The recent protests on the University of Missouri campus have shown a spotlight on the phenomenon of “safe spaces”: designated areas on campuses where students can go to escape ideas they don’t like, conversations they find threatening, or values they reject. Here, no aggressive, divisive, or even potentially hurtful words are allowed, and students’ identities are affirmed and protected (assuming, of course, those identities don’t include criticizing any other identity).
“Safe spaces” attempt to reduce public discourse to self-admiring yes-fests that ban disagreement or critiques that could potentially hurt someone’s feelings. It’s hard to take them seriously because of their obvious ideological discrimination, but take them seriously we must, for what is accepted on the university campus tends to become accepted by society as a whole.
Lest anyone think this is an overly dramatic assessment of the situation, consider the European Union’s Equal Treatment Directive (ETD), which would allow business owners to be sued by anyone who feels discriminated against. Ever worse is that “the burden of proof must shift back to the [accused] when evidence of such discrimination is brought.” The ETD document does not define “discrimination” but implies that having one’s feelings hurt counts. So if a business owner hurts someone’s feelings, he is guilty of discrimination until proven innocent. Essentially the ETD would make the entire EU a “safe space.” It is just one nation’s approval away from being enacted as law in all twenty-eight EU states (Germany has expressed concerns about its economic ramifications).
But why are people so sensitive? Why do college students flee from anything that doesn’t affirm what they already believe, and why does the EU’s proposed discrimination laws start with an assumption of guilt? The problem is more than educational or political—it’s metaphysical. “Safe spaces” reveal a seismic shift in our understanding of the West’s foundational idea: ironically, the dignity of the individual human being.
Respect for the individual is borne out of respect for what that human shares with all other humans. For centuries Western thinkers believed humans shared two things: the imago Dei, or the image of God, as explicated by the Judeo-Christian tradition, and an identity as “rational animals” (an understanding of which is rooted in the work of Aristotle). If every human bears the image of God (or exercises rationality, a characteristic of the divine for Aristotle), his essence participates in the divine. That participation in the divine leads to human dignity, an essential quality we all have simply because of what we are, not because of what we do or experience. This traditional Western view dignifies the individual because he is human, an identity with an anchor that transcends this world.
This confidence in human dignity—both our own and that of others—gives us the freedom to disagree with each other. A robust civil discourse will necessarily question the morality of an individual’s actions, the validity of a chosen or expressed identity, or the truth-value of experiences. Rooted in an anthropology of dignity, we can condemn actions; we can question identities; we can listen to experiences and see if they brought the individual closer to reality or isolated him from reality; and all the while we can uphold the individual as a dignified human to whom certain things are due, including (but not limited to) sacrificial charity. In other words, we can disagree without devaluing and dismantling the humanness of the other. Sometimes disagreements can even affirm human dignity.
However, our culture no longer derives the concept of human dignity from either the imago Dei or from an understanding of man as a rational animal. We are an agnostic society. We no longer uphold mankind as metaphysically superior to animals, and we are plagued by a sinking suspicion that we will not always be unique in our ability to reason, to employ logic. The only thing we all have in common—the answer to what constitutes essential humanness—is, again ironically, a sense of our own individuality. Enter radical individualism, the ideology that the highest goal for a human is to achieve an “authentic” sense of self in the face of a meaningless existence.
Yet we still cling to the words “human dignity.” But in a metaphysically agnostic society, no essential characteristics of humanity can be maintained. Essential characteristics imply objectivity and universality, which can’t exist in lieu of metaphysical certainty. So human dignity cannot be an essential characteristic. Instead, it has to be derived from individuality. The individual has human dignity based solely on the validity of his experiences, the authenticity of his self-expression, and his achieved sense of self. In this anthropology, a person’s choices are an expression of his individuality, which is a composite of his experiences. And so to disagree with his choices—the expression of that individuality—is an attempt to invalidate his human dignity.
Where does this leave civil discourse? Is it possible to have a robust public square in a culture that derives human dignity from individual experiences without evaluating the truth of those experiences against any kind of objective standard? “Safe spaces” show that the answer is no.
There is another, darker conclusion to be drawn from this reinvention of human dignity: if agreement is a necessary part of affirming human dignity, it follows that if we do not agree we are not obliged to recognize human dignity. This terrifying logic plays out constantly in the dehumanizing rhetoric that dominates the cultural conversation about abortion and homosexuality, where both sides are quick to attack the humanity of the opposing side, as well as in the rapidly escalating vulgarity and violence of online discourse on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. For now, this kind of expression is largely (but not entirely) confined to conversation, but the line between words and actions is a blurry one.
“Safe spaces,” the Equal Treatment Directive—they reflect more than the simple coddling of an overprivileged generation. It’s a metaphysical meltdown as we try desperately to hold on to words like “human dignity,” all the while undermining the ideas they represent. But words unhinged from reality are very far from safe; in fact, they can be the most dangerous things in the world. It’s imperative for the preservation of free human society that people learn to live with robust, sustained disagreement instead of retreating into the cocoon of themselves, because if history has shown us anything, it’s that the “safe space” of oneself can prove a very dark place indeed.
Jane Scharl has a BA in politics, philosophy, and economics from the King's College in New York, and has previously written for National Review Online, InEarnest Magazine, and Comment Magazine.