The Savage Empathy of Safe Spaces

An eye for a word makes the whole world blind and dumb.

Posted Apr 03, 2017

"...democracy, desperate to resist totalitarianism, resorts to totalitarian methods... the menace of barbarism the excuse for its own excesses. ...warmth of feeling grows on the same stem as emotional excess and the propensity to violence."
–– Philip Vellacott, Medea and Other Plays by Euripides

At Wellesley College, six professors were so disturbed by the prospect of inviting scholars whose ideas are “painful” to some members of the college community, that they urged their colleagues to stop inviting controversial speakers to campus, thereby avoiding the “harm” and “damage” these speakers purportedly cause. Many of the faculty at Middlebury College had a similar proposal; having never read Charles Murray's work, they declared his research “an insult to the intellectual integrity of Middlebury College.” In a perverse feat of doublespeak, they asked the president of the college to “stand up for a campus that is intellectually open” by canceling her scheduled remarks at his talk. 

These are but two examples of what progressive activist Van Jones railed against when he denounced the “horrible view” that, “I need to be safe ideologically; I need to be safe emotionally; I just need to feel good all the time, and if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everyone else including the administration…” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, (where I do research), regularly posts new evidence of that horrible view on campus, and Greg Lukianoff, President and CEO of FIRE, devotes two entire books to unpacking true (and inconceivable) stories of campus censorship. In Unlearning Liberty, he notes, “the advocates of benign censorship fundamentally miss a simple truth that Buddhists have known for millennia: life is pain.” (And if you've watched The Princess Bride, you know that “anyone who says differently is selling something.”)

Professors and administrators have a choice. They can compassionately encourage students to overcome their discomfort about objectionable ideas, or they can, out of “empathy” for students who feel disempowered, convince them they need protection from words that cause them “injury.” The latter, however, is a recipe for misery. It only serves to create “victims” (or, at best, “survivors”), rather than joyful and effective human beings who not only thrive but are able to make a difference in the world. As Yale psychologist Paul Bloom quips, “if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.”

In an article for the Huffington Post, Lukianoff explains “free speech fosters values like 'epistemic humility' — an open-minded recognition that you may not always be right — that lead in turn to hearing and engaging with opposing opinions...and recognizing that divergent (and offensive) opinions are part and parcel of a tolerant pluralistic society.”

Ralaenin/ ©Paresky
Source: Ralaenin/ ©Paresky

Even if epistemic humility is too much to ask, empathetic professors can do untold damage if they subscribe to the invention that words equal violence. After all, how can words cause injury if they are not violent? And if words are violent, speakers must be silenced and punished—with violence if necessary. As Bloom reveals in his book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, “empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty.”  

At Middlebury, a mob of empathetic protesters, some wearing ski masks, blocked Murray's path. Flanked by Professor Allison Stanger and an administrator, the 74-year-old Murray was shoved, and stumbled. Someone grabbed the professor’s hair as she was shoved in a different direction, injuring her neck. She was later diagnosed with a concussion.

In a statement written after the event, student protesters insisted that although they “deeply regret[ted] that she was injured during the event,” Professor Stanger's injury was not their fault because they were only trying to protect people from the very violent presence of Charles Murray (whose work they had not read). It was “irresponsible to imply” they did anything wrong, they argued; they are empathetic people, and besides, they didn't do it on purpose

Allison Sanger was merely collateral damage. At Berkeley, however, where “asking people to engage in peaceful dialogue with people who don’t think their lives matter is a form of violence,” it was necessary for protesters to intentionally use violence to prevent Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking (because whatever he might say was worse than anything the protesters could do). Masked protesters dressed in black assaulted people with fists, pepper spray, and weapons of hand-to-hand combat, and did hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage. Although protesters physically injured several people––intentionally––they did not engage in “acts of violence,” they claimed. What they engaged in (against the windows, the cars, the ATMs, the lamp-posts, and the unarmed people who came to listen to a talk), “were acts of self defense.” 

Some faculty, including many at Middlebury, are convinced that “exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence.” But other students and faculty are unconvinced. Several empathetic Middlebury students signed a statement quoting Toni Morrison,

Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence,”

and the committee of professors at Wellesley insisted,

students object [to certain speakers] in order to affirm their humanity.”

All too often, controversial speakers who come to colleges are accused of invalidating students' humanity by expressing their views (or even holding them). The notion that someone's words or ideas (even if their research is bad, or their scholarship, shoddy) can disconfirm or invalidate not a student's firmly held beliefs, but indeed, their humanity is particularly concerning because it involves a level of perceived victimhood marked by such grandiosity that it minimizes the historical events and personal experiences of people who suffered and even perished at the hands of those whose violent actions truly attempted to invalidate their humanity.*

We are fond of scoffing, “an eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind.” At Berkeley, had the flawed “eye for an eye” ethic been followed, disagreeing with what someone said would have resulted in saying something back. Disliking what was written on someone's hat would have resulted in donning a hat with different writing. Thinking that people shouldn't listen to a speaker's words would have resulted in using words (strung together in compelling arguments) used to convince people not to listen. Instead, it was a bloodied eye for some words, and pepper-sprayed-eyes for a hat. At Middlebury, it was a neck injury and concussion for being so un-empathetic as to engage in dialogue. 

College is no place for students (or faculty) who are so “empathetic” they manage to convince themselves and others that hearing opposing or even abhorrent views is a threat to their humanity; it should be a safe space for students to learn that the real-world effect of feeling uncomfortable while listening to a speaker is... feeling uncomfortable. Period. 

When words are treated like violence, “an eye for an eye” makes us see better. ♦

Bekah Richards/
Source: Bekah Richards/

*Hear from the real people who experienced attempts to invalidate their humanity at the USC Shoah Foundation website. The mission of the Shoah Foundation is to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry, and the suffering they cause, through the educational use of the Foundation's visual history testimonies
Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) begins the evening of Sunday, April 23, 2017.

Opinions in my articles are my own and should not be considered a reflection of the legal or other positions taken by FIRE.

For more on this topic by Dr. Paresky:

How Making Colleges Safe Spaces Makes Us All Less Safe

Bullies With a Cause

I'm Right, You're Evil

Angry About the Election?

We Say We Want Free Speech and Civil Dialogue...

Uncivil Rights

Silencing is Golden

What You Need to Know About a Know-It-All

“The non-violent resistor not only avoids external, physical violence,
but he avoids internal violence of spirit.
He not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he refuses to hate him.
And he stands with understanding, goodwill at all times.”
–– Martin Luther King Jr. †



† A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (p. 8)