The realization that safe spaces do not exist
There are no safe spaces and threat forever looms under the surface.
We all know this deep down and have been telling stories about it for a very long time. The awareness that we are eternally vulnerable might, in fact, be the first conscious realization of humankind, that which in turn doomed us for eternal separation from the ‘pure’ animals.
Our ancestors ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, leaving us cursed with awareness of our limitations in the face of a terrifyingly complex reality of struggle and death.
Throughout modern history, an increasing spirit of skepticism has been aimed at our ancient stories, the ‘supposed’ wisdom they contain and the traditions built into the cultural systems we have inherited. The scientific method has allowed us to make incredible discoveries into how the laws of nature appear to operate, raising doubt about the ‘supernatural’ beliefs of our ancestors and the institutions they’ve created in turn.
Within the postmodern period, this doubt has even extended towards several scientific domains, like evolutionary biology and psychology, which strive to understand the depths of human nature.
The belief that a child is born as a tabula rasa — or blank slate, is now held by a sizable portion of philosophers, social ‘scientists’ and civil activists. The underlying view holds that human beings are born without innate predispositions and in turn molded primarily through social construction.
It is asserted that cultural traditions structure most, if not all, of our development. Ultimately, nurture trumps nature, if nature contributes at all, in making us who we are.
If this premise is accepted, it naturally follows to believe that we can engineer a far more compassionate and egalitarian culture than our primitive ancestors. If we could only abandon the savage shackles we built on archaic presumptions, we could prosecute hate speech, create safe spaces and ultimately eliminate oppression, all of which will lead to a more equitable society where individuals and groups alike are less threatened.
This philosophy is the core belief held by many of those fighting for a new type of social justice, a movement that has engulfed a number of college campuses, affecting both the faculty and students, as well as spreading rapidly to government and corporate policy.
“A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”
-Haidt & Lukianoff (2015)
I was recently told about a coworker’s experience going to his young son’s parent-teacher conference, in which he was told that his son is competitive and wins a lot. Although he was assured his son played fair and wasn’t a bully, he was asked by the teacher to convince him to stop winning, so that the other children could feel better about themselves.
Children’s recreational sports leagues are increasingly not keeping score in games to avoid declaring winners. Many schools are in the process of eliminating recess time and kids are rarely given the opportunity to play without adult intervention.
Similar patterns have spread at some high-end universities, where concepts like providing ‘trigger warnings’, avoiding ‘microaggressions’ and building ‘safe spaces’ have become the norm. This wave of change in the culture of many colleges has been documented in depth by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and attorney Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind. The article (which was made into a book published last year) is eye opening to just how widespread the cultural shift has become.
Their conclusion holds that this project is unsustainable and completely misinformed from the outset as:
“Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship.”
I can’t help but to align with this conclusion and find the current manifestation of the social justice project to be a fools errand, consisting of an unrealistic premise coupled with a counterproductive solution. Although the vast majority of supporters for these ideas are well-intentioned, I propose that they might reach different conclusions about these interventions with a deeper insight into human nature and how it contributes to the societies we create.
Our evolutionary history runs hundreds of millions of years deep and has much to say about who we are and why we follow certain customs (for better or for worse). Our social systems have gone through a painful developmental process in order to reach their current state and allow us to continually survive as a species.
Thus, I don’t believe they can just be hand-waved away as arbitrary decisions, made by archaic people holding silly beliefs. They should instead be understood as emerging from a deadly process of trial and error, over the longest tests of time. The underlying wisdom discovered through this painstaking process is baked into the societal structure as it stands now, even if only implicitly and largely forgotten by modern people.
Our customs contains insight into how we have dealt with both organizing ourselves towards common goals and protecting us from the threats of our natural circumstance. Although change is constant and necessary, fundamental shifts should be examined with extreme scrutiny. We can’t know how an experiment will run until it is carried out, a reality that has caused the fall of many a great civilization before us.
Any (successful) changes to a complex system (that has worked relatively well) are best implemented on an incremental scale, with reverence and a deep understanding of the current foundation.
I find the social justice philosophy, which pits much of our peril at the hands of our culture, not quite pessimistic enough about our actual situation.
The birth that was imposed on each of us comes with the price of our eventual death.
If we weren’t already lucky enough, biology has constrained women with menstruation and painful childbearing while cursing us all to deal with the disastrous consequences of testosterone-fueled men.
Mother Nature is far more destructive and at least as misogynistic as the ‘oppressive patriarchy’ that allegedly characterizes Western society.
“Mother nature is a brutal b****, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates.”
― Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
Throughout this essay I come to you as the bearer of bad news, aimed at my own generation, the latest to lose sight of the painful lessons that have been learned and relearned by our ancestors through hardship and bloodshed.
My hope is that this seemingly pessimistic perspective highlights the futility of trying to shield kids from experiencing loss in games, facing the struggles of life or of protecting anyone from encountering uncomfortable ideas.
We instead must learn to contend with reality, as early and often as possible, instead of readily designing a society of denial and suppression.
I hope you won’t feel inclined to shoot the messenger in the process.
The reality of our difficult natural circumstance is revealed through studying our evolutionary past, which offers many compelling potential theories to how we diverged from our fellow creatures in the animal kingdom. The common consensus among evolutionary biologists places the early ancestors of modern humans as tree-dwelling primates up until approximately 2–4 million years ago.
Over the hundreds of thousands of years that followed, we left the trees, began to walk upright, developed complex language, tools and technologies, and produced cultural traditions that allow us to store and propagate our collective wisdom throughout the generations. The brain size of humans more than doubled over that relatively short (in evolutionary terms) period, leading to the separation of man from beast.
There is no shortage of compelling theories that try to explain this phenomenon.
Perhaps our emergence from the trees made social connection and group formation necessary for continued survival on the open African savannas. In turn, this could have led to the development of more complex tools and language, which proved to be incredibly useful for control and manipulation over the natural environment, greatly increasing our odds of survival.
Our ancestors then seem to have learned to control and manipulate fire, leading to cooking, which could have caused a process of trading excessive gut tissue, used for digestion of raw food, in exchange for increased brain size. The ‘Stoned Ape’ theory proposes another interesting take, suggesting that early humans began to experiment with eating psilocybin mushrooms, leading to a rapid process of cognitive evolution.
It isn’t unreasonable to suspect each of these factors might have played a part, as most experts agree these explanations don’t have to be mutually exclusive. However, these adaptations hinged on our ancestors journeying out from their natural habitat among the trees and into the open, unexplored terrain outside the forest. Food and shelter were seemingly plentiful and other primate species have found great success staying within that niche for the past few million years.
Why might we have left our Garden of Eden?
Might we have learned to see something that ‘opened our eyes’, like the old Biblical story of Adam and Eve suggests?
One of the aspects of primates that distinguishes them from other mammals is their reliance on vision as the primary sense, in contrast to the sense of smell largely depended on by other mammals. Primates have three-dimensional depth perception through largely forward-facing eyes, with some species developing trichromatic color vision, which both contribute to superior visual acuity and perception when compared with other mammals (most other animals as well).
The reason for this divergence is debated among scientific circles and, like other questions of this sort, is impossible to answer with certainty.
However, the primatologist Lynn Isabelle proposes a potential evolutionary explanation for this fact with her “snake detection theory”. She states that “the mammals that were to become primates were actually prey”, whose longest standing predator was the snake.
Isabelle goes on further to detail how snakes have remained unchanged in appearance since before primates evolved and uses evidence from neuroscience, the psychophysiology of fear (as snakes are one of the most common causes of phobia) and comparative evolutionary biology to make her case that primates developed superior vision in large part to detect predatory serpents.
She also suggests our ancestors around this time seem to have had a diet heavy in fruits and nectar, sugar rich foods which would have the chemicals necessary to help expand the visual sense. Additionally, developing color vision would help us distinguish between ripe fruit and their strong odor would allow us to trade-off a superior sense of smell for heightened vision.
Isabelle notices the irony in the similarity of her evolutionary theory to one of the Creation accounts in the Book of Genesis:
“In [the story of Adam and Eve], the Serpent encourages Eve to go ahead and eat the fruit from the tree. By doing so, the Serpent assures her, she will not die and, in fact, her eyes will be opened. She will see the difference between good and evil. This is not so different from the mechanism proposed by the snake detection theory to explain why primates evolved good vision while other mammals that were also prey for snakes did not.”
-Lynn Isabelle, The Fruit, The Tree, And The Serpent
The harmony between the scientific theory and religious story is striking.
What might have happened when our eyes opened? In the Biblical story, Adam and Eve feel immediate shame at their nakedness, sewing leaves together in order to cover themselves up. God also deals out punishments:
To Eve: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
To Adam: “…cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Even if stripped of their Biblical context, these verses can be read as metaphors for our realization of our own vulnerability in the face of Mother Nature, our eternal nakedness as limited creatures. These ‘punishments’, or natural constraints that limit women and men, already existed before we consciously realized them and could dramatize them in story or detail them descriptively.
The psychologist Jordan Peterson has extended Isabelle’s hypothesis and speculated that perhaps as we became better able to detect predatory snakes and developed bigger brains, our capacity for abstract thought emerged. Perhaps our danger doesn’t end at the snake right in front of us as there is also the nest of snakes that could cause us harm in the future.
Then it follows to ask, what else might cause us harm in the unknown future? Maybe there aren’t only literal snakes that threaten us, as there seems to be snake-like dangers constant throughout the natural world.
We woke up: threat and destruction is a given within nature.
Once you realize that you are vulnerable, you also know that others are vulnerable in the same way. This is how self-consciousness leads to our discovery of evil, as we can capitalize on this knowledge to torture and destroy each other in a deliberate manner.
Thus, the snake must exist among our family, friends and neighbors as well. By taking this reasoning to its conclusion, we realize the snake lurks in each of our own hearts as well.
We had fallen from Paradise, the only safe space of unconscious ignorance.
“Fear keeps pace with hope…both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present. Thus it is that foresight, the greatest blessing humanity has been given, [that] is transformed into a curse. Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for my memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”
— Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
The Stoic philosopher Seneca had intimations of this same idea in 1st century Rome. The philosopher brings an explicit description of some of the wisdom already implicit in The Garden of Eden narrative that helps to shape Western culture.
This is an example of the fundamental relationship between our actions, stories and societies. First we act out, then we tell stories about how things unfold and in turn develop societies guided by the stories we believe.
Our instinctual reactions are shaped by our biological evolution and are only later altered during our lives by culture. Our stories contain insight into how our development unfolds on both an individual level and as a species across time. Our societies are then built on the bedrock of stories that best describe our tribes. Each of these ‘levels’ have a reciprocal relationship, influencing each other as the complexity of life increases over time.
Learning to hit the target, work as a team and face the result of the competition (win or lose) are ways in which sports and other games develop skills necessary for facing the trials of life. The child who continually succeeds, and does so ethically, is the best defense against those who will use their ‘winning’ talent to manipulate and harm.
Culture is not formed through arbitrary decisions, as our customs face trial by fire through time. Similarly, we are not born as blank slates, as the evolutionary process provides us with an innate ‘first draft’ of our traits, talents and eventual personalities.
Human beings share many emotional capacities, regardless of cultural background, including developing anxiety of the future as well as knowledge of the vulnerability of oneself and others.
In short, we must all come to learn that danger lurks around every corner. Fostering a society of victimhood seems counterproductive in a world of evolving threat.
If nowhere is actually safe, we have to become courageously adaptive in order to survive and thrive.