We need to have a talk.
Over the past two weeks, there have been a number of demonstrations on college campus around this country protesting incidents of racist bias*. As is pretty par for the course by now, these protests have generated a whole slew of online articles, which, when posted to Facebook and Twitter, have, in turn, launched some pretty sprawling comment threads. And I’ve seen you posting on some of those comment threads, and honestly, it’s been painful. You’ve come in asking questions that seem to you to be perfectly reasonable, only to be met with replies that seem prickly and unwelcoming, at times almost aggressively uninterested (it seems to you) in calm, rational, intellectual discussion of the issue at hand. Affronted by this brusque rebuff, things often escalate, and lo! a flame war is born.
This isn’t a pattern that’s new to the past two weeks. It’s something I’ve been seeing since, well, pretty much since I first signed up for social media. I am very sure I have been that person more than once in the past.
Today, I’m going to take you at your word. I’m going to assume that you genuinely don’t understand why people (and, let’s be honest, it’s usually “marginalized people on the left”) are so worked up about the latest clash in the college campus culture wars, that you’re asking questions from a place of open-minded naïveté in a good-faith attempt to understand what’s going on. (If that’s not the case, if you feign ignorance just so you can get a rise out of the other side for fun, you are petty and cruel and should feel ashamed. If you deliberately cause pain to other people solely for your own enjoyment, I have nothing more to say to you.) I’m going to try to meet you on your own ground and do my best to answer those honest questions that cause such a fuss. I write this as someone who is sympathetic to the broader rationalist project, who shares its values of free and open inquiry and debate, of logic and carefully constructed argumentation, of searching out the truth, however uncomfortable we may be with what we find. (You might be surprised at how many people on the left share these values, even if they don’t articulate them using the same language. In positioning myself like this, I am not trying to set myself apart as Not Like Those Other People protesting systemic oppression on the left. I am writing this in the hopes that my fluency in the language of rationalist thought will help make the rationalist community — a community that I feel at least loosely affiliated with — more understanding of and dedicated to issues of social justice**.)
[NB: While this post was spurred on by the racism-specific events and the associated social media fallout of recent weeks, as noted above, it’s also in reaction to much broader, longstanding problems. As such, I’m going to be drawing more from my own experiences with homophobia to illustrate the general points that I’m making. I’m not trying to co-opt the recent protests to jump-start a conversation about the treatment of queer people — I merely want to avoid turning black people into rhetorical footballs given that I do not share their experiences. The point is not the nitty gritty of the specific examples I use; it’s the larger ideas I’m using them to exemplify.]
Safe and Sound
That discomfort I mentioned above is actually a great place to start. Whenever a speaker gets disinvited (or, much more frequently, disinvites themselves in the face of protests), fretting about college students being incapable of handling discomfort is inevitable. The most iconic recent example is probably The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, in which they proclaim:
The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [the political correctness movement of the 1980s and 90s], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.
There are many things wrong with that article, and I do not have time to go into all of them here. Instead, I want to zoom in on a crucial rhetorical move that happens in this paragraph: The conflation of “unsafe” with “uncomfortable”.
I am in general agreement with the thought that college campuses should not be places devoid of discomfort. Colleges are places of education and growth, both of which not infrequently require confronting the fact that you have been wrong about something, and that is never a comfortable thing. Discomfort is often a necessary step on the road to positive change, and as such, even tho it is obviously not an end in itself, it’s not something to be reflexively shied away from.
Unsafety is something different. Unsafety is fear. Unsafety is not a necessary and inevitable part of the learning process.
There are many things that make me uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable with the idea that art should always be made available free of charge. I am uncomfortable being present when someone is being caught in a lie. I am profoundly, stomach-clenchingly uncomfortable with the fact that Charles Ives, one of my formative compositional influences, was unapologetically effemiphobic and would likely have reviled me — possibly in public, but doubtlessly viciously and at great length — if we existed at the same time.
I had to grapple with all these things and more while I was at Yale, but doing so never made me feel unsafe. There were, however, things that did.
My senior year of college, someone scrawled “FAG” in giant letters outside of one of my classrooms. For the next week or so, until facilities finally removed it, I had to walk past it almost every day (I had multiple classes in the building), and each time I did, a little shiver went down my spine. Its very anonymity was part of its threat: You may feel safe here, but that feeling is an illusion. There are people here — anonymous people! People you pass on the street every day without thinking — who do not want you here and may wish you unspecified but potentially grievous harm. They can get into your classrooms, the places you come to learn, and mark them to tell you this invisibly and with impunity.
Now, to be sure, this didn’t make me feel very unsafe. (Fear, like all emotions, comes on a continuum of intensity.) In large part, this is because of the community around me: Both my peers and authorities at Yale were and are vocally pro-LGBT, and even if they differ in some specifics of what that position entails, I can feel pretty confident that it extends at least as far as “queer people should not have slurs thrown at them nor should they be subject to physical violence because of their gender or sexual orientation”. So like, I knew I was surrounded by people who had my back, which took a lot of the sting out of the slur. But not all of it.
At this point you may object that the writing on the wall may not even have been meant as that kind of pall-casting threat, that it was probably just some drunk first year who wanted to be “edgy” for a lark. It’s certainly possible! I might even be inclined to agree that it’s probable.
But it’s not certain. And as someone who would actually be a target for anti-queer violence, I can’t ignore the possibility that it was done with deliberate malice. It’s the same fact that’s helped drive evolution for millennia: When it comes to threats, ignoring a false negative is much worse than reacting to a false positive.
And again, it really didn’t make me feel very unsafe. Fully quantifying emotions is obviously impossible, but it was like, pretty close to being the bare minimum amount of unsafety needed to actually register as a feeling. It would have been different if, instead of scrawled on a publicly accessible wall in pencil, it had been carved into the door of my dorm room with a knife (or, even more alarmingly, on the inside of my door). As it was, I was content to report it to facilities so they could clean it up and move on with my life; in the latter case, I probably would’ve tried to actually figure out who was responsible, and might also have asked to switch rooms.
It also would’ve been different if, after being scrubbed away, it kept being re-written, if campus were crawling with homophobic graffiti, if facilities and administrators brushed aside complaints and, instead of being vocal advocates for LGBT issues, were silent about them or actively spoke against them. Even if each individual example weren’t that threatening on its own, taken as a body, these things add up. One snowflake is harmless. An avalanche of them can kill you. Likewise, enough individually trivial incidents can add up to an environment that is hostile, unwelcoming, and unsafe.
Such an environment is profoundly inimical to rational debate. As Viet N Trinh explains powerfully at ConversationX:
Even for the most open and rational thinker, there must exist some baseline of mutual respect and personal security. If — God forbid — multiple Yale students fell ill with symptoms of some especially deadly and contagious virus, responsible administrators’s first impulse would not be to calmly sit down and thoughtfully problematize the anti-vaccination movement; it would be to cancel all classes and notify the Center for Disease Control. Just as people cannot be expected to critically analyze an academic monograph or scientific study while they detect immediate danger . . . communities of color should not be asked to remain composed intellectuals when they are surrounded by symbols and processes that perpetually remind them of how precarious their lives are, of how instantly their worlds can be snatched from them in the blink of an eye.
It is unreasonable to expect someone to ignore perceived threats to their physical and psychological well-being for the sake of dispassionate argumentation and debate. If you are truly committed to fostering an environment of open intellectual exploration, an environment that leaves space for students to feel the discomfort of learning, growth, and change, you damn well better be committed to fostering an environment where students do not feel physically or psychologically threatened. If you believe that the best way to the truth is thru vigorous, careful, reasoned debate, you damn well better make sure that no parties to that debate are living with literal or figurative guns to their heads.
You Are Not God
Perhaps at this point you take a different tack. Certainly, you agree, if students felt unsafe that would be an issue well worth addressing, but marginalized students on college campuses don’t actually feel unsafe, or, if they do, they shouldn’t.
I’m going to tackle the first part of this claim first. I have seen numerous people argue, apparently in all seriousness, that student protesters are confusing academic discomfort with fear. I find this claim bizarre. Discomfort and fear, for all that they’re both negative emotions, are hardly the same thing. Even the most extreme discomfort does not make me feel unsafe — squeamish as I am about Ives’s views, I am not afraid that his music will somehow channel his hatreds from beyond the grave and spit vitriol at me as I play and analyze it. Likewise, being on the top rung of a rickety ladder over a field of angular cast-iron theatrical rigging equipment doesn’t make me feel like I’m grappling with a new and unfamiliar idea.
So when activists say that they feel unsafe [Elle], that campus feels like a hostile and unwelcoming environment to them [DOWN Magazine], believe them. You are not God; you do not have direct access to all of their thoughts and feelings. Only they have that. Unless you are accusing them of flat-out lying or failing to understand how emotions work, trust that people know what they are feeling and are doing their best to convey it accurately and honestly.
And this is where the second part comes in. Sure, you might concede, marginalized students feel unsafe, they feel unwelcome, they feel like campus is a hostile environment for them, but they shouldn’t. They’re oversensitive. They’re coddled. They’re making a big deal out of nothing. Their emotional reactions, however genuinely felt, are inappropriate to the situation at hand.
You are not God. You are not omniscient. In many cases, you have not even been to the campus in question. This puts you at a profound disadvantage when it comes to understanding the situation at hand. National media coverage of campus protest movements is often shallow and sensationalist. Very frequently, journalists working on tight deadlines see factions that they can easily slot into pre-existing narratives (“Whiny, coddled college students vs Ideas They Don’t Like” is hardly a novel framework for a news report) and don’t bother looking much further. If you read an article about a campus protest in a national publication and find yourself thinking “I don’t understand how anyone could be that upset over something so trivial.”, stop. Consider. How confident are you that an outsider researching a story on short notice has a better, more thoro understanding of the buildup to the situation at hand than someone on campus who has actually been living thru that buildup for weeks, months, or even years? If the spark that the article presents as igniting the dispute seems inadequate when compared to the fury of those agitating against it, is it not at least plausible that the article might have missed something critical in the background?
At its best, rationalism teaches a profound humility. The world is a wide, complicated place, and seeking out knowledge is hard. Often, things that seem intuitively obvious turn out, on closer inspection, to be flawed or outright false. Our intuitions can lead us powerfully astray, and battling them takes constant, careful work, work that is easy to do badly. We are often blinded by the limits of our necessarily parochial experience. If anything, rationalism is an outlook that teaches us, repeatedly and relentlessly, how wrong we have been about things we’ve felt so certain of. It is an exercise in recognizing the limits of our knowledge, and how uncomfortably close those limits can be.
Given that, the appropriate response to reactions that seem, to us as outsiders, disproportionate to their stimuli should not be swift certainty that our initial impressions are correct but rather careful curiosity and self-skepticism. How do we know our impression is correct? What are the protesters saying directly? (Note: Not “What are people outside the situation saying about the protesters?”. What are they upset about, what are their demands — in their own words, not as paraphrased elsewhere on the fly.) What are the things here we might be wrong about?
You can’t answer these questions without listening, and listening carefully, to the people who are upset. That is by design. If you don’t understand what’s going on, you need to seek out someone who does.
Gerbils and Fish
This leads to the crux of the entire matter. Different people react to the same thing in very different ways.
Let’s go back to the homophobic graffito I mentioned above. I would be quite surprised indeed if it made my heterosexual classmates feel even the slightest bit unsafe. They are not the primary targets of that word, and were it to spill over into physical violence, that violence would not be directed at them. I would hope that it would make them feel uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t expect it to make them unsafe. Same stimulus, different reactions.
To take another example: Recently, three of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination appeared at a conference/rally hosted by someone who, during the event, actively called for putting gay people to death [gifset on Tumblr]. That honestly doesn’t make me feel unsafe. I am far away from Iowa, I don’t think any of those candidates have a serious shot at winning the nomination, and even if nominated and elected, I don’t think they’d be able to put a “kill the gays” agenda into action. But it’s trivially easy to imagine a closeted queer kid living with parents who were at that rally cheering, and it is overwhelmingly likely that their reaction to this would be to feel very unsafe indeed. Different life experiences lead to different reactions to the same event.
It’s worth noting that this builds to a difference in memory. By next month, I’ll probably have forgotten that specific gifset and the events it captured because they’re such a distant concern. I didn’t feel that strongly about them, so they’re not going to lodge that deeply in my memory. The reverse is true for the defacement at Yale: It was a much more viscerally awful experience, so it’s gonna stick around for longer. This has broader ramifications. I doubt very much that any of my heterosexual classmates made much note of the scrawl; they’ve probably forgotten it entirely by now. But I remember it, just as I remember countless other subtle slights that wouldn’t have registered to someone they weren’t directed at. Straight people can afford to ignore homophobia in ways that I just can’t; I have to be attuned to it, because it puts my safety at risk. (The oblivion that people are afforded to oppression that does not affect them is often analogized as rivers to fish. Fish spend all their lives in currents that suit them fine, but plunge a gerbil into the Susquehanna and it’s going to notice the water. (It would be a better analogy if the fish had somehow built the river to be exquisitely suited to their needs at the expense of our furry four-legged friend, but still.))
So when I speak out about homophobia, I’m coming from a place of considerable experience and expertise. I'm not claiming, as one commenter so colorfully put it, to be in an “epistemologically privileged position” with regards to truth claims; I’m claiming to be speaking from a position of authority about my own experiences (and, sometimes and with caveats, the experiences of people like me) that straight people cannot attain.
When I say that straight people cannot attain the same authority on homophobia as I have, I do not mean that they can’t study it and come to a deep intellectual understanding of it, that my experiences of homophobia must forever and always remain mysterious and Other, hinted at but never fully made plain. I mean instead that they can never have the actual lived experiences of a queer person in a homophobic society. These issues will never have the same visceral, sometimes life-threatening urgency. The metaphorical fish may well come to understand all the facts about the unpleasantness of aquatic life for gerbils, but they will never be the ones drowning for want of air.
And this is where so many of your comments go so disastrously wrong. When I am speaking out about homophobia, I am not saying “Hey! Here are a bunch of interesting facts I found, let’s talk about what they mean!”. I am, instead, saying “Here is something deeply unpleasant that affects almost every aspect of my life in one way or another, and it is a thing that you are probably unaware of because it does not do so to yours.”. This is not a fun thing to do. It involves actively thinking about and re-living deeply unpleasant memories and feelings, and parsing them out and communicating them in a comprehensible way when I’d really rather just work on forgetting them entirely. To have a straight person then come in and say “Well this doesn’t match my life experiences and I don’t react the same way as you say you do to the examples you talk about, so your feelings are wrong and your point is invalid.” is insulting. It says that you, having no actual experiences being the target of homophobia, have a better understanding of how homophobia works than I do, that your interpretations are somehow more objective, more rational, more correct than mine. It’s like telling an astrophysicist that their interpretation of spectrum emission data is wrong when you yourself haven’t even taken an intro course, only instead of being the substance of their professional work, it’s the lived content of their entire life***. You are a fish, remarking to a gerbil that you don’t see what the big deal is about this whole “water” thing. After all, you can breathe just fine.
Not every thread is meant to be an intense rationalist debating ground on the fundamental premises of structural oppression. If you feel you still need that, if you’re still unclear on why exactly Thing X Upsets Oppressed Group Y, that doesn’t make you a bad person. No one comes out of the womb with a full and fluent understanding of these things. But some of us have moved beyond that, and when we’re having higher-level conversations about how to address these issues, it’s obnoxious (to say the least) to have people come barging in and demand we pause those conversations to give them the 101-level introduction. Additionally, some threads aren’t debates or discussions at all. They’re spaces to vent, to blow off steam. This is a very human need! It doesn’t mean that we never want to engage in dialogue, that we never want to actually formulate rigorous arguments and suggest concrete solutions to the problems, it just means that we don’t want to be doing that every waking minute of every day, especially given the fraught, emotionally charged nature of this kind of work. It is exhausting, and sometimes we need a break.
This also doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for legitimate disagreement about goals, strategies, and tactics. Reasonable people may well disagree on what the appropriate course of action is when a group of students is upset about an event on campus. (As this article at Medium lays out devastatingly (see Pandora’s Box #2), this is often a complex, delicate issue that depends on the very specific circumstances of the specific event in question.) Activists themselves often butt heads over this — I am absolutely sure that the most recent set of demands from activists at Yale were not developed in an atmosphere of hiveminded unanimity — as well as over how best to achieve the goals they do agree on. I would again urge you to consider whether you actually know enough about the situation to have an informed opinion on these thorny questions — campus protests, especially, tend to be fiercely local affairs that are contingent on context that can be invisibly opaque to those not on campus — but this is by no means a call to shut down and stifle any and all dissent.
It’s merely a call to listen. To recognize the limits of your knowledge, and to give others the benefit of the doubt, to believe them when they tell you they are in pain, even if you yourself do not experience that pain in your own life. This will not always be the most comfortable thing to do. People in pain do not always express that pain in the most perfectly rational of ways. (Tho also: Tone policing arguments are just another form of ad hominem, attacking the person for being angry instead of the substance of what they’re saying in their rage.) But hey, you shouldn’t have a problem with that, right? I’m told discomfort is how you learn and grow.
*I don’t want this post to get bogged down in the specifics of the various situations at Yale, Mizzou, Ithaca, Howard University, and beyond. I can’t speak with any authority whatsoever on the other locales, but much of the national media coverage of the Yale demonstrations has been deeply flawed, to the point of completely misrepresenting the situation. If you’ve only read such coverage, understand that you may well not have an accurate picture. More on this later.
**If this makes you brand me as a Social Justice Warrior (because fighting for a more just society is . . . bad?) and dismiss me out of hand, so be it, but don’t then come grousing to me about how close-minded the left can be.
***Side note: Do people seriously think that the only way I’ll be exposed to the fact that homophobia still exists is if homophobic speakers are paid to come to campus and given a platform for their views? I absolutely guarantee you it’s not. It would be uproariously ridiculous if so many people didn’t seem to seriously believe it.