Tolerance, pluralism, and safe space

There’s been some major upheaval on another blog I read frequently: the blogger has moved to the Patheos portal, and a lot of his very active and tightly-knit community of commenters are seriously upset about this, because Patheos does not meet the standards that community had established for inclusiveness. Since I’ve also recently read Gus diZerega’s post calling for religious pluralism rather than religious tolerance, and Jonathan Kirsch’s God Against the Gods, about the conflicts between polytheism and monotheism, and Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One, about the differences between major world religions, the subjects of tolerance, pluralism, and safe space have been on my mind a lot lately. A lot of people don’t understand the difference between tolerance and pluralism, and even more people don’t understand that there is a third option: safe space. A lot of people want to work towards safe space, but because they miscall it tolerance, their very language undermines them and can be used against them by the kind of bigots they are trying to work away from.

Tolerance is an appropriate description of the attitude taken by the majority or the powerful when they decide to accept some things about the minority or those without power. Parents tolerate their two-year-old’s tantrums; countries with state religions may tolerate those who believe otherwise. Not every use of the word implies such a huge power disparity, of course: Roman Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians started learning to tolerate the differences among them after the Thirty Years War, both in areas that were Protestant-controlled and those Catholic-controlled. But it does imply a power inequality and that differences existence on sufferance, not because of approval or agreement to disagree.

Pluralism implies that there is more than one way to do or to be, and that more than one of those ways is protected. The US Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech is an effort to enshrine pluralism in the country’s laws. The government has, in effect, an agreement to disagree with others: the government’s power must be used to support the ability of others to disagree with it or criticize it. When certain kinds of speech are restricted, we slip back to tolerance, and the government deciding what is to be tolerated. Sometimes that’s necessary, but the principle in the Constitution is usually interpreted by courts as an instruction to be as close as possible to pluralism. The decisions by courts that some things, like “fighting words,” or incitement to violence, are intolerable is a point we’ll return to later. Pluralism, by its very nature, is inherently in a state of turmoil: people are allowed to say things like “You’re stupid,” and “You shouldn’t listen to him,” and even “He shouldn’t be allowed to say that,” or, in other words, “I’m using my position under pluralism to criticize pluralism!”

Safe space is where intolerance is not tolerated. Safe space is the idea of tolerance taken through pluralism and out the other side, to where tolerance becomes not just the powerful’s promise not to hurt those who disagree with them, but a reclaiming of that power by the previously powerless, to be used in their defense. It is inherently more regulated than pluralism – pluralism is the laissez-faire form of conversation, if you will. Safe space, like an effort to rectify economic inequalities, attempts to rectify power inequalities in conversation. That requires using power, and in particular, using it against the people who usually have more power.

Safe spaces exist because pluralism isn’t inherently safe. Pluralism is dangerous: people get to say things like, “I know better than you do what you should do with your body,” or “You’re not really a human being,” or “I don’t think you should exist.” I like a lot of things about pluralism, and I would never, ever try to enshrine the ideas of a safe space in law, for example, but pluralism is hard, and sometimes we need places that allow us to retreat from that. It hurts to be worn down every day. Even when each individual insult is light as a feather, at the end of the day you can barely stand up because of the fifteen featherbeds’ worth of insults that have landed on you, even carelessly, even accidentally.

Yes, safe spaces create the danger of an echo chamber, where we only listen to people who already agree with us. But for people who are routinely hurt by everyday life, there’s little danger of that becoming an issue right now. All I have to do is walk out the door to see people who disagree with me, some who show it quite regularly. Yes, safe spaces use power, and no, that use of power isn’t always “fair” by everyone’s definition of fair. But it’s something that I believe needs to be done, and especially when that use of power happens only to those who have given consent by entering the safe space to begin with, it’s a lot better than what happens on the outside. It’s not reverse repression: it’s an attempt to dream, and maybe even to create small pieces of shared dreams, of what a lack of repression would look like.

And yes, safe spaces do exclude those unable or unwilling to cooperate. That’s one good reason that most places aren’t safe spaces, actually. And it’s why creating safe spaces requires a major commitment from those enforcing them to be willing to reexamine their own motives, to make sure they aren’t letting their desire for safety become a cover for their own prejudice, and so that they are using that power in as minimal a way possible.

A claim that pluralism solves all ills is willful blindness. Prothero is right about this: many major religions have fundamental, irreconcilable differences about the world and the metaphysical. For religions and religious interpretations that make exclusive truth claims, existing in a pluralistic space can be hard, and if they create pluralism in areas where they have power, it is a remarkable exercise in tolerance. And they will reveal this by having limits on what they tolerate, just as the government has limits on some kinds of speech, even while holding itself to its promise of pluralism as much as possible. Kirsch is right that monotheism fosters exclusive truth claims and gives a stunning account of how hegemonic power and exclusive truth claims have been used to reinforce each other. I’ve met many monotheists who don’t make exclusive truth claims; perhaps they can move the center of gravity in their religions closer to a point where more mutual respect is possible. But I don’t know, and it’s certainly not the case right now.

Right now, plenty of bigots are still pretending that their religious (or other) bigotry is “fact,” rather than just asserting their right to speak (or act) as bigots. And that means that safe spaces are still needed. It doesn’t mean that everywhere should be a safe space: I disagree with diZerega’s conclusion that a commitment to pluralism should be required of all “true spirituality,” because what he means isn’t just pluralism in terms of speech, but a kind of mutual respect between religions that is not possible for religions with exclusive truth claims. I don’t want to say that those aren’t “true spirituality.” DiZerega wants a kind of safe space in the entire sphere of religion; he thinks religions should not tolerate intolerance. I think it would be wrong for me to dictate to those religions in their own space, and, frankly, I am committed to pluralism, which means that in areas that neither one of us controls, or where we agree not to exercise certain powers – like the public sphere – I have to “tolerate” their intolerance. And I do. But not in all spaces.

In this space, I commit to using my power to try to create a safe space. I haven’t made a comment policy yet, and this theoretical discussion isn’t very clear as one, but I’ll work on refining it. For now, let me say that I want to make this space safe for people of color, for women, for people who are QUILTBAG (Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transsexual or Transgender, Asexual, or Gay), for people with disabilities, for people of any religion who do not make exclusive truth claims or disparage my religion, and more. Because hurtful speech does harm, and allowing that speech is consenting or contributing to that harm. I will warn you, and then I will ban you. And if you think I’m making this space less safe for you in some way, please, let me know about it, and I will listen. Help me make this safe space.