Free Speech and Safe Space

Posted on September 22, 2016 by


I’ve debated for a little while about whether or not to write about the ongoing cultural discussion on “free speech” and “safe space” protections on campuses. Of course, this seems a large and timely topic, given the presence of the University of Chicago letter. (I will come to the Chicago letter a bit late in the post, but that is partly because the goal here is to spend time carving up the intellectual territory.)

The putative dialectic

The contemporary discussion of academic culture is reported to be a sort of ideological debate between a libertarian/quasi-conservative/free-speech-oriented right and a liberal/student-centered/sympathy-motivated left. On the one hand, “the left” is supposed to argue that universities aspire to be ethically salient and self-aware environments where the interests and needs of their students (in particular, the interests of minority groups of students which aren’t treated respectfully in mainstream culture) are taken seriously as an ethical value. On the other hand, “the right “is supposed to argue that the value of free speech is central to academic life and must be respected, even when it may cause emotional distress or create hostility amongst students.

I won’t say that there aren’t plenty of folks arguing this way about the issue; certainly there are. Popular cultural discussion often consists largely of rehashing this dialectic. It is the cable news, consumer ready narrative; it comes in various strengths (e.g. those on the right might be fascists or merely insensitive cretins; those on the left might be coddled pseudo-intellectual babies or merely misguided dullards) and flavors.

Of course, it is not a very good articulation of the issue; there are a number of subordinate issues on which individual opinions vary. (e.g. Should professors warn their classes about material that might trigger post-traumatic stress responses in some students? Should universities provide platforms to those with ideas that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or transmisogynistic? How do the details of particular cases impact these considerations?)

Facts ought to matter

In ideologically motivated discussions, and this certainly qualifies, the facts of a given case often don’t matter to the various interlocutors. Many of those engaged in the putative dialectic I have outlined above don’t take into consideration the facts of particular cases. I’m of the radical view that someone unresponsive to facts on matters of policy isn’t of any serious interest beyond the mere social fact that they exist and are venting hot air.

The University of Chicago letter is a good illustration of a case where the facts matter. The letter includes the following passage:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Does this mean that a professor teaching a course with material that includes explicit and graphic depictions of rape is precluded from warning her students of the material before its presented? Does this mean that a student organization (e.g. a support group for LGBT students) is unable to set policy that would exclude homophobic students from disrupting their meetings with chants of “Leviticus 18:22” or similar fare?

I suspect the answer is, “Of course not! We wouldn’t condone those sorts of things!” (I should say, I hope that is the answer.) To simply be a hardliner without respect to the conditions under which the safe spaces or trigger warnings are utilized is to take a position without any factual consideration of the thing your position is about. (But, then again, welcome to the cable news approach to dialectic-crafting.)

In much of the discussion, terms like “safe space,” “free speech,” “trigger warning,” etc. are used without respect for their reference; they’re just buzzwords to set off ideologically different folks even (and especially) when direct consideration of a given case might yield a much more productive conversation.

e.g. I’m fairly sympathetic to the use of trigger warnings in circumstances dealing with violence, mental illness, etc. but oppose the no platforming of people like Germaine Greer and Christina Hoff Sommers after they’ve been invited to speak. (Of course, I’m also of the view that neither of them has much of interest to say, and therefore there’s little warrant for inviting them in the first place, but that’s a separate issue altogether.)

The absence of self-criticism in both positions

One principle point of criticism coming from the right is that, in pursuit of a tolerant and pluralistic environment, those who advocate for safe spaces and the like restrict the views of those they consider inappropriate. This is, in some practical cases, a worthwhile consideration. Just because a given professor is a neo-fascist, racist, anti-semitic, intellectually bankrupt charlatan doesn’t mean that their view should be blocked out; though it does mean that I’m likely not to spend very much time listening to it, when I have more intellectually serious people worth engaging. The individual has a right to express their position among the plurality of available views.

I am, despite the obvious sarcasm, somewhat sympathetic to this criticism.

On the other hand, those advocating “free speech” and opposing “political correctness” often lament the characterization of their various views as (e.g.) neo-fascist, racist, anti-semitic, intellectually bankrupt, etc. The view is that individuals ought to be able to speak their views on a subject without fear of suppression, but some strong forms of criticism are coercive and suppress that speech. Again, this ideological position is totally incoherent.

Moderate views on these issues tend to have more nuanced approaches to understanding these criticisms, and avoid them by recognizing the inherent tension in the issue. But, again, those tend to be the radical folks concerned with facts.

The antagonist

One of the hallmarks of ideological arguments is to portray the protagonist as struggling against an institution. In both cases, the institution is “the University culture.” Those who advocate for safe spaces suggest that the University is actually still, as a matter of its structure, hostile to historically (and contemporarily) oppressed groups. Those who advocate for free speech suggest that the University is a bastion of liberal values and has blocked out conservative voices.

“Free speech advocates” are right that Universities are more liberal than the mainstream social conversation.

“Safe space advocates” are right that Universities are still far from equitable with regard to representation and treatment of historical oppressed students.

Relative to broader social norms, Universities are liberal. Relative to aspirations of equality in treatment, Universities are oppressive. Neither group is wrong; both are talking past each other on this particular issue. And, in point of fact, neither group is combatting some entrenched and abstract institutional power so much as combatting agents in various positions of power inside and outside of higher education.

But everyone likes to feel like David, carrying some clever analogy as a slingshot, ready to knock down the Goliath they’ve imagined.

-Josh can be found on twitter at @thephilosotroll