F*** Safe Space

On Canadian university campuses, Frosh Week (orientation week for freshmen) has just ended. Frosh Week typically involves a mixture of official and unofficial activities, and the donning of various types of matching apparel. Alas, the apparel at Carleton University in Ottawa included t-shirts reading “Fuck Safe Space.” According to this story from Carleton’s student newspaper, The Charlatan, a handful of people were wearing the shirts, in apparent defiance of Carleton’s safe space program, which seeks to “reduce the impact of homophobia and heterosexism on campus.” Apparently, the t-shirts, which were not official Frosh Week garb, were donned by upper year students at the close of Frosh Week to protest aspects of the Frosh Week contract to which Frosh leaders were signatory.


ED: As anonymous and Rachel rightly point out, the Charlatan story I linked here describes a handful, not hundreds, of frosh leaders wearing the offending shirts. I misread the sentence in the original and have now corrected the post above.


The Reddit Defense

Reddit has offered a defense of its laissez-faire approach to immoral and harmful online content, complete with some explicit philosophizing and moralizing (that may not strike readers of this blog as very sophisticated).

The message is that reddit doesn’t (and won’t) take action to stop people from posting immoral and harmful content on their site, because policing such content isn’t a way to save the souls of the people posting.

This would appear to be a fairly explicit acknowledgement that, in reddit’s view, concern for the souls of the people posting harmful content trumps concern for those harmed by it. In fact, concern for those harmed doesn’t even enter into the equation: the reasoning is that if reddit can’t serve the interests of the people posting toxic content by taking action, then they have no grounds for taking action. 

It is hardly news to feminist philosophers that the rights and desires of people engaging in harmful behaviors (online and off) are routinely taken to trump those of their victims when the perpetrators belong to a privileged social group and those harmed belong to a less privileged one. And the kinds of abuse for which reddit is now most famous are very obviously gendered, with women as targets. (The reddit post is actually called ‘Every Man Is Responsible For His Own Soul’. I honestly can’t discern whether any irony is intended here.)

The reddit approach to community norms has the same effect as other similar forms of indirect discrimination. In a sense, everyone is treated the same: everyone gets to post immoral and harmful content if they want. But in reality, such behavior is much more readily tolerated from those who enjoy privileged status relative to the community in question. Moreover, those in such positions do not require any mechanism to protect them from harmful content; abuse of privileged people is not tolerated as a matter of course. There are (informal and unformalized, but nonetheless serious for that) consequences. The reddit approach thus has a differential impact on the less privileged, who can often be targeted for abuse without facing comparable informal consequences.

A very useful thing about this post from reddit, though, is that it enables us to bring into clear focus two things: first, the assumption that, in cases like this, the only possible reasons to take action are those that have to do with what can be done to help (a privileged group of) people causing harm; and second, the way in which appealing to the interests of such a group can be presented as a moral reason favoring norms that disproportionately harm less privileged groups.

This seems worthy of terminology, so I’m going to introduce the term ‘reddit defense’. A reddit defense is an appeal to the rights and interests of people causing harm as a moral reason in support of norms that disproportionately harm less privileged groups.

Another thing that’s hardly news to feminist philosophers is that the analogue of reddit’s approach to community norms is alive and well in our discipline. Even today, many philosophers tolerate (and even idolize) abusive behavior when it emanates from privileged quarters: this list of powerful and influential rude white men (and – interestingly – one white woman who does not as far as I can tell self-identify as a philosopher) can serve as a handy barometer of which philosophers get to abuse others and be admired for it (as opposed to being refused a job, denied tenure, or otherwise encouraged to leave the profession for being ‘uncollegial’ or ‘angry’, or for having adopted the wrong ‘tone’).

Philosophy, like reddit, is a male-dominated environment with a reputation for widespread, institutionally normalized, and demeaning harassment of women. And so perhaps it’s not that surprising that some philosophers privileged under the current set of norms can be seen running a reddit defense in support of those norms.

A quick example: is it ok to use racist and sexist examples in a philosophy seminar? A reddit defense argues that it is, by appealing to the rights and interests of people causing harm (their academic freedom trumps all other considerations) as a moral reason in support of norms that disproportionately harm less privileged groups (white men are not comparably harmed by the use of racist and sexist examples in seminars).

Sometimes just having a conceptual tool and a piece of vocabulary to hand can help us highlight a pattern in what is happening, and start to change it. So I’m offering reddit defense in that spirit.

Thanks reddit, and happy reddit-defense-spotting, everyone!