A Philosopher's Blog

Free Speech & Feeling Unsafe

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 9, 2017

A somewhat recent talking point on the right is that “the liberals” are trying to violate the free speech rights of conservatives. On the one hand, this is a hasty generalization: the left counts among its numbers some of the staunchest advocates of free expression who defend the right of conservatives to engage in free expression. On the other hand, there are those on the left who are actively trying to silence conservative voices. That said, is important to distinguish between attempts to silence people and legitimate acts of protest.

To illustrate, the incident involving Charles Murray at Middlebury College illustrates how some people try to unjustly silence those they disagree with. In contrast, the students at Notre Dame who walked out on Vice President Pence’s speech were engaged in a legitimate protest—they expressed their disagreement without harassing or silencing pence. However, the Pence incident had an interesting twist that is well worth considering.

Two of the students who walked out on Pence’s speech explained their motivation: “The walkout was in response to the fact that members of our own community felt unwelcome, uncomfortable, and even unsafe…” I do understand why having Mike Pence speak would make some people feel unwelcome and uncomfortable—after all, Pence makes no secret of his views on various social and moral issues. No doubt some conservative students would feel just as unwelcome and uncomfortable in the presence of a liberal speaker. While I do think speakers should endeavor to make their audience welcome and comfortable, this is not a moral obligation on the part of speakers—especially on college campuses. A key part of education is being pushed outside of one’s comfort zone in terms of such things as values, beliefs and ideology. Students do, of course, have every right to resist being pushed out of this zone; but this is typically their loss when they succeed. The students might have benefited from enduring Pence’s words; but they did have the right to refuse to listen. After all, the right of free expression means that one should not be silenced, not that one can compel others to pay attention.

What is worrisome is the use of the term “unsafe.” When I first heard some vague details about this episode, I initially thought the students were concerned that there might be violence at the event—as has happened elsewhere. That would, of course, be legitimate grounds for concerns about safety. After all, to feel unsafe is to feel that one is at risk for harm. However, after listening to a discussion of the incident on NPR, I realized that the claim was that Pence’s mere presence as a speaker made people feel unsafe. They did not, obviously, think that Pence would attack them physically.

One way to interpret the matter is that people thought they would be harmed in some meaningful way by Pence’s presence and his words. While people can certainly inflict harm with words, it would seem to be an odd use of “unsafe” in the context of the Vice President giving a speech. But perhaps some people are so lacking in resilience that the expression of ideas they do not like or the presence of someone they disagree with can cause harm to them. In this case, they would thus be wise to leave the area before sustaining such harm. To use an analogy, if someone was so sensitive to noise that a speech would cause them pain, they should not attend the speech. They do not, however, have the right to insist that the speech not be made simply because they would experience pain.

A second, and more plausible way, to interpret this is that “unsafe” is referring to a stronger version of being uncomfortable and not a feeling that meaningful danger is imminent. While words mean what they do as a matter of convention, shifting the meaning of words in this manner is problematic for communication. As noted above, I initially thought the students feared a riot, which caused some confusion. Another potential problem is that using “unsafe” in this context makes the expression of ideas that one does not like seem dangerous. While this might be a rhetorical point the students were trying to make to justify walking out, this is a misuse of the language. To be specific, it is hyperbole that serves to distort the matter by conflating merely being uncomfortable with being in danger. Because of these problems, the term “unsafe” should not be used in such contexts. Instead, it should be used for cases in which there is an actual threat to safety and rights. Such as the push by some against free expression by conservatives.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 9, 2017 at 8:48 pm

    They’ll be coming for you next professor. This article should have included a trigger warning. Some people may have been made to feel unsafe by your insensitive words. 😂 😂 😂

  2. DH said, on June 10, 2017 at 2:38 am

    The New York Times focused on a blind study of the content of Murray’s speech, and found it to be regarded as “middle of the road” by students and faculty who read the transcript without knowing who the speaker was. This is a pretty good illustration of what I’ve been talking about in many of my recent posts – that people in this country form opinions before they read or listen, and base their actions not on what they read or hear, but rather make assumptions based on their preconceived notions.

    Allison Stanger, a professor of politics and economics at Middlebury, (who moderated a Q & A session that was moved to a secure location for streaming, safe from the violence) wrote the following:

    Stanger: ” Part of the problem was the furor that preceded the talk. This past month, as the campus uproar about Dr. Murray’s visit built, I was genuinely surprised and troubled to learn that some of my faculty colleagues had rendered judgment on Dr. Murray’s work and character without ever having read anything he has written. It wasn’t just students: Some professors protested his appearance as well.”

    (From the National Review article)

    In other words, a bunch of academic professionals, whose sole job is to read and research, felt comfortable maligning a visiting figure “without ever having read anything he has written.” Worse still, some of them went so far as to protest him. Perhaps inspired by their feckless teachers, many students followed suit:

    Stanger: “Intelligent members of the Middlebury community—including some of my own students and advisees—concluded that Charles Murray was an anti-gay white nationalist from what they were hearing from one another, and what they read on the Southern Poverty Law Center website. Never mind that Dr. Murray supports same-sex marriage and is a member of the courageous “never Trump” wing of the Republican Party.”

    But there is something even more sinister in the New York Times article.

    While much attention was given to the content of the speech, very little was given to the actions of the mob that drove him away. There is a reason conservatives feel unsafe – because they ARE unsafe in many situations like this.

    The New York Times failed to report what the Wall Street Journal reported, and what the President of Middlebury later apologized for in a public statement – that the protest was not limited to shouts and jeers, but included actual violence. Allison Stanger, a Middlebury professor escorting Mr. Murray from campus, was assaulted by protesters who also attacked the car they were in. She was taken to the hospital with injuries suffered from having her hair pulled in one direction while her body was thrust in another, pulling the tendons and fascia in her face and neck.

    But the implication of the New York Times is the worst part. By focusing on the content of the speech, and declaring that “it wasn’t so bad after all”, one wonders whether they would have editorially approved of the violence had the content swung further to the right.

    This is no “right wing talking point”. This is violence and intolerance at our institutions of higher learning, perpetrated by faculty and students alike, and based on anything BUT critical thinking, careful reading, and an attempt to understand facts.

  3. DH said, on June 10, 2017 at 3:00 am

    Here’s another example of institutional intolerance at a college. I am embarrassed to report that it happened at my own.

    We pride ourselves on our commitment to tolerance and diversity. We have an active LBGTQ community among our faculty and students, and members of that community are treated with great respect. Some students have declared that they prefer to choose their own pronouns, and not be regarded by their birth gender; these beliefs are respected, tolerated, and supported.

    We have a broad multicultural base, with a sizable population of international students and faculty. We have Muslim students who attend our classes with scarves on their heads, students and faculty from hotspots like Iran and Somalia, Syria and Israel. The President of the college has publicly denounced the policies of Donald Trump, in particular the travel ban and the difficulties imposed on our students as a result. He has called for unity, support, and diversity on our campus, which is as it should be.

    Recently, I had a particular Caucasian student in one of my classes. He was a hard worker, studious, creative. In this particular class, we were doing some group projects that were going to be displayed in a public venue. His group was dealing with ways in which to leverage technology and education, and the subject matter assigned to the group was “Bioevolution”. He came to me and asked to be switched out of the group, because his religious beliefs did not allow him to participate in the furthering of that kind of science.

    I switched him from the group. Although I don’t agree with his position, I followed my own instincts and the policies set forth by the school and treated him with respect, understanding, and tolerance.

    It was not easy to do this – the students had already begun working, the groups were finding their leadership, they were even in number. It was also difficult to respond to the questions of “why?” while maintaining respect for this students’ privacy.

    Of course, the students found out about his reasons, which resulted in a stream of intolerant whispers and laughter for the rest of the semester – discussions about how backward he is, how his beliefs were causing issues in their education, etc. There were no outright assaults on him – either verbally or physically, but the attitudes were thick. I had to sit down with a few of them and talk about what the word “Tolerance” means, and how it is not just limited to certain favored groups.

    I brought this issue up to some of my peers, and the dean as well – and was surprised to find the same attitude among them. While their outward statements echoed the sentiment of the school, there was hushed laughter and eye rolling among them as well. To her credit, the dean cautioned me against penalizing his grade based on his beliefs – but I was surprised that she found that necessary at all.

    My observation is that tolerance in this country is reserved for specific groups, groups that do not include Christians or Conservatives.

  4. TJB said, on June 10, 2017 at 9:13 am

    Mike, here is good example of what those “talking points” refer to:

    The mayor of Portland, Oregon, has strong words for those who would sow fear in his city and attempt to shut down citizens’ rights to free expression: “I surrender.”

    On Friday, two men were stabbed to death on a train in Portland while confronting and trying to calm down a man who was allegedly loudly harassing two young women with anti-Muslim comments.

    Mayor Ted Wheeler’s response to this brutal attack was to essentially tell the world that violence can successfully be used to convince the government to shut down civil liberties. In a rather self-absorbed speech Monday that treats this horrible but isolated event as though it were some sort of mass slaughter deserving of a permanent monument and some sort of “leadership” by politicians, Wheeler is demanding that the federal government cancel the permits for a couple of upcoming “alt-right” rallies in Terry Schrunk Plaza.

    He flat out said in his comments that the city would refuse to grant rally permits to alt-right groups based on their views. However, the plaza right by Portland City Hall is actually federal property, and Wheeler is trying to get federal authorities to revoke the permits for the groups involved in a pair of June events.

    And while there’s some gesturing toward the idea that he wants the city to have time to grieve, he wouldn’t be making such demands if the stabber had been yelling just incoherent nonsense and not an anti-Muslim rant. That’s because Wheeler makes it very abundantly clear that he believes the people organizing these rallies are bigots and he doesn’t want them around. He’s using this violence as a way of curtailing the First Amendment right to both peacefully assemble and engage in free speech.

    In response to those who point out that the alt=right has the same First Amendment protections as the rest of us, Wheeler actually says, “Hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.” (It’s at about 6:54 in this clip of his comments.)

    There is no “hate speech” exemption to the First Amendment, and it’s bad enough when poorly educated college students believe that there is. We don’t need politicians who run cities reinforcing the idea that such speech is not protected, because it feeds the idea that violent protests against certain speakers is therefore some form of heroic rebellion. He reinforces the mentality that threats, and even just fears, of violent responses are acceptable reasons to prohibit public protests.


  5. TJB said, on June 10, 2017 at 9:22 am

    Here is an example of how the left approves of violence against people holding ideas they don’t like:

    The transcendental experience of watching Roger Federer play tennis, David Foster Wallace wrote, was one of “kinetic beauty.” Federer’s balletic precision and mastering of time, on the very edge of what seems possible for a body to achieve, was a form of bodily genius. What Foster Wallace saw in a Federer Moment, I see in a video of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched in the face.

    You may have seen it, it’s a meme now, set to backing tracks of Bruce Springsteen, New Order, even a song from Hamilton. The punch, landed by a masked protester on Inauguration Day, lends itself perfectly to a beat. Spencer, who states that America belongs to white men, was in the midst of telling an Australian TV crew in DC that he was not a neo-Nazi, while pointing to his neo-Nazi Pepe the Frog lapel pin. A black-clad figure then jumps into frame, deus ex machina, with a perfectly placed right hook to Spencer’s face. The alt-right poster boy stumbles away, and his anonymous attacker bounds out of sight in an instant. I don’t know who threw the punch, but I know by his unofficial uniform that this was a member of our black bloc that day. And anyone enjoying the Nazi-bashing clip (and many are) should know that they’re watching anti-fascist bloc tactics par excellence—pure kinetic beauty. If you want to thank Spencer’s puncher, thank the black bloc.


  6. TJB said, on June 10, 2017 at 9:33 am

    There are precious few liberals left who “defend the right of conservatives to engage in free expression.” I am thinking of someone like Alan Dershowitz, who actually cares about civil liberties.

  7. DH said, on June 12, 2017 at 11:55 am

    I think the concept of “feeling unsafe” bears some discussion.

    Not long ago, someone posted a story on Facebook written by an African American man who had been briefly detained and questioned by the police. Apparently, there had been an incident a block or so away, police were combing the area asking questions. By his own description, the police were polite and almost apologetic to him, they explained that he fit much of the description of the perpetrator (height, weight, race, clothing), and they wanted to know who he was and what he was doing. He showed his ID, explained his presence there, and was sent on his way.

    He said that despite the professional demeanor of the police and the smooth, polite way in which they did their job, he said that the whole time he was in fear for his life. Why? Because he knows how the police are, and knows how these things can go.

    There was an outpouring of sympathy for this man – messages of solidarity, expressions of apology for the police or Caucasians or our society in general for making him live his life in fear.

    My response was a little different.

    I said that I thought that the reason he felt that way might just be because incidents like his that go the wrong way are over-reported, and that incidents just like his never make the news – that perhaps he should consider that his experience was exactly as it should be, and that maybe polite, professional encounters like his were more common than he thinks. I suggested that if the focus of his story had been slightly different, it might help to assuage the fear and contribute to the repair of relations between local police departments and the African American community, which I believed to be a common goal among us.

    My response was met with an outpouring of anger, insults, and rants about how I had no idea what it was like being an African American, and that I should just keep my mouth shut and that I was a racist. There was not a single reply to my post that even came close to agreeing with my point, and no one acknowledged that this incident transpired in the exact way it was supposed to – the police did their jobs, they were polite and non-aggressive; the man identified himself and was cleared, and everyone went on with their lives. Rather, the replies were entirely focused on “what could have happened” or what has happened in incidents they have read about on the news.

    I ultimately removed my account from Facebook, fearing being the target of more rants and, more to the point, fearing that those who might have a more direct involvement with my career might also take that tack of (what I considered to be) knee-jerk, racist misunderstanding, and it may cause me undue harm or at least hassle.

    So why did this man “feel unsafe”? Was it justified by anecdotal evidence of police abuse against African Americans in other situations? Does the proliferation of this kind of anecdote truly represent the norm?

    Imagine a similar story but change the roles a little bit. Imagine a Caucasian man walking in a predominantly African American community, where there have been stories of muggings or assaults. If this white man were to feel fear upon being approached by an African American man, would that fear be justified based on the stories? Or is he a racist? Was the man in the above story a racist for fearing mistreatment by a white cop?

    We all feel justified in our feelings, and are more critical of the feelings of others when we perceive them to be unfounded. I am critical of the man in the story because his emotions, based on anecdotes and reputation, superseded the facts of the incident which belied his perception and went unnoticed or unacknowledged. On the other hand, I do feel justified in feeling real fear of social shunning and worse on Facebook, simply for expressing my opinion in a public forum. My fears were based on actual experience, not on what I have heard about Facebook.

    This is why I think that the discourse is so important, and that critical thinking is so vital to the conversation.

    • TJB said, on June 12, 2017 at 9:02 pm

      Democrats divide Americans by race in order to gain power. They want blacks to feel afraid of the police.

  8. TJB said, on June 15, 2017 at 11:46 am

    I’m curious what Mike and DH think about this professor who was fired:


    • DH said, on June 15, 2017 at 3:25 pm

      I read the “Inside Higher Ed” article, then Googled around for more information. The wide variation in spin offered by the different publications really underscores my belief that just about every publication has its own editorial bias. The reasons for the termination range from the professor refusing to budge from her interpretations and research about race and history, to her being an outright racist, to them both carrying on like children in their own Facebook rants. Neither wanted to give an inch, both seemed more focused on destroying each other instead of engaging in any sort of meaningful dialogue about history, interpretation and experience. In that sense, I think a case could be made that neither one of them belonged in academia.

      Both got lots of support from their Facebook posts, which just shows how willing we are in this day and age to just take sides without trying to learn anything from each other or engage in any sort of research or engagement if it pulls us away from our comfort zone.

      It’s hard to form an opinion about this because the information is so biased on every page; it is so emotionally charged and so public that it’s hard to get past the spin. I am also reluctant to post my opinion because of the public nature of an online forum, and the anger and misinterpretation it can lead to. I suppose that speaks to the true nature of this thread – which is the balance between Free Speech and feeling safe. I do not feel safe posting in public forums opinions on such highly charged issues that can be picked up and taken incorrectly or out of context by what amounts to an angry mob. I did mention in an earlier post where I erroneously believed I was making a meaningful contribution to an online dialogue, but was met with such anger and hatred that I ended up deleting my Facebook account. Maybe I’m just a chicken.

      I think this was ultimately the downfall of the professor, and what gave the student her power.

      • TJB said, on June 15, 2017 at 11:01 pm

        I think it needs to be more widely appreciated that we are all descended from slaves.

  9. DH said, on June 22, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    Well, what I see here is just a mob. As the professor stated, his protest was not about the concept of what they were protesting, but rather the methodology. He said that he was not looking to debate, but rather have a dialectic – which he accurately described as “You listen to me, I listen to you”. That ship sank pretty quickly.

    Sadly, it seems to be a pretty standard example of what goes on in this country. Not a lot of thought goes into issues and discussion before things descend in to anger, swearing, and name-calling.

    I am aligned most closely with the student at 5:14 in the first video shown in your post – as I am afraid too many people in this country might be – “I am afraid of expressing a nuanced opinion …”

    It’s not a good situation at all.

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