The necessary evolution of “Safe Space” in order to improve discourse

The concept of “Safe Space” needs to be evolved to ensure that ideas are heard in full, to ensure that people are protected from attacks because of their ideas, and to make it clear that ideas are not protected from counter arguments free from ad hominem attacks.

Before I get too far into this, I want to make note of the fact that I’m aware that my thoughts on this topic are likely to upset somebody. I’m okay with that. It’s part of the process of discussion. Without negative reaction to opinions, we exist in an echo chamber. One of the problems with discourse in this country is the existence of and heavy reliance on echo chambers to enhance ideas without actually subjecting them to rational discourse. So. All of that being said, I think that the meaning and implementation of “Safe Space” needs to be adjusted so that meaningful discourse can be had about issues that affect us.

What we have ended up accomplishing as a nation is — for each faction — interpreted the First Amendment to protect the speech we agree with, but not the speech of dissent. Conservatives look to drown out Liberal ideas, and Liberals do the same to Conservatives. Economic issues are pitted against racial injustice, and men’s issues become the polar opposite to feminism (they’re not). Rather than be willing to recognize everyone’s speech as protected, we seek to diminish the speech of others without actually listening to what they have to say. Consequently, the arguments lose the plot and become focused on the semantics of arguing rather than the topic of discussion. Additionally, the unwillingness to listen to others and the resulting feeling of not being heard contribute to deeper divisions between what, in many cases, are not polar opposite viewpoints, but nuanced facets of shared problems.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees protection of speech and religion, so this argumentative discourse and shouting match is both constitutionally and legally protected. What the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee is the right to be heard. This is interesting because the act of speaking implies that there is a resultant act of listening. That’s what speaking is, what language is. It is a communicative act that transmits ideas through common symbols or sounds to a receiver. But what if nobody is receiving? One of the most effective ways of overcoming speech is to not listen to it, and this has become a common refrain: “If you don’t like it, don’t listen.” But if nobody is listening, then nobody is speaking.

It was understood by implication that free speech in a democratic society is speech that is allowed as part of a public discourse, and it is in this spirit that I believe the First Amendment applies. As citizens of the United States, we are free to proclaim our opinions on any topic imaginable, and in most cases those opinions cannot be used to imprison or otherwise curtail us. There are certain precedents and nuances here, of course. If speech incite violent acts, or in cases of slander and libel someone’s reputation is harmed or life is threatened, the speaker can be held liable. Those moments notwithstanding, we can pretty much say what we want. And we do.

So what does this have to do with “safe spaces”? In current practice, a safe space is a zone established where opinions are not challenged. It’s usually a phrase used be Liberals or their allies, and often appears on college campuses. It’s a place where a conversation can be fostered without fear of negativity, reprisals, or arguments. It’s also a place free from insults, slander, and violence. Some people see safe spaces as having great value in terms of counseling, group therapy, school assemblies, and social work: people sometimes need to be assured that what they say will not come back to harm them. Others see them as a place that can be used to foster echo chambers, to isolate opinions from counter arguments, and further entrench erroneous or naive ideas. To me, they represent both.

The kind of discourse that our nation has devolved into using is what has prompted the increase —as I see it — call for safe spaces. We have transformed the First Amendment into a protection of argumentative insults and interruptions rather than a protection of reasoned discourse where people’s ideas are heard and discussed on their merits. Creating safe spaces that keep this from happening aren’t doing us any favors, though. The safe space simply removes the harmful elements from the conversation but doesn’t outwardly make clear that dissenting opinions are welcome. Maybe some spaces do welcome dissent, but certainly that’s not the impression created with their creation.

I would like to see it established very clearly that a safe space is a place where people are safe from insulting language, personal attacks, and degradation. I would like to see it stated that a safe space is a place where people’s ideas are heard on their merit, rather than shut down or shouted over. In a civil society, there should be no need for such a protection, but that’s where we are right now. I do not believe a safe space should protect people from opposing viewpoints and challenges to their beliefs. People should be willing to accept that their belief systems will be questioned. They should feel safe that they will not be personally assaulted for their beliefs, but nothing should be considered sacrosanct.

This is not to say that there shouldn’t be times when people of a like mind can get together and reinforce their ideas and beliefs without challenge. We need to be around people who share our opinions, and there needs to be time for those opinions to be fostered. Private meetings, faith-based meetings, rallies, and other gatherings of like-minded people should have a reasonable expectation of isolation and freedom to develop their shared ideas. Once in public, those ideas should be allowed to be expressed. And once expressed, those ideas are open to discussion, counter arguments, and debate.

In short, then, I think the idea of safe space needs to be evolved into one that provides for the safe dissemination and receipt of ideas with assurances that people are safe from insult and attempts at blocking their speech. Private meetings with like-minded people should be protected from interruption and harassment because we all need to be recharged with people who share our beliefs and ideas.

Practically speaking, an implementation of this recommendation would involve pundits on network and cable news being replaced by experts with opposing or counter viewpoints. It would involve open debates on campuses where issues are presented in a moderated format and discussion remains civil. It would involve that each community welcome all opinions about political, social, and economic ideas without ridiculing the person delivering those ideas. It would involve Facebook friends not blocking each other for opposing viewpoints. It would involve each of us examining our own opinions and beliefs in light of opposing viewpoints that we’ve heard. It would involve humility and destruction of ego in the face of other people’s ideas. Most of all, it would require empathy: the ability to truly understand somebody else’s viewpoint and how our own beliefs may be impacting that other person.

Electoral college redesign proposal

Designed to ensure that urban centers didn’t have an unequal voice in the election of the president of the United States and that the president was elected by states not people, the Electoral College bears some re-examination in light of contemporary society.

Under the United States Constitution, the office of president was not intended to represent the people, but rather be a representative of the republic itself. The voice of the people is established in the House of Representatives and to a lesser degree the U.S. Senate. To that end, the electoral college was created as a compromise as part of Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, the states were left to their own devices as to the manner in which electors for president were chosen.

To be clear, when we vote for president, we are not voting for the person, but are in actuality voting for the electors who will then cast their vote for the person. In the same way that we vote for senators and representatives who cast their vote on our behalves regarding laws, budget, etc.

The problem with this method is that as the country has gotten larger, as the issues have become more complex,  the president has been looked at as a caretaker of the nation’s intentions and potential and the bi-party political system that is embedded in our process isn’t allowing for the wide spectrum of needs. Because of this, there is — and has been — a loud cry for a popular vote to elect president.

That might seem like the right answer, but in that case, control of the office would go to the largest population centers which systemically have different needs than the rest of the country. In this election, data shows that the majority of people in rural America do not feel that Clinton is the right person for the job. A popular vote would essentially eliminate their voices. It’s not democracy if it’s oppression by the majority (Madison, Federalist Papers No. 10).

Here’s what I am thinking about:

  1. Make all primaries open and non-party specific. Change them all to direct election rather than caucuses. Don’t let the political parties control primaries, let the primaries stem from the number of candidates. Allow the primaries to the opportunity to winnow the entire field, not just the candidates from major parties.
  2. Allow all winners of primaries to take part in national debates for president. Again, remove the influence of political parties. Let everyone debate so that the public is better informed.
  3. Make electoral votes in each state proportional (like Maine does, for instance).This ensures that dissenting voices are heard and that the electoral votes more accurately represent the people without giving complete control to large population centers. Each state would maintain the number of electoral votes (number of senators plus the number of representatives). The percent a candidate gets is the percent of the electoral votes they receive.
  4. If no majority of the electoral votes is received by any candidate, the process would work as today.

As I’ve thought this through, I believe that we would see the following results:

  1. We would have a greater participation in the primary process.
  2. Party politics would have less of an effect on selection of candidates, thus also improving voter turnout.
  3. Third-party candidates would be given the voices they deserve in a democracy.
  4. We maintain the balance between rural and urban needs that the electoral college maintains, while also making individual votes matter more.
  5. We begin to erode the idea of “blue” and “red” states and binary thinking in general and our government becomes more representative of the actual population rather than political parties.

As a designer and systems philosopher, while I understand the need for a re-vamped electoral process, I think we cannot afford to just delete something we don’t like. We need to understand why it doesn’t work and for whom, how it can be made better, and move forward with an attitude of experimentation in order to truly fix it.

Lastly, I cannot stress enough the need for voter turnout to increase especially in the non-presidential cycle. The Constitution grants that the House and Senate are the direct voices of the people. They are our tools for keeping an unpopular president in check. While I believe that the electoral college can and should be redesigned, it won’t make things better if we don’t participate where it matters.

What do you think?