Safe spaces

Safe space.  The concept expressed by this phrase ought to shock any American.  It may sound like a cliché to say that we are a country that revolted from a powerful empire, tamed a continent, connected two oceans with a canal, and sent our own people to the Moon and back.  John Hancock wrote his signature on the Declaration of Independence large enough for King George III to read it without his glasses, and Patrick Henry clarified the choices before the people of his day:  liberty or death.  But these facts remind us of our heritage, a history of rebelliousness and accomplishment.

And yet today, Twitter is vibrating with the slogan, #SaferInternetDay, promoted, among other supporters, by an organization that naturally wants us to censor ourselves for the children.  The idea of protecting children from abuse and assault is something any decent person wants to do, but the reality—as too many Twitter users, I included, can report—is that censorship is a weapon wielded against attempts to express contrary ideas.

This is a common experience among users who support gun rights or express conservative political ideas.  But it’s not exclusive to those topics.  Challenging religious views can also get a user suspended, as a blogger named Godless Spellchecker discusses.

As with Facebook’s decision to ban private gun sales, there are many questions to be addressed in social media.  Twitter and Facebook are companies and thus have considerations to their owners, but when they announce themselves as providers of the virtual agora, the marketplace of ideas, their claim isn’t sustainable if they seek to silence some points of view.

This is not a defense of people who make threats of violence or who spew racism or other slurs.  But there’s a clear difference between those things and the expression of ideas, and those actions were already covered by the terms of service.  And we have to be careful to distinguish the bruising of tender feelings from actual harms.

The broader subject here is the question of where we as a society will gather to discuss matters of politics and culture.  The demands of protest movements that they be provided “safe spaces,” areas where their ideas will not be challenged, are a sad departure from the nature of rational discourse.

Each person has basic rights, and those deserve respect.  This does not mean that every idea deserves respect.  Ideas can only make claims on us when they survive the process of evaluation and debate, when they’re proved to have merit.  But we’re being asked by many in social media now to hand megaphones to people who wish to shout their ideas to the world, but also insist on receiving no criticism in response.

In essence, we’re debating here what kind of nation we want.  Will we have a society that guarantees basic freedoms, but also expects each of us to be willing to stand up for what we believe in, or will we turn ourselves into a country of toddlers who need a nanny to make us all play nice?  If we want the former, it’s time for all of us to make our choice clear to extant social media sites or to create new ones if companies like Twitter are going to impose censorship.  What’s at stake here is not just speech and not just guns; it’s every right.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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