Making Space not Safe, but Good: Learning to Listen Hard so we Don’t Shoot

People can be rude, nasty, ignorant, and hurtful to others. With words. Some people demonstrate this vice with calculated intent, and others seem oblivious to the way their words could be offensive. Human beings are contentious and at times vicious creatures, and this is not the way it is supposed to be.

I am against all forms of physical violence as a means of communicating on campus. Public spaces need to be safe from such violence and security and police officers are mandated to keep universities free from such frustrated communication. Same goes for verbal abuse and intimidation. But we can do better and cultivate good habits of dialogue that are a preventative measure to shooting each other, by bullets or bullying. (I’m using the language here of James Davison Hunter’s book Before the Shooting Begins, 1994—which focused on debates about abortion and “family values”).

Yet over the last few decades the term “safe space” has been used to name a physical space, event or conversation that intends to protect people from attitudes, words, and perspectives that may be perceived as hurtful to someone or offensive to their own convictions. It is conversation without risk, danger, discomfort or difficulty. It is often the first and only value listed, and often everyone seems to automatically understand and comply.

I hear it frequently in my church, too, but this new “safe” initiative has been most prevalent on public university campuses, and usually pertains to discussions of controversial social issues. The Atlantic, Inside Higher Ed, and The New York Times have carried articles critiquing this practise, often from the perspective of the right to freedom of speech and the need to have universities be a place where critical debates on important social issues are encouraged rather than hampered. While I agree more with their diagnosis than their prescription, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in particular have written some provocative stuff about the “coddling of the American mind.”

“A culture that allows the concept of “safety” to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018)

In a rather extreme case, Judith Shulevitz reported in The New York Times (March 21, 2015) of a debate on sexual assault at Brown University where the university administration literally created a “safe space” for those disturbed by the debate. Along with some counsellors ready to talk to those who enter, the room was furnished with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies. One student who made use of the room said, “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.”

Now the question of whether it is wise for traumatized people to attend academic debates on the subject relating to their trauma may be a worthy discussion to have. I don’t think it is necessary to their education unless it is the field within which they hope to work. Still, timing can be everything; some discernment is necessary and risks need to be calculated. Some lectures may be off-limits for some people. Some conversations need to remain private and in-house. Maybe we have given birth to a very psychologically vulnerable generation, as the statistics for mental illness have increased significantly on campus. But this begs the question: can any (public) space or conversation be truly safe, if safe includes not being challenged on one’s beliefs, or feeling hurt by a remark? Is that enforceable?

Lest you think this terminology is only used by minorities, this article suggests that some majority groups (eg. white people) use it to avoid difficult debates about diversity, equality and inclusion. So “safe space” has become everyone’s favourite excuse for ending a conversation.

What follows is a similar critique of what I’ve said about inter-faith dialogue. To be truly good in a pluralistic society, it needs to risk some conflict and potential awkward offence, while remaining respectful and being open to being changed. Civility, I suggest, with the added practise of listening hard, is a better orienting concept than “safe” and may be a better place to start these conversations than the notions of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience.

(After this blog was uploaded I was alerted to the notion of “Brave Spaces” that some university administrators are recommending instead of “safe space.” This article goes into much more detail on the subject and includes some things I have not considered.)

The Liabilities of “Safe Space”

I have witnessed a number of university discussions on LGBT and Islam, for example, where concern was expressed to create a “safe” space for participants and panelists and the audience was instructed quite directly not to ask certain kinds of questions. Sometimes the questions from the floor are further controlled by replacing floor mikes with notecards on which the audience can write their questions. Maybe this is a good protocol and allows things to proceed in good and decent order. But it also comes with some liabilities.

First of all, it sends a chill through the room, and some people may fear asking a question—publicly or on a note card. The unspoken contrarian question, which may arise from genuine ignorance, from frustration and fear, or simply from a “marginal” perspective, can go underground, where it remains unanswered, and potentially festering in some echo chamber, hopefully not to erupt in less civil ways.

The fences that protect also can keep us locked in, and keep potential new friends out.

Secondly, the participants in the conversation develop a false perception of the audience—as only friendly, clarifying questions get asked and it appears everyone shares a similar attitude on the subject. I know that after these events there are small groups gathering where dissension erupts—against both the restrictions placed on the dialogue and its limited perspective.

Finally, I’ll repeat what many of the free speech advocates keep reminding us: when you habitually silence members of your community, you prevent them from critiquing the dominant culture’s bad ideas. Or from another angle: when you prevent bad ideas from being publicly debated, you also silence their critique. Good education can’t just be about the affirmation of one kind of politics or selective identities: it needs to risk the transformation of identity. And that cuts in all directions. No one is “safe” from being changed.

I recall in the fantasy book by C. S. Lewis The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe there is this oft-quoted scene where the children encounter Aslan, the original great lion king. “Is he safe?” one of children asked.  “No, he’s not safe,” was the reply, incidentally by a beaver. “But he’s good.” With the Lion, goodness was a gift. In our universities, it must be an aspiration.

Surgery Hurts, Too

We can have good spaces that are not necessarily safe from all that is intellectually or emotionally difficult to process but that are still good spaces to be in. Feelings of hurt, guilt, and even shame are part of difficult conversations, especially when submerged conflicts come to the surface. But feeling safe is a relative value; not every encounter needs to be therapeutic. I do not write this easily. I’ve witnessed hurtful congregational conversations and family disputes. As a former campus minister I’ve witnessed a number of contentious public debates, some that were rather embarrassing and rude. Some unpleasant incidents were met with a firm chastisement, and others met with grace, and others were just awkward, uncomfortable, and even disturbing moments. Never as disturbing as your average Netflix show, I should add. But disconcerting for some no doubt.

I do not write this easily. I’ve witnessed hurtful congregational conversations and family disputes. As a former campus minister I’ve witnessed a number of contentious public debates, some that were rather embarrassing and rude.

For example, I remember one well-known feminist speaking at Brock University at length about the atonement as nothing less than “divine child abuse.” I was both viscerally offended by her rhetoric and defensive about her crude literalism regarding the metaphor of Father and Son in the Trinity; she couldn’t see the atonement as really self-sacrifice within the Godhead, bent on absorbing human evil. God’s loving self-giving in Christ was completely and quite deliberately misconstrued and intended to give offence. My dearly and closely held beliefs were disturbed and I was incensed. There are many moments like this in my public university life, where Christian faith is often the whipping boy of provocative professors, not to mention maleness, whiteness, and more socially conservative convictions that rub against the dominant left-wing culture of Canadian campuses and public radio. Some of this is legitimate critique, to be sure; but some of it is hypocritically racist and sexist and deserves some rebuke. Rebuke, but not censure.

I had a professor in my graduate work who liked to defend the New Atheist movement because he said it forces the onus of proof on religious people to justify their fantasies in an invisible friend that does not exist. He knows that this comment offends some people, but he wants to defend the university, and public life, from censorship, and promote it as a place where people challenge each other’s philosophical and ethical claims. That’s fair when it is done respectfully. University is a place to keep each other accountable. It can be a place to grow up.

It certainly feels like Canada is no longer a so-called “safe” place for the religiously conservative—of whatever stripe, whether Christian, Muslim or atheist conservative. Perhaps conservatism needs a reprimand, an exhortation to change, and that can feel threatening to people like me (even if I’m more of a “third way” advocate than a conservative per se). But no worldview is a perfect view of the world, if it is human at all. Besides, feeling “unsafe” can come with an advantage: it can be a school for virtue—virtues like humility, wisdom, and confession. This is a different kind of therapy; it forces one to learn to articulate one’s convictions because they are not the taken-for-granted norm. The era of Christian privilege in Canada ended fifty years ago already and religious minorities must explain what they believe and why.

Listening Hard

I am easily offended myself—I tend to be a sensitive soul that is easily hurt. I prefer to write. Yet I want to defend the possibility that I will continue to feel emotionally and intellectually threatened in public dialogue—an in a way, for my own good “safety”—if we consider the refinement of our character to be vital to health. I call this “listening hard.” Of course, being physically threatened is another issue as I said at the beginning. But I believe there are higher values for dialogue than that they be first and foremost emotionally “safe.”

My own church tradition offers one touchstone. The editor of our flagship magazine, Shiao Chong, cites the Heidelberg Catechism’s Q&A 105 which explains that God’s will for us in the sixth commandment “You must not kill” is that I am not to “belittle, insult, hate, or kill” anyone, “not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds”; nor am I “to be party to this in others.” That has “confessional status” in our doctrinal life. Q&A 107 puts a positive spin on what this can mean: to love our neighbours as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.”

I recently facilitated some “Listening Circles” in our church on the subject of human sexuality that required some prior training. I noticed that while the material used the words “safe space” its central model urged a culture that was both “critical” and “supportive.” In fact, the introductory material warned people that they would feel “uncomfortable” and hear opinions with which they disagreed. So in fact this isn’t really the promise of “safe space” I’m talking about above. To be sure, it is closer to the respectful and robust dialogue that belongs in universities and parts of church life.

Philosopher Richard Mouw, (author of a recently republished book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World) suggests we cultivate “spaces of civility.” This means moving beyond emotional volleys, the vitriolic language of tweets, and shouting down controversial speakers. Civility means cultivating such virtues as empathy, curiosity, and teachability, as well as the different faces of patience:  flexibility, tentativeness, awe, modesty, and an openness to God’s surprises. Civility, says Mouw, “means a willingness to be changed in our efforts at leadership…  civility is a commitment to keep the conversation going” (112, 129).

It seems some people want to only end conversations these days. They don’t want to think beyond their ken. I saw some videos of Jordan Peterson lectures where university students shouted four-letter words at him, preventing him from speaking. These students only hear their own voices, and even the vast universe of the internet steers these future leaders into further echo chambers. In most cases, we are each others’ best first aid kit and that resource needs to continue to be made available to young scholars especially. Peterson himself, like him or hate him, most often models respectful dialogue, even when he is being rudely hounded.

“Argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong (and be willing to change your mind). Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective. Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.”

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

We live in age where people from traditional religious groups must be very articulate about their faith if they are to get a hearing, and from a Christian insider perspective, we ought to do so in a way that displays the fruit of the Spirit, giving reasons for convictions with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:18), and working towards peace with everyone (Hebrews 12:14). Public universities may not be emotionally and intellectually safe, but they can be good, and I mean for the common good, when civility is nurtured in it is hallways, classrooms, and dorms. Cultivating virtue may be our first defence against hatred in the lecture hall. (My colleague Shiao Chong elaborates on these virtues when arguing, especially the value of gentleness, here).

My IVCF email this month tells me at a Veritas Forum at NYU, Jonathan Haidt and Daryl Davis discussed the transformative power of generous listening, a gift especially from those with whom you may disagree. Together they provided five core principles that can apply to any conversation where there is a plurality of opinion:

  1. Respect the person and their right to speak.
  2. Listen—really listen—for as long as the other person wants to speak.
  3. Don’t be offended. Be civil.
  4. Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the other person’s perspective.
  5. Don’t be afraid to walk across the cafeteria.

(photo: pixabay)

Not a bad list to share with your own insider group. Because real, physical violence starts when people stop risking difficult conversations. Good dialogue is always a risk.

2 thoughts on “Making Space not Safe, but Good: Learning to Listen Hard so we Don’t Shoot

  1. Well said, Thank you !

    On Thu, May 6, 2021 at 10:08 AM Sensus Divinitatis wrote:

    > Peter J. Schuurman posted: ” People can be rude, nasty, ignorant, and > hurtful to others. With words. Some people demonstrate this vice with > calculated intent, and others seem oblivious to the way their words could > be offensive. Human beings are contentious and at times vicious creat” >


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