Academia’s ‘Safe Space’ Invalids

F*** you! … You’re not wanted here.  … You’re harming people by asking that question.  … We’re going to … disrupt you.  -- Group of Portland State University (PSU) social workers to Philosophy Prof. Peter Boghossian for conducting a Socratic exercise on campus.

Prof. Peter Boghossian posted a video of a discussion he had with a group of social workers at Portland State University (PSU).  He was doing what he calls “street epistemology” (approaching epistemological issues not in stuffy classroom in real conversations but on the street).  He displayed a sign that said “There are two genders” and invited passers-by to respond to the sign. 

When a group of people began yelling insults at him from the top of the building, Boghossian invited them to have a conversation. 

About 15 people soon emerge from the building and approach him.  Boghossian was polite to a fault.  The group was often not.

19-minute video

One spokeswoman begins by stating that they were curious what he was doing down there, to which Boghossian replied that he was conducting a “critical thinking game”.  The extraordinary insincerity of the group is illustrated by her statement.  If one is curious about what is going on one approaches and says, “Can you tell us what is going on?”  One does not shout from the rooftop “F*** you. … Go away!” When Boghossian brings up the fact that they said “F*** you!” and hurled insults at him, none of them deny it.

One spokesperson for the group explained that some of their “trans” students were triggered by the sign because they didn’t know the context for the sign.  However, if one doesn’t know the context one asks, “What’s the context?”  One does not yell “F*** you! Go away.”    Ironically, Boghossian was inviting the passers-by to state their views and provide any context for that sentence they wanted.  That’s what the group wanted wasn’t it?

Further, Boghossian never made the statement that there are two genders.  When a teacher holding a class-debate writes on the whiteboard, “Russia is the enemy of the United States,” they have not stated that Russia is the enemy of the United States.  They have merely indicated the debate topic.  It would be useful if university people could distinguish between unasserted sentences and asserted statements so that childish conflicts could be avoided.  

 One Caucasian male explains the real basis for their objection: “What does it look like to other people?  5 white men putting on a sign that says there are only two genders.  You could have been Westboro Baptist Church.” This person has not, apparently, mastered the distinction between “looks” and “is” from in his 2nd grade English language reader.  If he were really worried about whether Boghossian were from Westboro Baptist Church, he could have asked, “Are you from Westboro Baptist Church”, to which Boghossian would have explained, “No, I’m doing an exercise in street epistemology”.  Mystery eliminated!

Someone else says that Boghossian is “representing” the white race.  That is silly.  Since the aforementioned young man is white, is he representing the white race?  Really?  All of it?  At another point a woman asks Boghossian if he is “trying to cause trouble”.  The answer is not difficult. No, he’s doing “street epistemology.”  It’s called thinking. 

The group’s central claim is that Boghossian’s exercise is “harmful”.   Boghossian asks them what is harmful about it but none of them ever manages to say what the harm is.  They do repeat their claim that Boghossian’s exercise is harmful, that people felt bad and the like, but repeating a thesis is not justifying it.  A woman states that some people went home because they saw his sign.  However, that does not show that anyone was harmed.  It may show that they think they were harmed but thinking one has been harmed is not the same thing as being harmed.   When a psychiatrist probes into a patient’s past the patient may feel they have been harmed and  resist when, in fact, the psychiatrist is helping them.  Have today’s social workers forgotten this?

One particularly comical exchange occurs when a woman sanctimoniously asks Boghossian if he knows about the view, which she wrongly regards as settled fact, that gender is a social construction.  Boghossian is a philosophy Ph.D. who teaches gender studies.  He will know far more about that controversial theory than any of them and there are plenty of scientific reasons to question that social construction of gender “theory”.

One woman asserts the platitude that “we’re talking about real humans and their lived experience and positionality and their identities” and adds that we’re here to “advocate and elevate” those who might be harmed by this statement.”  Again, that presupposes rather than provides an account of how Boghossian’s sign “harms” anyone.   The entire group continually demonstrates that they do not understand what a “reflective” investigation is, that is, the distinction between asserting that P and asking, reflectively, what “P” means or why a rational person should believe that P. 

Another woman says that the harm is that “gender minority” people “might feel suicidal ideation when they see messages like this all throughout their lives.  “This is supposed to be a safe space where people can feel safe in their own identities”.  First, one cannot have a genuine university that is a “safe space” but that is another discussion.  Second, her own statement undermines her attempted explanation.  Boghossian did not put that message on the sign “all throughout their lives”.  He did it one afternoon and the remedy for that is to approach Boghossian and ask, “Do you think there are only two genders?” to which Boghossian would reply, “I am only doing street epistemology, not stating my own views”.  One does not help people by turning them into psychological invalids who cannot face a challenging message.  Ironically, one HARMS them by doing that.

The group never grasps that Boghossian does not assert theses.  He is imitating what Socrates (fifth century BC Athens), in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, did, namely, asking people questions about their beliefs.  Just as Socrates’s countrymen were not very happy at being asked to justify their beliefs, this group was not happy with Boghossian because they manifestly cannot explain or justify their beliefs.  When, after taking the group’s questions for some time, Boghossian starts asking them some questions, many of them walk away.  They can question you but you must not question them.

Not a single person in the group has any idea whatsoever what Boghossian was doing. None have any idea what a reflective inquiry is and literally none have any idea how to formulate a thesis and defend it.  At one point several people enthusiastically say they wanted to find out what Boghossian thinks, as if, in a what is supposed to be a free country, that is any of their business, but none of them, except in a trivial sense, ever tried to find out what Boghossian was doing on the sidewalk.  They came to lecture and hector him. 

Their most honest moment was when at the beginning they yelled “F*** you! We’re going to disrupt you.”  They succeeded in their life’s mission.  They learned nothing, just like the un-reflective buffoons who executed Socrates in 399 B.C.

Photo credit: YouTube screengrab      

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