Safety First!

No textbook in ethics that we know of points out the importance of safety in practicing ethics, either in a classroom or outside the educational setting.  Whether one is inside or outside an educational or academic setting, producing an ethical argument, offering a dissenting opinion, or even simply voicing one’s view on some ethically important topic may require great courage and lead to persons or institutions seeking to silence one’s voice.

The twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first century has seen an extraordinary growth in nation states that claim to be democratic; this is true of the majority of nation-states today, compared with the year 1900 when the majority of the world population lived in empires in places in which there was no meaningful political representation of the people through public debate and voting.  Those of us who are committed to the integrity and sustainability of this site as a resource for our immediate community at St. Olaf College (and any persons interested in following or contributing to this site) are also committed to securing to the best of our ability the safety of sites (physical and virtual) for the free and respectful exchange of ideas, ideals, arguments, counter-points.  Obviously, creating a safe space means making sure that nobody involved is violated, threatened, or otherwise subject to humiliating, cruel censure.  We therefore seek to ensure that arguments and disagreements on this site (and on any other site we influence, virtually or physically) are presented such that persons can interact without fear of unjust reprisal.

There are (in our view) clear cases when parties unjustly seek to silence or harm those they oppose on ethical grounds (e.g. state-sponsored terrorism against advocates for democracy is ethically unacceptable), but we also recognize that there are borderline cases in which reasonable people disagree.  We the moderators of this site are not detached, neutral observers who will be bystanders in cases of criminal acts or threats.  We will safeguard this site from what we believe to be illicit use in terms of those seeking to undermine human rights or from parties who wish to silence minorities in any population who are seeking respect and dignity.

We realize that our position is awkward:  we are advocating “openness”, but we intend to not be a vehicle for any party to spread what we believe to be hateful, cruel, malicious speech or actions.  But such awkwardness is an inevitable part of the practice of any community which seeks to value tolerance.  To have some domain of tolerance, you cannot tolerate those who will not (in their action or speech) tolerate that domain but instead seek to (in the extreme) destroy those whom they think are involved in unacceptable actions.  We pledge to provide as much freedom of communication and representation as is compatible with respecting the dignity of others and not limiting the communication and representation of others.

Perhaps the most important point to stress is that in promoting arguments, objections and counter-objections, and engagement in intense ethical disagreement, we are promoting respectful, non-manipulative exchanges that are profoundly different from what might be called a quarrel or feud.  We think that respect for one another’s dignity should forms the foundation for fruitful exchanges that include arguments.  Ethics is not at all limited to arguing, of course.  Much of ethics can involve the task of exploration, seeking clarity, and so on.  But when an argument is engaged we believe that one is engaging in a practice that has dignity and should be honored.  When a particular argument ceases to be dignified or honorable, we think that sitting in silence or taking a quiet walk or “fun run” is infinitely preferable.  When persons cease to listen to one another and no one is even remotely open to changing their minds, continuing the conversation is a waste of everyone’s precious time or, worse, the exchange becomes a vehicle for the vices of resentment, rage, contempt, and indifference.

Here is a poem that gently coaxes a youth away from some kinds of (perhaps elite?) conversations and tasks, offering instead an invitation to go for a walk, asking big questions with a walking partner.  Perhaps there is also a gentle reminder not to think one is quite remote from the mob?  In any case, we love this poem’s proposal of taking a break from the clubs or pubs and going for a philosophical walk:

On The Way Carl Sandburg

Little one, you have been buzzing in the books,                                                         Flittering in the newspapers and drinking beer with lawyers                                                 And amid the educated men of the clubs you have been                                               getting an earful of speech from trained tongues.

Take an earful from me once, go with me on a hike                                                       Along sand stretches on the great inland sea here                                                           And while the eastern breeze blows on us and the restless surge                                       Of the lake waves on the breakwater breaks with an ever fresh monotone,                       Let us ask ourselves: What is truth? what do you or I know?                                             How much do the wisest of the world’s men know about                                                     where the massed human procession is going?

Have you heard the mob laughed at?                                                                                   I ask you: Is not the mob rough as the mountains are rough?                                           And all things human rise from the mob and relapse and rise again as rain to the sea.