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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