America operates under a negative peace. This country’s many, many wrongs—genocide of its native people, slavery, systemic discrimination—have yet to be properly addressed by the institutions that hold power. Though we live in peacetime, it is the absence of overt laws that sanctified land-grabbing, slaveholding, and segregation, that make us think all is now well. The opposite is true. All is not well, as we are reminded of more than ever by movements such as Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and the Water Protectors’ stand against the XL Pipeline, to name a few examples. America’s peace is tolerable for those who still have a lot to say. This country will not move towards a positive peace until it listens to them.
Can We Just Talk?
Dialogues are important. Better than dialogues are multi-person conversations because then we allow for multiple perspectives to interact, not just two, like the pro and con, or the for and against. But, if we’re unable to gather enough viewpoints for this kind of roundtable discussion, then a greater onus is placed on the two people speaking to be as representative as they can of the multivariate points-of-view that more or else align with their own. It becomes important to open oneself up and be receptive to sides that not only tangentially coincide with one’s ideas, but also with those that directly challenge it.
We are conditioned to think in binary terms. One movie or game is better than the other because only one can be the best. A conversation on the merits of each turns into an evaluation that demands a winner be chosen. Your candidate versus mine; your football team versus mine—your views vs. mine. Downsides are downplayed, concessions are better left unconsidered, and compromise, well, why bother with compromise when our society is willing to wage total war to achieve total victory over ideologies. Debates put forward a champion whose goal is to win not by considering the merits of the other side, but by ignoring them.
This, you might say, is not the way a competent debater works. I would agree with you. The problem is that everyday people are not competent debaters precisely because they don’t give their minds the room to consider the other side. The other side is wrong by default. What that means is that, when regular people clash, rather than make an attempt to understand the other side, they spend their time strengthening their own barracks, and so get nowhere. Neither person advances toward the other and it will be some time before the open wounds can be re-evaluated. In order to achieve a positive peace, the source and the causes of the problem preventing that positive peace have to be unpacked, discussed, and, more importantly, understood. None of that can be achieved in our current with-me-or-against-me environment.
Defining Safe Spaces and Their Utility
Safe spaces are meant to provide security from anything that might trigger emotional or physical harm. For those who find value in this kind of environment, they prescribe that “trigger warnings” be supplied ahead of time so that, let’s say, a rape victim doesn’t walk into a venue where sexual assault will be shown or discussed, and then is unexpectedly made to relive that experience. Conservatives ridicule this idea because they focus on the instances where a trigger warning is exaggerated, in their view, such that it looks like liberals, any liberal, is potentially subject to experience emotional trauma if an itinerary or table of contents is not distributed before every gathering. Conservatives also ridicule safe spaces because, to them, a safe space is unnatural—trauma, emotional or physical distress, heterogeneity, these are not things that can be filtered out of society, meaning that liberals baby themselves by believing that this type of environment is not only feasible, but scalable to greater society, and worse, conservatives fear, even desirable.
A safe space is one where one is free from; I believe a safe space is one where one is free to. In my view, a safe space is one where you brace yourself for whatever topic might be discussed, while making an effort to hear out perspectives you’re sure you not only disagree with but might even find immoral or repulsive. Let’s not imply anything: This would mean giving the white supremacist a platform to speak; the flat-earther; the climate change denier; the anti-vaxxer; the racist, sexist, homophobe, xenophobe—the social justice warrior; the conservative and the liberal; the communist and the capitalist—in a word, everyone. How dare I put some of those together, would be the objection. By putting the white supremacist in the same sentence with, for example, someone who believes the minimum wage should be increased, I am putting the white supremacist in equal parity with a “legitimate” idea. The problem with that argument is that the white supremacist thinks his idea is also legitimate. And, of course, he would not be alone.
Therein lies the problem. Anti-vaxxers have become the problem that they are because their reasons for not vaccinating their children were simply written off as wrong and left unaddressed. Of course anti-vaxxers are wrong. Study after study proves that their foundation is based on false evidence. But we don’t change their minds by ignoring them. We get measles, instead. If presenting study after study does not assuage their fears, then clearly we have to resort to another method of persuasion. I suggest a conversation. This would mean giving them a platform.
White supremacists have been here all along and that sentiment has made a resurgence in recent years. This entire time it lay dormant and people were suddenly surprised to see marches in Virginia by white men and women holding citronella tiki torches because, like measles, white supremacy was never fully eradicated. White supremacy, like anti-vaccination, rests on the same foundation of false evidence—and yet, both persist. Is the white supremacist blind, deaf and dumb? Can he/she not see, hear or learn the achievements and accomplishments made by those outside of the Caucasian race? No. But what they do is justify, qualify, or spin those accomplishments and achievements in a way that makes their race the reason for why math is possible, or science. Absurd, I know. I’d like to talk about it. This would mean giving them a platform.
Why give the flat-earther, the white supremacist, the anti-vaxxer a platform? At some point, in the minds of those we consider to be members of the lowest intellectual rungs of society, there was a break between reality and fact. All three of these groups latched on to the evidence that proved their point and dismissed the rest. They, themselves, were then dismissed by the rest of society. But think of our polarized political environment. Is not the same thing currently happening, on a foundational level, between Democrats and Republicans? Does not each side have its own publications, its own media, its own sources of information that they flock to, while discarding the rest? Does it not do all of us a disservice to not talk to the other side, if only to recognize where our moral viewpoints get in the way of finding one, objective answer, or multiple, potentially agreeable answers?
At some point, objective fact got called into question. Subjective reality gained a stronghold and that is what allowed the anti-vaxxer to feel strengthened in their belief. As they dismissed more and more evidence as subjective, their truth became objective, completing a reversal that makes codependence incredibly difficult. Take liberals: gender got called into question. Is a man simply the manifestation of his chromosomes, or is it a cultural and social construct? Take conservatives: the science behind global warming got called into question. Is the Earth warming because of man-made activity, or is it simply a natural cycle? While society struggles to reassert the idea that there are, indeed, answers to questions and not everything is subjective, the ideological pariahs of society continue to get by because they aren’t being confronted. The scope of our conversations, once we begin having them, need to go beyond the topic at question, to include moral questions for which we may not have an answer. If the pro-gun, pro-2nd Amendment gun owner doesn’t want to give up his assault rifle, we need to discuss his apprehension, fears—probably of the U.S. government—why those fears exist (you may be surprised to learn how many you find legitimate), what he envisions as an end goal or ideal situation, along with a basic discussion of logistics. Realistically speaking, how long would it take one to competently operate a firearm, maintain its upkeep, and keep it from falling into the hands of those who should not have it. Maybe then we could go into suitability, mental health, responsibility of gun owners.
None of that can happen if we continue to try to bludgeon each other into submission. None of that can happen if we actively censor voices from sides we don’t agree with. None of that can happen if we don’t take the time to grapple and wrestle with our own ideas, before we take half-understood talking points into an ideological battlefield. We cannot have positive peace when the maintenance and propagation of negative peace has become preferable.