The Dangerous Seductiveness of Safety

human-592734_640How are differences to be resolved? How are people to account for the fact that their experiences are not the same, that they have different identities, and that they often hold divergent beliefs? How do people live peacefully in a pluralistic world?

Although the answers to such questions are certainly difficult and may never be fully resolved, humankind must wrestle with them nevertheless. Indeed, 2015 has seen a large amount of activity related to the questions raised by plurality. For example, there was the incident at Yale where students called for the resignation of Erika and Nicholas Christakis, who were the masters of a residential college at Yale, after Erika sent an email arguing for open mindedness and discussion about the use of potentially offensive costumes at Halloween. She thought that it would perhaps be best for students to learn to resolve such issues for themselves, rather than to call upon administrators to intervene. This, according to some students, was irresponsible of her, as the Christakis were supposed to be creating a “home” for students, not an “intellectual space.” Since then, Erika Christaki has chosen to stop teaching.

Similarly, there was the debate sparked by the growing prevalence of trigger warnings. For example, the student government at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution this year calling for the use of trigger warnings on material involving racism, sexism, classism, cissexism, and a number of other issues. These warnings would be placed on books such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which touch on problems of identity. Other universities have also passed resolutions. Although it is hard to point to one example as the cause, the use and perhaps abuse of trigger warnings have sparked outrage, praise, and debate in the last year.

These examples seem to reflect the current attitudes of students regarding the question of how differences are to be resolved. The current consensus has been to delegate the search for a solution to those in authority. While much has been written this year about the role of colleges and universities in society, the dangers of trigger warnings, the need for safety, many of arguments presented fail to take into account the methods of argumentation and the philosophical premises underlying such protests. Particularly, they often fail to recognize that delegating problem solving to administrators is not a sustainable solution, as my generation will eventually have to work out such issues on its own.

For example, Kate Manne, an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell, argued in her defense of trigger warnings “Why I Use Trigger Warnings” that warnings are intended to help students ready themselves for difficult content, not to allow them to avoid it. However, this may not necessarily be how students expect or want trigger warnings to be used. Some students certainly face struggles due to traumatic experiences, and they should be helped, but this doesn’t mean that students won’t use trigger warnings to avoid things that they think will invalidate their experiences, beliefs, or identities.

In the article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argue that trigger warnings tend toward the desire to avoid confrontation with difficult ideas, creating insulated, sheltered students. Rather than help students face their fears, trigger warnings prevent students from overcoming them. Ideas can be threatening, they argue, and the generation currently coming into higher education has been taught that adults are supposed to protect them from dangerous things. Students today have not learned to protect themselves, so they turn to school administrators for safety.

This certainly seems to have been the case at Yale. As one student screamed in a viral video, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here.” But which is safer: a community within which it is okay to ask questions, to disagree with popular or dominant ideas, and in which disagreement is based on rational arguments rather than on ad hominem attacks on the identities of others, or a community within which only approved beliefs can be held, where disagreements are resolved through the use of force, whether that of an administrator or of social ostracism, rather than through rational discourse? I can imagine no safer place than one where disagreements are resolved through discourse rather than force.

In his article “The New Intolerance of Student Activism” about the situation at Yale, Conor Friedersdorf says:

Watching footage of that meeting, a fundamental disagreement is revealed between professor and undergrads. Christakis believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.

Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement.

Given this set of assumptions, perhaps it is no surprise that the students behave like bullies even as they see themselves as victims. This is most vividly illustrated in a video clip that begins with one student saying, “Walk away, he doesn’t deserve to be listened to.”

Moreover, this sounds strikingly similar to the “culture of repudiation” that the philosopher Roger Scruton criticizes in his book Culture Counts. Such a culture, Scruton argues, aims not at knowledge, but at the destruction of the vessel in which unwanted knowledge has been contained. This culture works by ignoring the arguments and focusing on the arguer. It treats truth as something merely pragmatic; it acts as though arguments cannot be made for any reason other than the oppression of dissenters. Therefore, feminists need not address someone’s argument that fetuses have a right to life due to their humanity, but merely need to point out the opponent is a man; African Americans need not address criticisms of materialism, misogyny, or glorification of violence made by a white critic of hip hop culture, but merely need to point out that the critic is white. Essentially, this philosophy provides minorities with the ability discredit the majority, which can be used to counter social evils, but it also eliminates the possibility for discourse or rational discussion, leaving force as the only way to reconcile differences.

In our culture today, we view tolerance as an end in itself. It is often heralded as the ultimate answer to the problems of plurality. However, tolerance does not work well as an end in itself. When tolerance is pursued on its own, tolerance is not the result. In practical experience, it seem to be the case that when everything is to be accepted, anyone who rejects anything is rejected. Thus the pursuit of tolerance as an end has not led to tolerance, but to censorship, ostracism, and intolerance. Looking at what has happened in colleges around the US this year, this certainly seems to be the case. And this is the dangerous seductiveness of safety: that we destroy the very thing we seek by pursuing it too wholeheartedly.

However, the fact that tolerance does not work as an end does not mean that we can never have a tolerant society. Instead, it means that tolerance must be the byproduct of something else which is pursued for its own sake. We can create a tolerant society only by treating our fellow human beings as human beings. But what does it mean to treat someone as a human being? Western culture actually has an excellent solution to this problem in its very roots. Aristotle identified rationality as man’s defining characteristic. It alone separates us from all other creatures, as other creatures also have desires, feelings, bodies, life, and so forth. To treat people as human beings is to treat them as rational creatures.

Of course, it could be argued that despite the prevalence of Aristotelian thought, western culture has never been peaceful. This is true, but western culture has always been warlike insofar as Aristotle’s conception of humankind hasn’t been realized. It is not because of Aristotle, but despite Aristotle, that western culture has failed to treat people fully as human beings.

When people treat each other as rational creatures, differences can be reconciled. This defining, uniting characteristic of our humanity allows us to treat each other as equals regardless of whatever other differences we may have. Is blackness really such a defining characteristic that a white person like me cannot have anything to say to a black person? Or is our common humanity enough to enable us to move beyond our differences? Is femininity so different from masculinity that a man like me cannot contribute to discourse on the plight of women? Or is our common humanity capable of taking us beyond such divisions?

Unfortunately, those who disagree with my observations and arguments will likely argue that I cannot contribute to the discussion of this issue because of my identity. After all, I am a middle class white male. However, such a response does not show that my arguments are invalid. In fact, it says nothing about my reasoning. It says only that I should be ignored because of who I am. If you believe that people should not be ignored based upon their identities, then this should seem problematic. Only by recognizing our common humanity can we ever solve the problems raised by plurality.

Discussion — One Response