The concept of a “safe space” has dominated the discourse in identity politics for the last several years. Proponents of safe space, mostly left-leaning millennials are now demanding that colleges, schools, corporations, and various other institutions remove potentially offensive or triggering ideas or images that might harm minorities. Much of the time, this leads to hilariously captious nitpicking over things like Halloween costumes and ethnic food. Other times, it leads to what critics (mostly conservatives and libertarians) see as threats to free speech. It has led to violent reactions to opposing candidates, the ridiculous firing of college presidents, and censoring of speakers at universities.
Largely, the conservatives and libertarians are right. College and society as a whole are not and should not be “safe spaces.” Especially in education, one should be exposed to offensive, radically different ideas and world views. The reason free speech and academic freedom exists, as JS Mill argued in On Liberty, is because stifling freedom of expression robs humanity of potentially true ideas in the future. There is a similarity the merits of freedom of speech and entrepreneurship in the market; dissenters with public opinion are essentially ideological entrepreneurs who are discovering better vocabularies and better ways of thinking. If we stifle the free market, we are stuck with the same suboptimal products, services, technologies and methods of production; if we stifle free speech we risk being stuck with the same false ideas.
There is little I can say in defense of free speech on college campuses that hasn’t been said before. How coddling the youth leads to intellectual stagnation, or how tolerance is a two-way street and if we are to tolerate liberal point of views, we should tolerate bigotry. However, there are two points that are too often overlooked in the debate over safe spaces by the right wing critics.
First, the idea that the drive for safe spaces and censorship of ideas is solely a left-wing phenomenon is a complete and total myth. Conservatives like to fashion themselves as the “strong” defenders of free speech and inquiry, and the wimpy leftists as fascists seeking to protect their fragile little feelings. Beyond the fact that these are over-generalizations, it is a fact that conservatism is occasionally as much an enemy to free speech in trying to create “safe spaces” for people who agree with conservative, Christian values as the leftists are in trying to create safe spaces for minorities. I might have selection bias in that I recently left the ultra-conservative Hillsdale College, but there were many comical attempts there to censor ideas of those who disagreed with the college’s overwhelming conservatism; whether it was the administration’s banning of an LGBT group, students protesting a theatrical performance that included gay characters, or the students throwing a fit over the college using Starbucks because their CEO is a liberal. Look no further than some of the policies at colleges like Bob Jones, Patrick Henry, or Liberty University (my mother’s alma mater, for the record) where free speech is regularly suppressed to support conservative propaganda. Or the events which bear an uncanny resemblance to the recent incident at Claremont at William and Mary last decade.
As a further anecdote, I was a co-founder of the Gadfly Group at Hillsdale which sought to intellectually provoke Hillsdale students by promoting non-conservative political and philosophical viewpoints. One day, the president of the college (Dr. Larry Arnn) flat out told me and the group’s main founder that he didn’t think the group should or needed to exist on campus. While we were forming, at least according to Arnn, one of the deans had attempted to stop our approval by the administration (though, thankfully, the provost disagreed). After the group’s formation, though we had a number of popular events and many of the students were supportive of us, many students ridiculed us as “pseudo-intellectuals” engaging in “intellectual masturbation” (actual words said to me), calling us “angry libertarians” (even though I was the only libertarian in the group and we did events on people like Rawls), and some students were extremely offended by our presence and said the group should be banned. If that’s not evidence of right-wing censorship on college campuses, I don’t know what is. It’s enough that I’d consider writing a book in the spirit of Buckley entitled Ubermensch and Man at Hillsdale College.
Second, despite the problems with safe spaces when applied to macro level social institutions, freedom of association is consistent with a limited concept of safe spaces when applied to micro level social organizations. Though I detest their means, I do sympathize with many of the ends of these so-called “social justice warriors.” I am a liberal in the Rortian sense that I think cruelty is the worst thing you can do, and much of this attempt to create “safe spaces” is an attempt to what they perceive reduce cruelty to minority groups. Of course, they take it way too far in complaints about cultural appropriation which are not cruel to anyone, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that safe spaces are a potentially useful construct if done correctly.
The biggest problem that the Social Justice Warriors commit is a problem that Hayek pointed out so eloquently in The Fatal Conceit. As Hayek points out, modern man exists in “two worlds at once.” One, we live in the micro-level war world of intimate social relations such as families, immediate communities, and friends. (The type of people who are included in Dunbar’s number.) But we also exist in the “extended order,” the macro-level relationships that include humans we interact with and know, but only distantly; like trading partners in a large market, other citizens of a nation, or other members of our larger culture. Hayek’s writings on this are worth quoting at length:
Moreover the structures of the extended order are made up not only of individuals but also of many, often overlapping, sub-orders within which old instinctual responses, such as solidarity and altruism, continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended order. Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to liver simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed rules of the micro-cosmos (ie., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once. (Bold mine, Italics his)
Those who would seek to create a safe space out of the entire university or society at large are applying the rules of our macro-cosmos to our micro-cosmos. The idea that we should not bring up certain topics or ideas in certain social situations out of considerations for our fellow human beings is the truth behind the safe space. But to apply that principle to every social situation within a university or nation is a huge mistake. Safe spaces make sense for some of those overlapping sub-orders and micro-level organizations, but not for the extended order of society. So while it is a huge mistake and assault to make a safe space out of an entire college campus, perhaps it is reasonable to make safe spaces out of a dorm room, or a professor’s office, or a meeting for a student group. While it is obviously a huge act of the most heinous form of censorship to ban people from questioning the morality of homosexuality, perhaps it makes sense to not bring up that topic at a college GSA meeting where many of the LGBT students are just seeking a place to belong, or when talking to a group of LGBT students who are facing severe psychological issues while being discriminated against.
If you think applying the concept of safe spaces everywhere and anywhere is always wrong, you’re probably apt to attack me for being “politically correct” for defending the concept in some situations. I agree, we shouldn’t be “politically correct” in the way that term is typically used, but perhaps we should be decent human beings and allow people to freely associate.