Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Free Speech and Safe Spaces

Safety is a loaded word. It speaks of an absence of danger, unthreatened. Safety is something we're consumed with in the US - probably to far too high a degree. What we've done, then, is expand the definition of "safe" to include freedom from discomfort - but "safe" and "comfortable" are two very different things - ask anyone who's spent time in a fallout shelter or apocalypse bunker.

What we've taken to heart is the notion that we're unsafe if we're uncomfortable, and that's bad for a whole lot of reasons. Discomfort is good. Very good. It's the only way we change or grow - it's why you can boil a frog if you change the temperature gradually. Discomfort makes us evaluate who we are and where we are and why we are. Discomfort is precisely why we go to college; you can't learn anything without it.

The "safe space" mindset is not unique to college campuses, but it is where you hear it bandied about most often. A safe space is not really what a college campus wants to provide (well, I'm sure some do, but that's more to keep students happy than to really teach them anything). Colleges want to provide a place of respect. Academia is a world of ideas, but it only functions if those espousing the ideas respect one another (even in disagreement).

Milo whateverhisnameis, the alt-right firebrand gets a lot of press for protests and instigation - recently his appearance at UC-Berkeley was cancelled due to damage and danger from those opposing him. The vitriol is not entirely because of his ideas, but also in the way he presents them. He's an antagonist. The medium is literally his message - berating and insulting those people and groups he dislikes or with whom he disagrees.

This is why it's NOT a free speech issue. Free speech is a public right - Yiannopoulos should be able to say whatever he wants (within the established legal framework) without fear of reprisal. Of course, that guarantee is that the government won't act against him for his words; it does nothing to restrain organizations or institutions. Free speech will get you barred from all kinds of places, jobs, and relationships. Those are the consequences of free speech.

Universities and self-congratulating progressives alike are big fans of free speech, but it really becomes a useless tool without respect. I'm sure there's some adequate short-term catharsis for those who get to express their anger and vitriol in stress-relieving ways - and lots of people make money off anger - but it doesn't actually serve a purpose in society without respect.

So, when the members of a community, like UC-Berkeley, for instance, say loudly that they don't want a certain type of speech on campus, it's the schools' job, as an institution of learning (and thus challenge) to go out of its way to defend even what might be termed "unsafe" speech. However, the same community is entirely within its rights to mandate decorum and respect for those given the privilege of addressing the community. It has to work both ways.

Speech is inherently dangerous. Any opinion I give is an opinion. In an age where people can't even agree on facts, opinions are shaky ground. speaking out publicly is vital and terrifying - but it has to be done in relationship, whether one-on-one in a conversation or within a community. For that, there are rules - even if they're unwritten. Even if your opponent has done horrible things, you still need to treat her like a human being who's done horrible things, not as the embodiment of those horrible things.

What happens, then, if my opinion is that you're worthless; if the free speech I am exercising is that you are, in fact, not worthy or deserving of respect? That's the dilemma. Typically, the whole purpose of these antagonists is to point out the hypocritical moral problem that comes from denouncing someone for denouncing someone. It's an insensitive piece of performance art against which there is no real rebuttal. It's a lose-lost proposition.

Unless, of course, a community is committed to community, to respect. A guest speaker does not show up willy-nilly and take the stage. There are negotiations; a relationship is constructed. If both parties cannot agree to the ground rules, there is no way to proceed. In these instances of real conflict, generally both sides are at fault; each fails to meet the other in the middle and we end up with chaos.

To me, the middle ground in any relationship must be respect. Even if I decide you're unworthy of it, I must still give it, or there's no point to anything. It is this sacrifice, inherently dangerous, uncomfortable, "unsafe," that allows us to be challenged, shaped, and changed. You won't like it - no one does - but it's all we've got, unfair as that might be.

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