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.

Gun control and ethical consciousness

When we talk about gun control and assault weapon bans, should we talk about controlling the weapons themselves, or should we talk about the ethical weight of having access to such weaponry and the implications of that weight? The national dialog certainly has been focused on the former, but I believe that the latter is far more important a thing to address.

Our right to bear arms has become a label we use for what should be called our desire to bear arms, and it is this desire that we need to discuss. It is this desire and the ethical consequences of it that have to be brought forward into the national dialog. It cannot be denied that the United States is deep in the throes of a passionate, sordid love affair with firepower. We are drenched in the post-coitus scent of black powder, molten lead, hot brass. Our language in the debate is not logical nor reasonable but passionate and fiery: the rhetoric of lovers afraid of losing each other, afraid of admitting what they have. Other countries can see the lust for weapons in our dialog, our media, our attitudes.

Before I go any further, I should say that I am not promoting a ban on anything. In fact, because my position is that we are not having the proper discussion about weapons, I am against the discussion on banning anything. I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem. We tried to ban alcohol: it didn’t work. We’re trying to ban drugs: that’s not working. My parents tried to tell me to not have sex with anyone in the house when I was a teenager: that certainly didn’t work. None of these things work because none of them address the issue at hand (hedonism, addiction, hormones). And the issue at hand in the gun debate should be around our responsibilities as they relate to owning weapons, the ethics implied by the second amendment.

For instance, I have a right to stand in a crowded plaza and say “Bomb!” because the first amendment grants me the right to free speech. However, it would be right for someone to hold me responsible for the damage that declaration might cause because my right to free speech also leaves me responsible for what I say and the results of those utterances. The same should hold true regarding the second amendment.

I have a right to purchase, own, and fire a weapon. However, I also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that my weapon is not used to harm others. I think most folks who are pro-gun would agree with this, and I’m glad of that. Responsible gun ownership is one of the hallmarks and cornerstones of the second amendment. Fine. Let’s not argue that here.

Looking back at the first amendment again. Imagine that I know or can deduce that someone is about to shout “Bomb” in a crowded plaza and cause an unmitigated panic in which surely a number of people will be trampled to death. Imagine I have the power to keep that from happening by simply taking away that person’s power of speech. Does my foreknowledge of that person’s action give me an ethical responsibility to stop him? Are that person’s first amendment rights being violated if I do so? These are the kinds of questions that are not easy but have to be asked of ourselves in terms of our “rights” as granted by the United States Constitution.

So how does this thought experiment apply to the second amendment? Surely we can recognize that the right to bear arms comes also with a responsibility to ensure that those arms are born in an ethical and safe manner. A manner in which violence does not come to those who are innocent. If you exercise your right to carry a weapon, then you tacitly agree to the ethical responsibility that comes with that weapon. It must be so, because otherwise we are giving ourselves over to the idea that the right to power also gives us the right to hold power over and disregard others, and surely that’s not what is meant by the second amendment.

While we debate about what is or is not an assault rifle or even if that’s a term that makes any legal sense; while we try to find “compromise” about how many bullets in a magazine is too many or few; while we spin our wheels trying to ban or not ban a variety of weapons, we are missing the point altogether. Banning a weapon does not free us of the shared ethical responsibility of how weapons are used any more than controlling the time manner and place of speech frees us from the responsibility we must bear if our speech causes harm. We are not able to see this clearly, however.

We are in love with firepower. Love has blinded us to the responsibility inherent in having access to that firepower. Blinded us so deeply and assuredly that the deaths of hundreds of people in either accidental or deliberate acts of gun violence has become nothing more to us than statistics we can compartmentalize for the sake of a pro or con stake in the national argument. We are so in love with firepower that the death of a child means less to us than the debate about how many bullets is too many or whether “assault rifle” is a real term.

Because as a nation we are granted the right to bear arms by the second amendment, we as a nation have also tacitly agreed to shoulder the ethical burden of that amendment. We know this because we live in a civilized society, not an anarchistic state. By exercising this right, we acknowledge our adherence to the laws and morality around that right. Just as in speech, driving a car, growing our own food, owning the rights to land, etc.

The debate about our love of firepower and our ethical responsibilities must begin and the argument over which component of what weapon will be regulated must stop. Only by acknowledging our responsibility for the safety of ourselves and each other can we begin to find a way to eliminate the innocent deaths caused by this love affair we have with weapons.