Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The world is not your "safe space," and isolation from dissenting views is not your right

(note: this post is part of a series on why feminism should embrace the clash of ideas. It can be read in isolation, but would probably be more thoroughly understood in context. Go here for hyperlinks to all posts in this series)

Feminist Argument #4: “Open debate between privileged and underprivileged participants furthers oppression, because it inevitably leads to one side saying things which prop up the patriarchy. Worse yet, open debate risks triggering people who may have deeply personal or traumatic experiences with the subject at hand. For these reasons, open debate is unacceptable in feminist communities, which should instead prioritize the preservation of “safe spaces” for oppressed peoples. These communities should only welcome debate if it takes place under a set of restrictive terms and conditions designed to prevent or minimize these effects.”

To clarify, if your position is merely that debate is more appropriate in some times, places and manners than it is in others, I wholeheartedly agree. The Facebook status of a woman announcing she was raped as a child is probably not that time or place. Personal attacks with blatantly sexist insults are not the manner. Similarly, online groups designed specifically as support agencies for people who have experienced genuine traumas in their life should not be hijacked by people who don’t meet that description. And any group that deliberately and preemptively limits themselves to a certain demographic, so as to designate a _____-only zone of discussion for the purpose of strategizing or commiserating, is also cool (provided that is made clear from the outset).

What I’m objecting to in this rebuttal is the growing practice of broadening the bubble of protected “safe spaces” to include those areas in which feminists preach feminism to the general public. This includes entire college campuses, conferences or speaking events at which gender issues are discussed, and open online groups designed to “educate” about the feminist cause. It is related to the requirement that trigger warnings be affixed to damn near everything, which I will address in a later post. It’s why my university peers threw a temper tantrum when a pro-life group dared to be pro-life in their presence. Basically, it’s the extension of the hypersensitivity one might expect at a rape clinic or PTSD counseling session to cover the entire universe, on the basis that every individual with an opinion has an obligation to present it (or not) in a manner that is “emotionally safe” for those the left has designated as amply oppressed.

This is more extreme version of argument #4 is complete bullshit, and I want to denounce it in no uncertain terms.

Our conference organizer from earlier justified one such set of community guidelines this way: [emphasis original, not mine]

I’m…okay with using our power as conference organizers to potentially censor content or behavior that is harmful to a subset of our community. I’ll say it again in another way: I don’t believe that censorship is in and of itself a bad thing because freedom of expression is not an unlimited right

censorship also prevents harm from being done to vulnerable populations…We censor children’s access to pornography so that they have less of a chance to witness sexual material before they are ready for it. We censor hate speech. We censor certain incitements to violence and crime. We (hopefully) self-censor too, for a lot of good reasons: so that we don’t hit our kids or tell our co-workers to go fuck themselves when we’re having a bad day.

Part of being a mature and responsible adult is knowing when freedom of expression should be limited and censorship is appropriate”

Another part of being a mature and responsible adult is not conflating wildly different things in an attempt to normalize what is really a pretty abnormal position. Concealing pornography from children – or simply refraining from beating them! – is in no way shape or form analogous to censoring dissent. Although it is true all three activities are designed to prevent “harm”, the type of harm which a seven year old experiences when s/he is beaten or made to watch two-girls-one-cup is so far removed from the type a woman experiences when a man tells her she’s wrong that surely, in a vocabulary vast enough to include the word “incitements”, those “harms” might have warranted distinct descriptions.

But let’s humor this and go a little further; what ought these community guidelines to be, according to feminists? How is it that people who disagree with a feminist are supposed to go about interacting with them in the appropriate way, so as to ensure they don’t “further oppression”? One particularly obnoxious group member on the Hopkins Feminists’ page proposed a series of rules governing the groups discourse. I have pasted my favorite six in italics below:

1. “members of an oppressed group are not immune from furthering the oppression of members of that same group, but these discussions should by and large be left in the hands of members of that group.”

Well, how convenient. You know, as a libertarian, I think people who smoke marijuana are being oppressed by the government. If I could limit the discussions surrounding marijuana to those people who smoke it, I imagine my opinions would come out on top in those discussions every time. But I can’t do that, because to leave debates about important issues in the hands of people who already agree with me is to not have any debate at all.


2. “Remove people from the space who refuse to be called out or insist on upholding oppression. These people may be educated or informed by group members, but not in a public space that touts itself as safe for marginalized peoples.”

What is and is not “upholding oppression” is an opinion. Educated and informed people can and do disagree on what counts as oppression. To remove those who dare to disagree with you from the discussion, and thus insulate all group members from their dissent, is censorship plain and simple.

3. “Defer to the members of the oppressed group. You may ask for follow up questions, but members of oppressed groups are not obligated to educate you.”

And I am not obligated to agree with them, nor to shut up just because they disagree with me. Believe it or not, it is possible for a member of an oppressed group and the member of the empowered group to get into a disagreement about a thing in which the member of the empowered group is correct.

4. “Approach the subject with the intention to learn, rather than to debate the group whose oppression you are complicit in.”

As I explained in my second rebuttal, I find it ridiculous to categorize “learning” and “debate” as two mutually exclusive things. If anything, I think they are one and the same. If person 1 holds opinion X, and person 2 holds contradictory opinion Y, and opinion X is tru, person 2 can only ever come to realize that through comparison with the ideas of person 1 – in a process we normally call DEBATE! We can only learn if we debate open-mindedly, of course, but we can never learn if we aren’t permitted to present our qualms or misunderstandings.

5. “You…should just apologize and be grateful for the knowledge that will enable you to further your efforts as a feminist.”

Read: you should just assume the other person is right, and you are wrong, without having actually ever been convinced of it. Well, no. Being an oppressed woman does not relieve you of the burden of substantiating your truth claims. If you can’t convince me of your opinion through reason and logic, I will not just concede you are right just because you’re female, and it is preposterous to assume anyone would. And feminists wonder why progress is so slow? Any ideology that expects those who do not already ascribe to it to apologize outright is in for a rude awakening.

6. “Do not police the feelings and experiences of oppressed people. Do not expect people to behave politely towards people who are oppressing them. This is silencing and detracts from their right to contribute to spaces that should be dedicated to their empowerment.”

So, let me get this straight. Person A and Person B disagree about something. Person A has less privilege, on net, than Person B. This incidental stroke of fate means, according to feminists, that Person A can say whatever they like to Person B, no matter how offensive. They can scream, they can hurl obscenities, they can levy personal attacks, and they are freed from the necessity of making any sense as they do so, because they have a right to free expression and find it empowering. Any objection from Person B should be decried as “tone policing”. Any emotional reaction this produces in Person B should be scorned as making the discussion “all about them.” Any psychological distress this creates in Person B should be ignored or even ridiculed. In fact, Person B should be grateful for the knowledge which Person A’s obscenity laden rants have provided them.

Meanwhile, the only thing Person B needs to do to get removed from the group is express any opinion to which Person A objects. When this happens, the simple fact that Person A has objected is expected to change Person B’s mind, and produce an immediate, unquestioning apology.

I yearn for a feminism that was about eliminating double standards between men and women, as opposed to erecting more.

As I qualified earlier, safe spaces from which the public at large are preemptively excluded are one thing. But if you hope to spread your ideology by presenting it to an audience that includes those who don’t already agree with every word (as you should!!!), you cannot cry oppression when people mention that they don’t agree with every word. Pointing out the fallacies in your argument is not the same as oppressing you, nor of furthering your oppression at the hands of others.


You can call me privileged until you’re blue in the face, but I will never accept the idea that members of oppressed classes are just too oppressed to handle being presented with ideas they disagree with. And if they are, I sympathetically but wholeheartedly encourage them to do everything in their power to get over it, because that feature of a free society which ensures they will encounter ideas they don’t like is one we absolutely must not abandon.

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