We Need Both Safe Spaces AND Philosophically Open Ones

I am answering objections to my comments moderation policy that asks for no insulting language and for slowness to make personal attacks. Familiarity with previous posts should not be necessary for new readers to understand the discussion below, which covers the topic of safe spaces and explains why even though I think they are a great idea, my blog will sometimes not fulfill all of their functions.

Objection 3: We live in a truly fucked up, unjust world in which members of numerous marginalized groups have to cater to the whims and feelings of an unfair majority that in turn abuses them. Even in what purport to be “fair” environments, inevitably the power structures in which “free” debate occurs favors the experiences of members of privileged classes and those with the prejudices taken to be “common sense”. Members of marginalized groups already struggle to find their voice and articulate their experience. It is too onerous to demand that they tip toe around the feelings of the members of groups that oppress them even on putatively progressive blogs that explicitly aim to be friendly to them. They need safe spaces.

They also need room to be around people of shared values and understanding so that they can (a) vent, (b) do the constructive work of socially and emotionally supporting each other, (c) reason together about new issues without having to justify all their basic beliefs, values, or basic humanity all the time, (d) worry about the feelings of those who cause them so much psychic misery in the real world, (e) coordinate political action and social institutions, and (f) avoid their tormenters’ presences.

Reply 3: I agree that safe spaces are a great idea. Not every blog needs to concern itself with all philosophical issues. Not every blog needs to put fundamental values into question. We are entitled to live, think, and write within the assumption of own values at some point in our lives and in some spaces in our lives, without having to go back to square one justifying them all over again, all of the time.

This is especially true for people whose entire lives are forced to be exercises in justification because of ignorant people. They deserve places of refuge where they can think in true categories without interruption for once. It is also true for victims of abuse (whether they are rape survivors or suffer from any manner of systemic injustice at the hands of the culture). They need places that are affirmative of their experience in an unqualified way.

And it would be absurd to ask adherents to every philosophical school or set of values to halt all further inquiries into their beliefs and values and go back to basic justifications every time someone disagrees about basic premises objects. There would be no progress within any paradigms if that were the case. There are places for public sparring and places for likeminded people to think together.

For the last three years, I have given a lot of latitude to the blog’s predominantly atheist audience to vent their frustrations with religious people. Sometimes they have used language that I would think is unproductively hostile for a debating context. I understand the anger and pain that is the source of their epithets and over the top rhetoric and think that, minimally, it is an important stage of feeling and working through their anger that is coming out. This is why even though I think it is better that in public forums viewed by the world that the anger be channeled into constructive arguments and institution building, I have rarely ever chided my blog commenters when they have popped off with a lot of vituperation after a story of abuse or irrationality coming religious people against atheists, gays, women, transgendered people, etc. I will try to rein people in for the sake of consistency and for the sake of making Camels With Hammers a forum where people are nudged to make their anger constructive rather than self-reinforcing.

I still do not think that safe spaces benefit in any specific necessary way from using demeaning language. Those participating in safe spaces can use harsh emotionally charged words against their enemies (words like “bigots” and “misogynists” and “homophobes” and “authoritarians” and “irrational”) or detail the moral or intellectual failings of their opponents in any of a number of highly specific and devastating ways capable of substantiation and rational evaluation by their opponents.

I am at a loss as to what is necessary about calling someone a “douchebag” or “stupid” or an “asshole” that adds anything more to those harsh words except hate and denigration and incivility. I can understand the need to not put up with the bullshit standards of an unjust majority. But why should that include jettisoning the standards of basic civility and not just what is homophobic, racist, religious, misogynistic, transphobic, classist, etc. within it? I will return to answer some reasons given for this in my reply to Objection 7.

There is a danger that any group bound by a shared moral, political, and personal identity becoming self-righteous and hateful. We see this with religions, which are strongly oriented around moral beliefs. I fear it is unhealthy to so demonize one’s opponents that one cannot adhere to any civil restraints in language and characterization of them or interpersonal verbal treatment of them.

I can understand not wanting them around to argue with in safe spaces. I can understand not wanting to defer to their demands for explanations that would derail constructive discussions in new directions. I can understand not wanting them to poison a supportive atmosphere. In short, I can understand wanting to have a blog that is not about debate and in which there is a lot of anger expressed about the out-group. But I do not see the need to also use abusive epithets. So, here, as safe a space in some ways that I want this to be, I am going to draw that line.

This blog is also different from a “safe space” in that I frequently raise questions about fundamental values for philosophical investigation and debate, rather than merely assume them. I often argue passionately in favor of progressive values and my own unique brand of moral realism. But in the comments section people are regularly going to raise fundamental questions that in normal spaces would be offensive or psychotic, but which in a philosophical context have a vital place.

If in everyday life someone told you they didn’t see why slavery or murder were truly wrong, you would rightly be aghast and worry you were dealing with an evil person. In a philosophical debate, where we are trying to rigorously grasp what makes these things wrong and in what ways, or what the ultimate meaning and reality of morality statements are, etc., we can ask and debate those questions in a truly illuminating way.

I can understand if people would get furious if they thought one of our discussions about whether or why murder can be said to be “truly” wrong had the possibility of sending someone to murder people were they not satisfied with the arguments about why it was wrong. But likely no one will murder others based on such philosophical discussions and positively there is a great deal of room for clarifying the wrongness of even obviously heinous things for the insight that that gives us into the nature of morality and its sources of justification, so that we can treat the more unsettled questions with a better understanding.

More realistically, I also take seriously the fact that members of vulnerable groups do not like having their rights discussed as open questions or as academic matters out of the same fear that should those arguing against them leave unconvinced, they may be reinforced in their consequentially dangerous views and practices. But I don’t think that that makes these debates avoidable. If people come in here genuinely unconvinced of my viewpoints and values that make me a progressive and raise what are to a sizable number of people plausible philosophical positions, and all my commenters or I do is personally abuse them or make charges of bigotry and that’s it, I do not see how they leave here any more convinced that we are right. They may leave fearing a social cost for their views. But they also are going to still doubt the moral and rational legitimacy of that social cost and see it as their rival political group’s attempt to bully them emotionally and legally rather than persuade them rationally.

That upsets me. I do not have progressive values because I just feel like having them or just because of my tremendous sympathies for my friends who are members of marginalized groups. I am not a dogmatist who wants to bully people emotionally into agreement or an authoritarian who wants people to be forced by law into submitting to values that their consciences are never rationally persuaded of.

I am wholeheartedly confident in my values and my beliefs about the world because I have developed and scrutinized them rationally. And I am wholeheartedly confident about the value of debate about these values and beliefs because I trust that fair debates, grounded in reason and evidence (including the evidence of harms and emotional effects) and conducted with genuine civility really do lead to a greater understanding of the truth and of justice. I am convinced that if I debate, any incorrect beliefs or values I have can be set straight. (I will address reader concerns about false, silencing appeals to civility which are just in the interest of reinforcing the privilege of the powerful in a future post when I address objection 7.)

I have studied Nietzsche, often intensely, for 13 years in part because he constantly forces me to answer as serious challenges to my values as anyone does. He forces me to refine them and to incorporate all sorts of nuances that make them better, and less susceptible to withering criticism. I also came to think of morality as something legitimately real and binding only by spending years as a rigorous skeptic of the concept until I met, or discovered within myself, arguments that just completely persuaded me of the existence of moral truths.

I have very strong opinions not at all because I am just an emotional, closed-minded, dogmatist but rather because at some point in my life I have vigorously interrogated every major opinion I have for its truth. In many cases, I started out with my emotions completely aligned against it and was won over by the sheer logic of the counter position. So, I am not rationally threatened at all by the presence of people who ask upsetting questions about my fundamental values or fundamental philosophical positions. I know that either my views will withstand the test or be improved by it. And so I welcome philosophically vigorous challengers in my comments section.

This means that even though I argue robustly for the propositions that there are no gods, that there are truths about values, and that progressive values are in many ways superior to competitors, some of my commenters will explore abstractions that could upset people and I will not automatically stop them from doing so. I think this is okay for a philosophy blog and understand if some people don’t read or participate in the comments on that account. I should say this has rarely if ever been a problem that I have been made aware of. But theoretically it could be.

Even though this is an atheist blog, I want religious people to be able to challenge us. When not engaged with religious people, we can talk amongst ourselves of course, but when they show up, they’re welcome to ask philosophically probing questions that might strike us as dishonest and dangerous and offensive, as long as they respect the people here and do not use abusive language or goad members of marginalized groups by being personally dismissive or callous or objectifying or otherwise making a hostile environment for them. Insofar as they stick to ideas and values and arguments, they are welcome to advance controversial lines of thought for debate here. The same goes for non-progressives of various stripes.

It is fine that other blogs assume values questions as more settled and move from there, and are more worried about creating a completely safe space for the marginalized than about fostering freewheeling, rationally rigorous debate about major differences or the constant reexamination of basic assumptions.

But on my blog I want to demonstrate either that my most cherished values stand up to rational scrutiny and that I am able to nuance my positions or outright change my mind when they do not. I did not arrive at them dogmatically and I do not need to stifle questioning in order to be secure in them. I think that if they are truly the best values, they will come out of any furnace they are put through all the harder to break. Otherwise they will undergo important new shaping and refining.

I also believe that it is vital that there be contexts, like the one I am trying to create, in which we demonstrate the rational grounds of our values and of morality itself against unsympathetic but civil skepticism. I think if we have no forums which do this then our enemies will just assume we do not have the arguments and that we are just dogmatists whose values are just unjustifiable feelings that we refuse to subject to scrutiny. If we never entertain the most callously skeptical questions in this way but always come out emotionally bruising those who disagree with us, we will come off like people of faith, i.e., people who turn our feelings that we cannot defend into beliefs and values and laws that we foist on others through emotional bullying, dogmatism, and interpersonal hostility against all doubters.

So, yes, some people emotionally need and deserve completely safe spaces because of the abuses they have suffered at the hands of corrupt values, people, and institutions. And yes, it is vitally necessary that we have some forums where we develop a shared worldview without always having to go back to square one. And because I am convinced of my progressive, inclusive values and so am not recklessly neutral, I will enforce an atmosphere here where marginalized groups are not intimidated out of participating. But, nonetheless, Camels With Hammers is, has been, and will remain a blog where atheism, progressive values, and moral realism are rationally defended rather than simply assumed and in which they show how well they can stand up to the most unsparing rational scrutiny that any disagreeing commenters can dish out in civil, respectful, and non-marginalizing ways.

There may be many readers or potential commenters who have plenty of good reasons for their core fundamental viewpoints and values, and yet nonetheless do not want to spend their online lives (or any part of their lives) having to justify them. If you are one of them, that’s fine. Plenty of Camels With Hammers threads (probably even the majority) will be ones in which we do work from shared basic values and viewpoints in order to hash out our differences among ourselves or constructively explore new implications of our shared outlook.

I only ask that on those occasions, however frequent or infrequent, that civil people with views at odds with our own come in here and want to debate questions of fundamental beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and values, that you not personally attack them but engage them rationally. You can argue with passion, you can make appeals to your emotions and experiences as evidence where these are relevant. You can discuss the ways that implications of what others are saying threaten you or those you love with tangible, real world harm, etc. 

If they personally abuse you with insults or personal goading, you can assert your rights to be treated with dignity and I will get involved. If they raise lines of inquiry that sound like they are bigoted or in bad faith, you can point that out civilly and start interrogating their positions. You do not need to leap to personal accusations, but you can make them, in substantiatable ways (not with insults) if over the long course of argument they prove themselves to reason in bad faith.

But when starting out answering a superficial line of challenge, just go right to the point: “That’s something a lot of racists say for transparently self-serving reasons, do you agree with racists that x, y, and z? Do you see how adopting that assumption favors members of group x to the detriment of group y? Do you think that as a member of group y that this partially explains why that assumption seems so obvious to you? Can you defend that assumption? You say you are just interested in the truth, even if it is ugly, but have you read article x or considered factors and that are standardly assumed in other contexts?”

Defending our views does not have to mean accepting the paradigms and questions of our opponents as entirely legitimate. If certain discourses are stacked against certain conclusions, then we are free to interrogate the entire structures and assumptions of those discourses when our interlocutors try to impose them. There are innumerable strategies for winning these arguments that make it wholly unnecessary to shut them down by resorting to driving dissenters out of town like heathens or heretics. That only reinforces people in their feelings that they are persecuted truth tellers. That’s the last thing I want people who are wrong and harmful to feel.

So please do not rush to take abstract arguments personally and thereby sabotage the chance to hash out our disagreements with our skeptics and to show them that our values are capable of rational defense and not just dogmatic bullying assumptions. If we have truth and justice on our side, then we can, we need to, and we will prevail within the bounds of rational, civil discourse.

I relish the challenge.

And since I am only one thinker, with limited knowledge and resources, I need your help as much as you can offer it.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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