Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Confederate flags and safe spaces ... and a prayer request

Yikes. (Image source: TxDMV/AP)
Within two days, Sunday and Monday, the New York Times has posted two think-pieces that consider different freedom-of-speech controversies: a SCOTUS case concerning Texas' refusal to issue license plates that include the Confederate flag; and "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces" on college campuses.

Let me declare my bias upfront: I thank God and the First Congress for the First Amendment, as it allows me not only to be openly Catholic but to discuss and defend the Catholic faith openly, in a non-Catholic country with significant anti-Catholic prejudices. However, the personal cost of maintaining the freedoms of both speech and religion is to defend others' right of free speech, even when that speech is directed against me and my own, or expresses ideas I find to be not only wrong but offensive or obscene. Sauce for the goose and all that.

Because I'm Irish Catholic, with a touch of Hispanic ancestry and Union soldiers in my family tree, it's difficult for me to see the "Stars and Bars" as anything but an expression of hatred directed against me and my kind. Whatever strides the South has made to overcome its past, the Confederate flag is a reminder of a legacy of racial, ethnic and religious xenophobia, just as is the Confederate memorial in the central square of the city where I now live (yep, I'm a carpetbagger).

However, if we can squelch the display of the rebel flag because other people find it offensive or hateful, then why not the Knights of Columbus logo? Or the papal keys? Must we keep "In God We Trust" off of vanity plates because some non-Judeo-Christian might be outraged by it? Or perhaps the Darwin fish-with-feet or the "Pastafarian" symbol? At what point does a "right to not be offended" simply become a tool for suppressing political or social opposition?

Okay, too many rhetorical questions. Then let me state my case differently: I'm not convinced that we can create a more loving and tolerant culture by actively suppressing symbols and expressions of hate. In fact, I'd rather the haters were able to openly declare themselves so we could know them for who they are, rather than allow the sores to fester in silence and studied ignorance. (For your green vegetable, let me serve you some mixed metaphors.) Sorry, you don't teach people how to love by forbidding them to express hatred.

Last May, I examined concerns about "trigger warnings" in a post on The Other Blog, "Stress cards and trigger warnings". In summary, I reported that even their backers admit that a full list of "potentially offensive or upsetting" content can be "positively mind-numbing" in length, that it's not even evident how useful they are, and that they've already been used to try to shut down speech criticizing radical feminists' politics.

"Safe spaces", on the face of it, aren't so openly tyrannical; in theory, they're "intended to give people who might find comments 'troubling' or 'triggering,' a place to recuperate." "In most cases," writes Judith Shulevitz, "safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions — subtle displays of racial or sexual bias — so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity." And she quotes a Brown junior, a rape survivor, who had to make use of such a space during a lecture by a critic of the term "rape culture": "I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs."

In other words, "safe spaces" aren't really therapeutic so much as they're ideological bubbles given material form — a place to go to keep your ideas from being challenged. And I'm not really opposed to the idea, although I'd think ideologically-oriented clubs and student organizations already exist for just such a purpose. But as Shulevitz puts it, "Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer." Which means — once again — expanding the ideological bubble to encompass the entire campus.

Traumas don't need protection. They need therapy. That's not to say that nothing can be learned from pain or suffering; but rather, that feminists use that pain as a form of emotional blackmail, while allowing the psychic wounds to become gangrenous. Not to mention, I can't help but be both aggravated and amused by people who speak their piece with an if-you-don't-like-it-f**k-you-poor-widdle-baby attitude, but scream bloody murder about being insulted, threatened, and harmed by "microagressions".

Moreover, in a time when policy arguments increasingly depend on charges of cognitive bias ("Check your privilege!"), the implicit notion that psychological trauma lends an objective, unassailable clarity of logic and insight to feminist arguments is counterfactual and hypocritical. It's a false-authority fallacy that needs to be recognized as such; if we're going to "check our biases", the skews created by psychological trauma must be among them. Even better: let's chuck the "cognitive bias" argument as a circumstantial ad hominem.

Am I discounting the victims' pain? But that's simply to reassert the emotional blackmail: "Give in, or be ostracized as a heartless, victim-blaming, slut-shaming, misogynist prick." Certainly, recognition of victims' pain ought to motivate action — but it doesn't follow that every policy enacted in the name of the victims, or to prevent further victimization, is therefore licit, good, and beneficial. Nor does it follow that every theory proposed to explain the victimization is beyond critique, or that every social tactic used to push an initiative is therefore reasonable. 

Most of all, if there's any action victims' pain ought to motivate, it ought to motivate therapeutic intervention, not mass manipulation. If that's not our first concern, then everything else is an exercise in cynical opportunism.

So if there are going to be "safe spaces", let them be spaces of healing rather than forming impenetrable cysts; let them be dedicated to reintegrating the psyche rather than reasserting sociopolitical dogma. Otherwise, I can't see their value other than as simply another tactic to shut down academic freedom and prevent the free exchange of ideas. Having one's beliefs challenged is part of the idea of the university, and no student should expect to be exempted from it.

Speaking of sexual assault:

Please say some prayers for the recovery of CBS' Lara Logan, who's back in the hospital due to complications from the sexual assault she suffered while covering the "Arab Spring" in Egypt in 2011.

Praise to you, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, source of all consolation and hope. By your Son's dying and rising He remains our light in every darkness, our strength in every weakness. Be the refuge and guardian of all who suffer from abuse and violence. Comfort them and send healing for their wounds of body, soul and spirit. Rescue them from bitterness and shame and refresh them with your love. Heal the brokenness in all victims of abuse and revive the spirits of all who lament this sin. Help us to follow Jesus in drawing good from evil, life from death. Make us one with you in your love for justice as we deepen our respect for the dignity of every human life.

Giver of peace, make us one in celebrating your praise, both now and forever. Amen.