Tara Isabella Burton on ‘Safetyism’ Only Means Words Have Real Consequences

The New York Times building in Manhattan. Photo by JavierDo/Creative Commons

Last week, The New York Times published an online op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton titled “Send in the Troops,” advocating that the United States use its military to quell what the senator called the “orgy of violence” spreading across the country in the wake of largely peaceful protests (in his language: “insurrectionists”).

Cotton’s op-ed was an explicit call for “order” through state-sanctioned violence: the quelling not only of riots and looting but also of peaceful and orderly protest through, functionally (although Cotton has denied the term), martial law.

Predictably, several Times staffers — to say nothing of many of its readers — protested. To run an op-ed like Cotton’s, they argued, was a dereliction of journalistic duty: an implicit statement on behalf of the paper of record that fascist tactics should be understood as well within acceptable discourse. (The Times’ opinion editor, James Bennet, later resigned and the paper apologized for running the piece).

Soon thereafter several of the Times’ more conservative writers, including Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, who have made careers out of criticizing their “woke” brethren amid accusations of political correctness, publicly condemned the backlash.

Weiss, in particular, characterized the infighting at the Times as a generational issue: a values clash between the “liberals” aged 40 and up who ascribe “classical libertarianism,” and their social-justice-focused juniors, educated and formed out of radicalized college campuses. In a Twitter thread posted last week, Weiss cast the backlash from this younger set as a kind of quasi-religious obsession with ideological purity, combined with what she called “safetyism,” in which “the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps what were previously considered core liberal values, like free speech.”

Weiss is right, up to a point. There’s a profound difference between the “classical libertarianism” of the Old Guard, which tends to neoliberalism, and the progressive left Weiss seems to fear. But what she dismisses as safetyism is, rather, a profound moral sense of the failings of her classical libertarian model. The New Guard, as she terms it, rejects the idea that neoliberal institutions are somehow divorced from human emotion and bias. This idea is behind the fiction that sustains the editorial page of an august, broadly centrist national newspaper and other “neutral” public spaces.

The liberal tradition assures us that ideas are commodities: to be bought, sold, advertised and exchanged in their so-called marketplace. The metaphor of the market assigns ideas a chilly rationality that stands apart from the people who elucidate them; distinct, too, from the people whom the ideas may affect. The search for a common good is in this way depicted as a commercial proposition: Everyone is a rational actor, and we consume ideas as freely and neutrally as we choose apples or pears at a fruit stall. Words can’t hurt us, this ideology goes, because we each stand at the same safe remove from them.

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Source: Religion News Service