Intellectually Safe Space
What is an “intellectually safe space”? In “What Does Intellectual Safety Really Mean?” Katelyn Hallman (North Florida) notes:
An intellectually safe environment, as typically construed, is something like an environment “in which a person feels comfortable sharing ideas and opinions without fear of harsh judgment or repercussions.” This conception of intellectual safety focuses on being open-minded, tolerant and not judging others. An intellectually safe space like this would look like this:
Person 1: “I’m against same sex marriage.”
Person 2: “Why?”
Person 1: “Because of x, y, and z in the Bible.”
Person 2: “Oh okay. I’m not going to judge you and I guess I can tolerate that.”
She adds: “Something seems a little off here.” Were a critical conversation to follow, it may be that one of the interlocutors feels “personally attacked and harshly judged,” but it is a mistake to construe such a conversation as “unsafe.”
Our typical way of thinking about intellectual safety is wrong. We need people to harshly judge us; we need people to think our views are BS and completely wacky; we need people brave enough to tell us that our views are insane and entirely wrong. But feeling attacked and disliked because someone disagrees with you is a problem and produces intellectually unsafe space.
Still, an intellectually safe space is not one in which anything goes:
To produce intellectually safe spaces we need to build an environment based on trust, not tolerance. Tolerance breeds unquestioned acceptance of (potentially) stupid beliefs; whereas trust breeds the ability to question beliefs in a way that aims at finding the answers. If you don’t trust the person criticizing you, you’re going to feel attacked and intellectually unsafe.
I think lack of trust and understanding is what underlies a lot of the current controversy regarding the teaching of potentially offensive or disturbing material. As I’ve said before, I have found that I can discuss almost any topic with students provided that I show them respect as a person and take their concerns seriously.
Good for Hallman—an undergraduate, by the way—for clarifying an important element of what both professors and students want in the college classroom.
Our views must be challenged, but I’m don’t think that we need personal attacks and “harsh judgements” of people. It is important to be able to say that we think other people’s beliefs are entirely wrong, but it would be counterproductive to insult them by calling their beliefs “insane.” If we are really interested in changing their minds, the last thing we want to do is offer personal insults. People tend not to want to agree with someone they believe disrespects them. Why must we “attack” and “dislike” people we disagree with? I don’t dislike people who are against gay marriage. I know of several who are finer people than I am. I also don’t see why we need to repudiate tolerance. The claim that “Tolerance breeds unquestioned acceptance of (potentially) stupid beliefs” seems backwards. It’s intolerance of other people’s opinions that breeds unquestioned acceptance of (potentially) stupid beliefs. Mutual tolerance gives us grounds to challenge each other productively.Report
“We need people to harshly judge us; we need people to think our views are BS and completely wacky; we need people brave enough to tell us that our views are insane and entirely wrong.”
I don’t agree with this. People will feel hurt and attacked if this happens, and it’s unnecessary. I’ve moderated discussion spaces on and off line, and I find it’s not so difficult to balance between allowing intellectually fruitful discussion and disallowing bigotry, etc. I use two rules of thumb: the space should be intellectually free and everyone’s humanity should be respected. Intellectually substantive but ‘controversial’ opinions are thus allowed, but opinions that attack the humanity and dignity of others — e.g. questioning their sanity, their possessing any human rights, calling them names, etc. — are not, especially if they also lack intellectual substance.Report
“Insane” is not the best word for Hallman to have used, true. If we substituted in “unreasonable” or “implausible” or something along those lines, nothing would be lost from her substantive point.Report
Oh, I’m totes in favor of harsh judgments and discomfort; I think anyone who really cares about ideas will be opposed to the focus on safe spaces and the like. But I don’t think moving from comfort and tolerance to respect and trust is really going to help.
Appeals to respect can just as easily be abused as appeals to tolerance. Am I disrespectful if I call a someone’s post “grade school level philosophizing” or “mansplaining” or am I just stating my opposition to the argument in a style some have an aesesthetic or political objection to? Have I undermined the foundations of trust by using this language? I don’t see a clear way of answering these questions.
People misuse appeals to respect and trust as covers for their WASPish and other stylistic preferences all the time.Report
I see now that it is Justin, not Hallman, that introduced the problematic notion of “respect” into his gloss on Hallman’s piece. My apologies to Hallman. It is that appeal to respect which is problematic and so often misused to shut down debate and discussion.Report
You all are right that telling someone their view is “insane” is probably not the best choice of words! I would completely suggest using different words when pointing out the flaw in someone’s reasoning (‘unreasonable’ and ‘implausible’ like Justin noted) and I would make sure not to phrase the disagreement in such a way that it’s an ad hominem attack — that would be unproductive for the conversation. But, yes again as Justin said, that word choice doesn’t over all take from the substance of what I’m saying. Given that I wrote this for an online news publication geared toward college students, I sometimes sacrifice nuance for choosing less formal words that I feel my peers would be more comfortable with.Report
Interesting topic. Here’s my two cents.
I think anyone entering a philosophical conversation thereby signals a willingness to have his or her claims on the topic subjected to serious critical scrutiny. But I think the best approach to it is akin to ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. People are not identical with their views: they join these discussions in order to establish, or test, or explore, their views. It seems to me that a good rule of thumb is to be as strong as need be in attacking a view, but at the same time to avoid attacking the person holding the view whenever possible. I see someone holding an incorrect view as akin to someone holding a cup of poison. It’s actually helpful and considerate to the person to make sure he or she can see that the liquid is poisonous, no matter how strongly you need to make your case to get the message across. You don’t do the holder of a poison, or anyone else who might think of drinking that same poison, any favors by tiptoeing around. Ideally the person so convinced should be thankful. It’s a delicate balance, but I think it’s good to aim at.
Along those lines, I think an intellectually safe space for philosophy should be safe for the people involved — they should not feel nervous that arguing for unpopular positions, or positions that the host detests, will have any negative repercussions — but not at all safe for beliefs. Entering an intellectually safe space, you should feel confident that you will come through unscathed, but that your beliefs may not.Report
Pretending that we can distinguish a person from her actions and beliefs and commitments may be a useful fiction in the undergraduate classroom where many students are still figuring out what they believe. In fact, I often encourage students to do just that: try on different views and positions over the course of the semester and see where they end up.
But when it comes to fully formed adults, outside the seminar room, there is no way you can separate “the person” from her beliefs and ideas. Or if you can still distinguish a thin, formal notion of “a person”, there is certainly nothing left of the person that could possibly be an object of love.Report
I was with you until that last line? Why no love?Report
Well, that’s an awfully cynical view, Professor Plum. The way I see it, the whole _point_ of engaging in critical discussion with other people on any topic from philosophy to whose turn it is to take out the garbage is predicated on the fact that people can change their minds. If I’m dealing with people who appear incapable of or unwilling to change their minds, I tend to try a little longer but then drop the conversation as going nowhere and find other people to discuss with and other ways to resolve the issue. Doesn’t everyone do this?
The very idea that people can change their minds entails that people can drop or add beliefs. That would not be possible if people were indistinguishable from their beliefs. You sound like one of those people who insist that nobody ever changes his or her core beliefs in the face of evidence and arguments. But I can tell you that I’ve often changed my mind on many important and unimportant things. Often this has happened when I’ve dug in my heels on something but my interlocutors have had the patience to talk me through why I’m wrong.
So I don’t share your cynicism. I actually got a little depressed reading your comment, as it made me wonder how many of my colleagues are using their philosophy courses to give students a picture of the world in which we have the beliefs we have and there’s no sense in trying to change our own or other people’s. I see a philosophy course as a possibly unique opportunity in students’ lives in which they are made to understand that the answers to some big questions really matter and that it’s up to them to reason things through self-critically, take seriously the arguments and objections presented by me, the readings and their classmates, and _not_ just keep believing whatever they like. If we don’t try to get them to take seriously the prospect of rational discourse aimed at discovering possibly uncomfortable objective facts, who will? And if nobody does, what are our hopes for the future? I think Katelyn Hallman is raising a very important issue here. We really do need to walk a careful line that at the same time respects our fellow humans but spares no belief from vigorous argumentative opposition. I don’t think there’s anything childish in making that distinction.Report
Of course people can change their minds about things; nothing in what I said precludes the possibility of changing one’s mind. When people change change their minds about important matters, they change who they are.
Do people change their minds on the basis of phosophical arguments? I don’t know; I hope so, but that’s an empirical question.
I hate empty pieties, and the claim that you should ” hate the sin but love the sinner” is an empty piety.
But I did enjoy your comment. By decrying my “cynicism” you actually showed you don’t hold your own stated position: to criticize someone’s cynicism is to negatively assess the person’s character or self (i.e., it is a way of hating, or at least negatively assessing, “the sinner”). Yet you made this assessment of me on the basis of my beliefs (“the sins”). So I guess you don’t think we can separate the person from her beliefs after all!Report
Hallman’s piece is more interesting and substantive than people are giving it credit for here. She’s certainly right that the practical ideal of tolerance sits uncomfortably with our epistemic aims. While tolerance asks us to accommodate and entertain the views of others even when false or unjustified, the rejection of such views figures prominently among our epistemic aims. This worry led Rawls to explicitly exclude the concept of truth from his account of public reason altogether. The uneasy relationship between truth and public reason remains a point of concern for political liberals like Estlund and Cohen. It may well be that part of what’s gone wrong in some of the problematic calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces on campuses is that well-meaning liberal minded folk are misapplying their conceptions of the ideal of toleration in contexts where it is intuitively inappropriate to subordinate our epistemic aims to practical ideals. This leaves us with a familiar dialectical impasse. While one side thumps the table for the intuition by waxing poetic on the academy’s enduring search for knowledge, the other side is on the soapbox decrying the apathetic dismissal of the harms suffered by the disadvantaged as a result of such a relentless pursuit. Hallman’s proposed shift from toleration to trust is interesting because it suggests way to resolve the impasse, insofar as the establishment and maintenance of trust can not only achieve many of the ends of toleration, but is also an important precondition for group epistemic pursuits (whether or not the group constitutes a collective agent).Report
Great topic. Here’s one thought:
In my experience, people often use the tools and methods of philosophy defensively – that is, as a way to avoid listening to others. Among philosophers, this is often done in conjunction with a suggestion that the other person is philosophically incompetent. In such cases, the line between philosophical criticism and verbal abuse can become very thin.
Assuming that’s right, one important requirement of an intellectually safe space might be a clear line between philosophical criticism and verbal abuse that will not be crossed.Report
I think something important is being mostly forgotten in this conversation about conversational norms: what roles are subjects occupying? Between two peers (defining that loosely) in a non-pedagogical relationship, I think the norms that Hallman is advocating are on the right track. I do find her examples to be unnecessarily mean. Calling a view “stupid” or “BS” or “irrational” or “insane” (I don’t believe this was an innocent slip on Hallman’s part) is unnecessary and in many respects incompatible with further discourse. They are insulting conversations enders whenever they have been used on me. However, I think two adult persons who do not have a pedagogical relationship with one another should feel free to not only deeply disagree but to express that disagreement strongly. If there is a desire for mutual progress, that disagreement shouldn’t descend into insults. If there is no desire for progress or the disagreement is vesting in values that I find so abhorrent that there is no room for any sort of rational engagement then I think Jesse Prinz’s view on this matter might be right:
“If grounding norms were construed as preference-independent, moral interlocutors should feel some compulsion to justify them in purely rational terms. But, I would guess that such attempts at justification have no significant role in ordinary moral discourse. It’s not the case that I value human life because of some well worked out rational argument, and I don’t feel any obligation to generate such an argument (just as I don’t have to argue for the deliciousness of chocolate). If I encounter someone who baldly states that human life has no value, I assume that the person is depraved, not dumb. I respond, not with reason, but with the [metaphorical] fist” (Prinz 2008, 125). [my suggested modification]
Things change completely, for me, when one of the parties in a conversation is in a pedagogical relationship with the other. My job as a professor is not to tell students how “stupid” their ideas are. This is never appropriate. Anyone who thinks this seems to seriously misunderstand the nature of the role. My job as a professor is: (1) to provide a model for critical and respectful thinking in my lectures and in my engagement with students (2) to make sure that my students understand the arguments I have assigned for them to read (3) to ensure to the degree that I can that my students are attempting to learn how to relate those arguments to their own pre-existing beliefs and values and (4) that they learn how to engage in critical and respectful discourse with one another.
A lot of my students have poorly formed views on the world, on religion, on their values, on politics, etc. Though it may grate me personally, I think it is important that I do not give such students any reason to believe that I am assessing their work on the basis of these ideas or beliefs. My job, in a discussion, is to provide counter-arguments to basically anything my students say (and to myself when I occupy different philosophical positions). To add insult to counter-argument to abrogate my duty as an instructor. Without acknowledging this, I think some readers may think that Hallman is advocating that we, as philosophy professors, engage our student’s ideas by calling them “BS” or “irrational” or “insane” or “stupid.” On the one hand, if she is calling for that then I think she’s wrong to do so. If she isn’t then that needs to be made clear.Report
Where I think she gets it right and makes a great point is in the promotion of trust. This is an issue I’ve seen come up more often in activist spaces than in classroom ones, but I think in both cases the building of trust is something that’s centrally important to criticizing well. What Hallman identifies as “tolerance,” which is something perhaps more akin to “indifference” or “lack of intervention,” is often a result of not having a relationship built up, and so not feeling comfortable enough to engage with someone effectively. The flip side of this is that one of the ways “call-out culture” fails is that sometimes involves people intervening harshly or glibly without having built up an appropriate relationship of trust with the person they’re supposedly trying to “call out.” In both cases, the problematic lack of intervention and the poorly conceived intervention, trust is a big part of what’s missing.Report
Calling a *view* “stupid”, “irrational”, or “insane” is very different from calling a person “stupid”, “irrational”, or “insane”. *Everyone*, no matter how brilliant, reasonable, and epistemically careful, has views that are stupid, irrational, or insane: it’s just an unfortunate consequence of the kinds of failures of rationality that are endemic to the human condition. I’m sure I have a great many such views. Of course, there are no particular views of mine such that I know that *they* are stupid, irrational, or insane: if I knew which of my beliefs suffered from these defects, I’d change them. But that shouldn’t cause me to doubt that I have some such beliefs.Report
I would not want any “intellectually” safe environment. It sounds to me like intellectually dead environment. It sounds to me like the kind of thing that will make philosophy utterly cut off from reality, from issues out in the world that are everything but safe. Humanistic, artistici deas that matter are almost never born in “intellectually safe” environments.Report
I do think trust is important in an intellectually rigorous, and often uncomfortable, classroom environment. The difficulty is how to create conditions of trust, especially when students don’t know the instructor or their fellow students very well.
The way I try to create trust is to make sure *all* views, popular and unpopular, held by me and anathema to me, are given a fair and full assessment. I also have a policy of not disclosing my own views, if I’m teaching a politically charged topic.
I think it is difficult to create the conditions of trust when professors come into the undergraduate classroom with their minds obviously made up about which positions are the correct ones.Report