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Responsibility and freedom: A defense of safe spaces

Meg ArnoldSupport this author on Patreon

law“Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions and will receive praise or blame for them.” F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of LibertyResponsibility and Freedom.

What does it mean for speech to be free? I’m less interested in the legal specifications surrounding this question and more eager to discuss what this means for us in our daily interactions. As an anarchist, I don’t see a legitimate role for governments to play in limiting or privileging certain types of speech. However, that does not mean that individuals cannot or should not be held responsible for the things they say by others in their chosen communities. Since we’ve removed as an option the use of force to suppress speech, what avenues might remain available for praxis?

If speech is to exist in a kind of “marketplace of ideas,” then “praise” or “blame” can act as a profit and loss system for “good” and “bad” speech. It remains the domain of individuals to decide for themselves what constitutes good and bad, as well as how to react to different ideas. Some people are comfortable combating ideas with their own speech with the hope of, at least, persuading or emboldening others to do the same. For others (usually those who have experienced trauma related to particular ideas such as misogyny, rape culture, homo- and transphobia, etc.) the response is often to retreat from spaces where these ideas are shared uncritically and build alternative spaces with others who feel similarly. Some would call these “safe spaces,” but bell hooks has another idea; removed from fear of re-traumatization and retaliation, people create spaces in which they are “safe to struggle.” It is a gross mischaracterization of safe spaces to say that there aren’t any levels of disagreement among those involved. Rather, open and respectful disagreement is possible because there is a foundation of mutual trust established through the intentions set for the space.

Neither of these approaches to speech with which we disagree is objectively better or worse than the other, and it would be difficult to determine their relative effectiveness without considering the validity of individual preferences. The problem of safe spaces is not about censorship or exclusion but about property rights and free association. If people want to limit access to a space based on any criteria, this should not be a problem so long as they are doing so on their own property. This includes the ability for people with racist, misogynist, and other bigoted views to freely associate. By all means, be open about your prejudices so that I and others know who to avoid and condemn.

College campuses make the issue of safe spaces and other forms of free association difficult because of their often mixed status as public or public-private entities. Therefore, to focus on the encroachment of safe spaces on protected speech is a form of “hacking at the branches” rather than “striking the root” of the problem which is a lack of defined property rights on college campuses. Even the University of Chicago, which sent incoming studentsa letter regarding safe spaces and trigger warnings, recognizes the value to students of being able to access these spaces on campus. UChicago decided only that classes themselves are not acceptable locales to set safe space intentions because classrooms have different and conflicting sets of intentions associated with them. They have also left the decision to use trigger warnings or not up to individual professors and students, which respects the local knowledge professors have of their subject matter and students have of their traumas and life experiences.

Libertarians and other free speech advocates have primarily focused on the freedom of speech from government, college administrators, and a vocal minority of anti-speech activists. However, a thick, cultural approach is needed to also hold individuals responsible for the content of what they freely espouse. According to Hayek, a free society demands both freedom and responsibility. If we don’t hold people accountable for the things they say, then we are, at best, coddling them and, at worst, allowing the perpetuation of those ideas that we find personally abhorrent. Instead of mocking those who advocate for the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces and giving platforms to those who espouse bigotry in the name of free speech, why not take a look at the content of what each is saying or is too afraid to say?


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