called “yellow journalism“.

Yellow journalism was sensationalist to the point of distorting the news in order to carry a very emotional message. Generally embedded in that message was a political narrative supporting progressive reforms (not all yellow journalists were progressive but it seems that most were).

The aim of many progressives was to design a new society, to reform the old society by getting rid of old institutions. In many cases, economic historians have documented that these reforms (like with prohibition, workers compensation, antitrust) ended up serving very narrow interest groups who either allied themselves with reforming zealots (as in bootleggers helping baptists pass Sunday sales bans), gained through the restriction of competition or gained at the expense of future workers and minorities. But it is not as if the “previous” order was paradise. The postbellum era prior to the progressive era was highly protectionist, used public funds to bailout poorly performing railways and solicited the federal army to deal with natives rather than peacefully deal with them.  Basically, both eras had their political entrepreneurs who found their way in the political process to obtain favors.

Progressives who indulged in yellow journalism merely wanted to replace one set of political entrepreneurs with another. Just like the Alt-Right, from which emanates most of the fake news. In a way, both are exactly the same. Many members of the Alt-Right are not interested in restraining government abuses, they’re in favor of redirecting government indulgences towards them (Trump did promise less immigration with paid maternity leaves and no reduction in social transfers). Some are well-meaning like the baptists of lore. But there are still bootleggers (example: Steven Mnuchin from Goldman Sachs) who co-opt the process in order to continue indulging in rent-seeking just as they did before.

Are we about to swap one bad set of institutions for another? Given that all I see is the same type of political entrepreneurs (after all, Bannon from the flagship of the fake news alt-right outlet Breitbart is now a member of the government) as those we saw during the progressive era, I am inclined to respond “yes”.

Socialism is just a new form of slavery

When Fidel Castro died he was totally alone. It doesn’t matter if relatives or friends were standing beside him: in the end, we are all alone. We experience the world through our sense of perception. Of the things themselves we have no experience. On the other hand, all humans have perception of themselves. We just know that we are. This self awareness is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. Castro’s death already received a lot of attention, but I believe it is a moment really worthy of reflection. Under his half-century regime millions died or suffered, and it’s always important to remember that we are talking about a little country, an island in the Caribbean. Cuba was one of the most prosperous nations in the Americas, and today it is one of the most miserable.

It is really sad to see that most of my colleagues are unable to call evil by its name. In the mid-nineteenth century Karl Marx predicted that capitalism was going to collapse because of its internal contradictions. He was not saying that he wanted capitalism to collapse. He was saying that this was a scientific fact, as sure as the next eclipse predicted by an astronomer. Capitalism, of course, didn’t collapse. Marx’s economic theory was simply nonsensical, and was contradicted by logic and facts. But Marxists couldn’t admit it. Instead they replaced economics with culture, and the working class with Others as the oppressed. Blacks, women, Native Americans, underdeveloped countries and many others became the new oppressed class. Fidel Castro fit beautifully in the Marxism of the New Left. He was the charismatic dictator of the charming island nation of Cuba. The US, ruled by leftists in the 1960s and 1970s, was unable to give a consistent answer to it. Latin America, ruled by dictatorships that the left called “right” (no one wants to take their dictators home), was also not in place to contrast the evils of the Castro regime. A perfect storm.

Castro, for all we know, died with no regrets for the evils he committed in life. Political commentators say that history will judge him. But this is a lie. History can’t judge anyone. Only people can judge people. And it is fundamental that political commentators today judge Castro for all the evil he has done. Castro didn’t kill people in Cuba only. He supported, in one way or another, brutal regimes all over the world, mostly in Latin America. To this day he is partly responsible for the evils of Foro de São Paulo. But many political commentators insist in the lie that in Cuba there’s true freedom: they have enough to eat, universal healthcare and universal education. Why would they want freedom?

Freedom is the fundamental state of human beings. We are, in the end, all alone. Of what goes in our hearts, only we are aware of. Sometimes not even us. All of us make choices based on knowledge that’s unique. Circumstances of time and space shape the choices that we make. And life is made of choices. Marxism, socialism, and all forms of statism go against these fundamental truths.

People in Cuba are not free. They are all slaves to the Castro family. Some people want to have life in a cage, as long as they receive food every day. Of course this is a lie. In order to live in a cage you need to have someone outside the cage bringing the food. Someone has to be free. This person becomes your slave as well, and this constitutes a fundamental contradiction of socialism: Alexis de Tocqueville mentioned that socialism is just a new form of slavery. In slavery someone is forced to work for somebody else under the threat of physical violence. Under socialism everybody is forced to work for everybody else. Let’s hope that Castro’s death may help put socialism in the past, where slavery is, and that Latin America may finally see the light of freedom.

Identity Politics, the Alt-Right, and Empathy in Cultural Discourse

“Identity politics” have been an intensely large obsession of the American left or the past forty or so years. Academic leftists have devoted their entire careers and even the organizations of their departments to studying notions of identity and the specific history and interests of certain identity groups—such as women’s studies, African-American studies, and other similar programs. The Democratic Party has put special emphasis on mobilizing various minority groups based on identity, focusing on “Women’s issues” such as abortion or “the needs of the African-American community” such as police reform or “gay rights” to get a certain of segment of voters to turn out in elections.

Yet, with the election of Trump, many moderate leftists are questioning the utility of identity politics. Mark Lilla had a prominent recent piece in The New York Times declaring the “end of identity liberalism.” Lilla’s main criticisms of identity politics focus on it as a “strategic mistake” in electoral politics and how it has made liberals and progressives “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside of their self-identified groups,” particularly white, middle class, working men in the Midwest. Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, responded by sounding off that all politics is identity politics, people always organize themselves in interest groups, writing that “any plausible account of political behavior by actual human beings needs to concede that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity rather than detailed policy proposals.” The left, he says, can’t abandon identity politics because “[t]here is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”

Those on what is traditionally considered the “right” end of the political spectrum (ignoring the specific phenomena of Trump voters and alt-righters, that is) tend to be dismissive of the whole project of identity politics. This approach is embodied by Robby Soave’s recent article in Reason claiming that identity politics is just a form of tribalism that seeks to subvert individual rights and overall social welfare to  the tribalist demands of some salient group people self-identify with. Soave also sees the rise of Trumpism as itself a form of identity politics for white men, a claim which I’ll address at length in a moment.

What is one to make, then, of identity politics in the Trump era? First, it seems there is considerable confusion about what identity politics even is in the first place. Lilla, for an example, seems to imply that the left’s obsession with appealing to minority political coalitions is merely a strategy for winning elections. Soave thinks it’s pure tribalist and collectivist ideology, and Yglesias defines it so broadly that any political mobilization at all is considered identity politics. How are we to understand what operative definition of what is commonly called “identity politics” is most useful, or at least is closest to how its commonly used in political discourse?

Lilla and Yglesias understanding, it seems, misses the point about why so many leftists are so passionate about identity politics. People who are interested in cultural dramas and issues related to group identity are not just Democratic strategists in campaign war-rooms, but, as I mentioned earlier, academics, and “true believer” bleeding-heart progressive activists. It seems to me that identity politics—at least at first (and still is in the minds of the true believers post-1960s progressivism)—is not about an election strategy. It’s certainly become that for Democratic strategists, but it originally was motivated by the old liberal concern with ending the misery for stigmatized groups. Identity politics is not merely a political strategy, but a strategy the left used for getting rid of racism, homophobia, and otherization of outgroups in society at large.

The idea is like this: try to get, for example, white people to sympathize with black people by getting whites to recognize that black people have their own meaningful web of cultural associations which is just as valid as those of the dominant culture. Its roots are in cultural studies academia, such as the writings of Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser. Essentially, identity politics is rooted in philosophical attempts to end prejudice through emphasizing “cultural recognition” of despised groups. As Richard Rorty wrote in describing this strategy:

It helps, when trying to recognise a common humanity in a person of another gender, class, or ethnicity, to think of them as having as rich an inner life as one does oneself. To picture such an inner life, it helps to know something about the web of memories and associations which make it up. So one way to help eliminate prejudice and erase stigma is to point out that, for example, women have a history, that homosexuals take pride in belonging to the same stigmatised group as Proust, and that African-Americans have detailed memories of the battles which make up what Russell Banks calls “the three hundred year War Between The Races in America” – the sort of memories whites are currently learning about from Toni Morrison’s novels. It helps to realise that all such groups wrap a comforting blanket of memories and traditions, customs and institutions, around themselves, just as do classical scholars, old Etonians, or members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

Thus treating identity politics just as a way to get electoral coalitions out to vote, and also (as Soave does) as simply tribalism ideology when it was started as a strategy to mitigate tribalism, misses the point about why the left is so passionate about these cultural issues. It isn’t simple collectivism nor Machiavellian political strategy, but (hopefully) genuine concern for stigmatize groups that mobilizes this obsession.

Of course, as Rorty well-recognized, this way of ending prejudice is not the only way nor is it the most effective. First, it does make the left appear as this overly sensitive “politically correct” group of elitists who care little for the concerns of working class whites. As Rorty wrote that the left’s preoccupation with cultural identity politics would mean “the straight white male working class in America may find it tempting to think that the leftist academy is uninterested in its problems.” Indeed, most of why Lilla is concerned that identity politics has failed so spectacularly as an electoral strategy is that it has isolated progressives from middle America.

More importantly, however, is that emphasizing cultural difference has failed spectacularly at its initial aim of ending prejudice. The whole point of Soave’s Reason column is that leftist identity politics has become its own form of tribalism and have given rise to the right-wing identity politics of Trump. Not only have leftists often gotten so caught up in the identity politics language game that they call their own (such as Bernie Sanders) white supremacists for not playing along, it has created its own prejudice backlash. If your way of getting straight white males to recognize non-straight white males as worthy of equal treatment is to say “Those who are unlike you have different cultural values that are worth being celebrated and protected,” the response of straight white males is to say “Do not I also have a different culture worthy of being celebrated and protected?”

Indeed, this type of rhetoric is at the heart of the rise of the alt-right. It isn’t mere hatred of others that is animating this new populist, fascist movement (though that is certainly a concerningly large part of it), it is that they are making this hatred seem legitimate by couching it in terms of advancing “white interests” in a very similar rhetorical manner that the left has pushed the interests of minority groups. Richard Spencer’s “mantra” for the alt-right is “race is the foundation of identity” (emphasis mine) and calls himself an “identarian.” Even outside the small niche of the alt-right, average Trump voters often say they want a way to express and defend their identity—whether it is in the form of white nationalism or in forms of defending Christian “religious liberties” as its own identity coalition against gay rights.

Soave is correct that left-wing identity politics has given us this right-wing identity politics, and it is something Rorty himself saw as a potential consequence of this approach. In his 1998 book Achieving our Country, he explicitly predicted that the white working class would become disconnected from the academic left, and would “start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots[.]” He also predicted that when this strongman assumes office, “gains made over the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out.” It is no coincidence that this sounds quite a bit like Trump.

It’s not surprising that emphasizing differences between the majority and a scapegoated group would mean that the majority group would start taking “pride” in its difference from the scapegoated. Of course, anyone who understands systemic power structures or how sociological hierarchy works understands why this response is not the same. There is a difference between cherishing the cultural differences of a scapegoated minority and using institutional power to coercively protect the cultural interests of the majority group at the expense of the minority. But you can’t expect a white adolescent basement-dwelling troll on 4-Chan or even a working class white voter from central Michigan to understand and fully internalize that difference, and they are likely to be very reluctant or overtly hostile to acknowledging it. All the alt-right has done is take identity politics and turn it against its original aim to advance the exact tribalism leftists have been trying to use identity politics to end.

A better strategy the left could have used was the strategy the old left used through classical feminism, abolitionism, the sixties Civil Rights movement, or some new progressives through the more pop-culture current of the gay rights movement. Rorty describes it beautifully:

Another way is to get the prejudiced to see the stigmatised as having the same tendency to bleed when pricked as they themselves: they too worry about their children and parents; they are possessed by the same self-doubts, and lose self-confidence when humiliated; their difficulties in moving from one stage of life to another are much like everyone else’s, despite the fact that their life-chances may be minimal. These ways of emphasising commonality rather than difference have little to do with “cultural recognition.” They have to do with experiences shared by members of all cultures and all historical epochs, and which remain pretty much the same despite cultural change.

There’s no real way for bigots to co-opt this approach to advance their bigotry. In fact, it explicitly avoids framing the discussion not as some necessary “culture war” between an oppressive majority and an oppressed minority as current identity politics rhetoric implies and alt-right identitarians have assumed as their rallying cry. Instead, it emphasizes the need to end culture wars in the first place by progressing people’s sentiments to stand in solidarity with an ever-growing chunk of humanity—it seeks to replace simple identity with empathy.

Is this approach still in the vein of “identity politics” as we currently understand it? If we take Yglesias’ understanding, sure it still “concede[s] that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity,” but it seeks to make salient aspects of group identity as banal as possible, to make people stand in solidarity based off empathy for everyone’s common human shortcomings rather than based off who they happen to be culturally similar to, to make one’s ingroup as inclusive as impossible. It certainly isn’t tribalist or collectivist as Soave is concerned. Though it still recognizes diversity as important, Rorty still explicitly says that we should see this diversity “as a diversity of self-creating individuals, rather than a diversity of cultures[.]” This liberal (and classical liberal as I see it as drawing off of Hume, Smith, and Mill more than anything) vision is one that is both pluralistic and individualistic.

Is this, however, a winning electoral strategy, as Lilla is concerned? I’m not sure. Tribalist urges of racism are certainly very powerfully woven into how humans have psychologically evolved, and perhaps in our current broken discourse of race relations it isn’t the best electoral strategy. There is, however, some reason for optimism; popular support for gay rights is at an all-time high, after all, and this was probably more a function of the victory of emphasizing the similarity of love between gays to that of straights then getting straight allies to march in gay pride parades. Regardless of electoral outcomes, shouldn’t the goal of civil discourse not be to win elections, but to ensure the most just, peaceful, and prosperous civil society—the zero-sum game of coercive politics be damned? Leftists should try to change the current broken discourse, rather than try to work within it to gain political power.

Adios a Fidel

It was so romantic when those truckfuls of young men with beards took over the cesspool of Havana on New Year’s Eve (a scene immortalized in The Godfather Two). They were bringing freedom and relief from poverty to the beleaguered people of Cuba who had suffered under American imperialism for more than sixty years.

When his main acolyte was through shooting a few hundred political opponents – which took weeks – the business of revolutionary construction began in earnest. Soon, the Revolution had to face an invasion from disgruntled sons of the exiled Cuban upper-class. The invasion was roundly betrayed by the fabled Pres. John F. Kennedy. After that, the Revolution found extravagant financial support from the Soviet Union, a poor country itself but a large one.

Later, the leader of the Cuban Revolution tried to get the US nuked by his big Russian brother. That cool leader must have had his reasons, I am sure.

The stubbornness of opponents (“worms”) was so great that the Revolution was forced to jail a few thousand of them, including poets (along with thousands of men whose crime was homosexuality). Other obdurate traitors to the Revolution left Cuba on balsa rafts and on rafts made with old barrels. Many drowned at sea. Their choice! After a while, one Cuban in five was living abroad, away from the workers’ paradise.

The Revolution triumphed in the fields of education and public health. Nowadays, Cubans’ level of literacy is a high as that of other Latin American countries. Although it’s not really free, the Cuban public health service is pretty good, what with its separate public-public sector and its sector for Communist Party members only, the two equal to each other, of course.

When the first leader became too old, somehow, the best revolutionary found to succeed him was his little brother, as happened in other people’s democracies such as North Korea.

In the meantime, there had been several military adventures, all in tropical countries where even ordinary Cuban privates could afford bananas for once. That they did not win anywhere was not their fault. One prominent general even had to be shot by the leadership because he was dealing drugs. His trial lasted a whole week.

Today, after fifty years, progress is so great that ordinary Cubans easily earn forty or fifty dollars a month. Many earn three times more by renting their bedroom to foreign visitors. Take university professors and medical doctors. They can always make much more than fifty a month by driving a taxi. And meat is now available six days a month instead of the customary four. You can’t argue with this!

As Westerners, we must be especially grateful that the Cuban Revolution has made the island into one of the best destinations for sex tourism in the world.

Yes, Fidel was really, really cool and we will all miss him. He was our youth. He embarked on a great experiment in human happiness. That it failed is not his fault at all. Nobody is perfect. At least, his long life of power and influence has had the great merit of showing what happens to Communist take-overs in the long run, when no external factor puts a precocious end to them.

PS To this day, many Cubans and an embarrassing number of western leftists believe that the Cubans’ poverty is mainly due to the US BLOCKADE of the island. Well folks, there was a blockade, in the early sixties. It lasted two weeks (fourteen or fifteen days). Since then, there has been an American economic embargo on Cuba. It means that Americans cannot buy from or sell most items to Cuban economic actors. Cubans could always buy anything from and sell anything to anyone else in the whole wide world, including our Canadian cousins who have everything we have. We are talking here of a fifty year-old grand lie. You had to be cool, like Fidel and his little brother to pull it off!

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.

When are safe places okay?

I am against the idea of safe places (see my previous post on the issue), especially in academia. I believe that if an idea is worthwhile it should be able to survive critic from all sides and safe places, regardless of their intent, hamper that process. How can you critic something if you aren’t supposed to even acknowledge its existence?

I also believe that, if our pluralistic society is to continue, we need to be able to empathize with those who are our intellectual opponents. I’m not saying we should become Marxists and rename the site The People’s Notes. Nor should we become Trumpistas. However we should be able to break bread with non-liberals and hear their side of the story out. We can continue to disagree with them, but we need to be careful to not de-humanize someone because of their ideological leanings. Safe places make this hard to do. If X group isn’t politically correct to talk about, much less with, how can we learn about them?

Safe places are, in more than one way, harmful to a free society.

-But they may still have a place in a free society.

Why the change of heart? It is this whole Trump fiasco. If you haven’t read them yet, several NoL bloggers have written about it here, here, here, etc.

I have seen several extreme reactions to the election of Trump, including quite a bit of anger and sadness. I cried for a good six hours myself when I saw the election results; as I’ve mentioned before I’m an illegal alien and so there is a very real chance I’ll be deported and torn away from the country I’ve loved since childhood. After drying up my eyes though I put that aside and went back to work. How I see it, as liberals we are constantly fighting against anti-liberal forces.

Am I sad that Trump won? Yes, but Hillary wasn’t an angel either. Before Trumpistas we had to fight Communists, Fascists, and every other type of ‘ists’ imaginable. After the Trumpistas are defeated we will have new enemies pop up. I am optimistic that in the grand scheme of things the future is better than the past, but I don’t think we will ever be rid of anti-liberal thought. Equilibrium is an illusion.

But I digress. I went back to work after my crying session, but many others around me didn’t. They couldn’t. And we shouldn’t try to force them to.

I still think safe places are a bad idea in so far that we are concerned about promoting free discussion and would never want to go into one. However maybe I can tolerate one or two of them if they help others improve their mental health. Maybe I can use ‘undocumented’ instead of ‘illegal’ if people are really that emotionally disturbed by it. Maybe I can use someone’s preferred pronoun if ‘he’ really hurts them that much. Maybe I can keep my mouth shut and just listen to someone who is in pain.

I think that in the long run we need to be able to stand up to our critics. If you’re gay, you’ll eventually find someone who goes out of their way to tell you your leading a sinful life. If you’re a woman and feel that the patriarchy is why you’re paid less, an economist will eventually lecture you on why that’s wrong. Infantilizing people doesn’t help them. The world is tough, and you need to be rough to survive it. 

However if someone needs a bit more time before they go out and face that world, is it wrong to provide a safe place for them until they feel ready? If I want to make a controversial remark, maybe I shouldn’t do so in the middle of the class. Maybe I should just blog it on NoL.

As always thoughts and comments are always appreciated.