I have a colleague and friend who was, for much of his life, a working, high-level tradesman who still possesses a fair amount of engineering knowledge and practical nous. He is skilled in various mechanical tasks, clear and logical in his approach to any problem that requires both episteme and techne (knowledge and art). These, when combined, produce a powerful effect commonly referred to as “know-how.” This “know-how” is not predicated on his gender, class, race or any other biological, economic or sociological category. His expertise and skill were won with hard work and, frankly, humility in the face of ignorance. This, as anyone who has even glanced at a Platonic dialogue, is at the core of the Socratic method of education through dialogue: The Dialectic. Enlarging the domain of one’s ignorance is the method, the ‘path’ that Socrates traversed in his quest to gain real, justified true belief based on reliable knowledge. Admitting that he knew nothing was the first, necessary (but not sufficient) step towards such knowledge.
Through his gumption and willingness to learn, my colleague gained a measure of control over his environment as well as a marketable skill. Both of these have contributed to a positive sense of self and increased agency; a higher quality of being-in-the-world. Ideological concerns never entered into his thinking. He never saw himself as oppressed, or as a victim and, if such thoughts ever did cross his mind, he certainly did not allow them to gain leverage over his personal or professional life. The most he ever admitted to was a moderate left-wing allegiance expressed mostly through support for strong (and corruption-free) unions to check the power of unregulated capital. His was, and still is, a life of self-improvement through education. He is now an accomplished musician. I have, in my own way, attempted to live such a life myself (I make no pretensions to mechanical expertise, but have learned that anyone can develop skills to improve our interactions with technology; intellectual and practical).
He never demanded a “safe space” to be inhabited by himself and a group consisting of the ‘chosen’; people deemed fit to join an exclusive club that defines itself primarily through exclusion: of the “oppressor,” of the “other,” of infidels who do not admit to the unproven and often unfalsifiable assumptions found in the favoured ideology of such an “in-group.” To dwell in such a space is to have one’s ideas remain unchallenged, indeed to have them dictated to you by an approved interpreter of an approved text, and reinforced by rank-and-file members. No-one who is not part of such a group CAN challenge you (because they are simply not allowed, their very presence is censored), nor can they be in any way correct about the topics that are “roped-off” in these V.I.P rooms of victims, by victims, for victims.
Nothing an outsider says or does in the realm of such topics as race, gender, class – even history and anthropology – will be regarded as factual, true or ethically sound – let alone admirable! By definition, the group makes it so. All good students must exert themselves. In such a ‘safe space’ where one is not exposed to opposing views, (or just different ones) this is unlikely to happen. Shouting political slogans at one another is not mental exertion. When one exists in an echo-chamber designed specifically to protect hearts and minds from being ‘triggered’ – exertion is, at best, optional.
An “unsafe” space is where a student has the best chance of actually learning something, even if what they learn is that they know very little indeed. To be told that one is in a perpetual state of victimhood, continually oppressed by dark, shadowy forces operating behind the scenes; well, the temptation to abdicate all responsibility for oneself would be hard to resist. If you are starting to get the impression that such groups may begin to resemble cults – cults of victimhood, “slave morality” and “ressentiment” (Nietzsche) par excellence – this is not accidental. Cults and Religions are often born out of such workshops; where ideas are malleable – and preferably weaponised.
The Academy is not the place for such cultish censorship and exclusion. These battles against injustice should be fought in the courts, through political action outside the Universities and in the court of public opinion. Let’s remember Dr. Martin Luther King. “judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It is time we built character, not lists of petty grievances in a world where there are plenty of people facing real, serious and life-threatening injustices.
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