What do we mean by “safe”?

One of the most common of logical fallacies is that of “equivocation.” In the narrow sense, equivocation is the use of a word with more than one meaning in a misleading manner. Silly cases are easy to see through, but many cases of equivocation are much more subtle and sound more convincing at first glance.

The word “safety,” for example, can mean physical safety, as in safety from being attacked or killed. In more recent times, however, it has often been used to denote emotional comfort and a near complete lack of stress. “I don’t feel safe” can mean “I feel in danger of being shot if I speak my mind,” or it can mean “I feel in danger of people disagreeing with me or not liking me if I speak my mind.”

Now, we have laws in place to protect us against the former. Comparatively speaking, college campuses are extremely safe places. Incidents of violence on school grounds, unlike the daily violence of major metropolitan centers, are rare enough to make national news when they do happen. When we walk around at Bellevue College, we’re quite a bit safer than we would be walking around in downtown Seattle.Conversely, we do not—and cannot—have laws to protect us from the latter. Different people have different ideas of what is normal and even what should be morally acceptable. Homosexuality, for example, is deeply offensive to many people, even to some here on campus. This view is, itself, extremely offensive to me. It really, deeply bothers me that students think that other people are doomed to Hellfire simply for who they are. Whose emotional “safety” should we protect? We can’t do both.

When students say things like “I feel less safe on campus” in response to some crude and offensive writing, as happened on April 21 (in erasable marker on a dry-erase calendar), I can’t help but feel a bit of outrage on behalf of the gay couples in Uganda and Iran who really, truly are not safe. What they are doing, intentionally or not, is attempting to sneak in protection against psychological harm under the banner of physical harm. I’m reminded of a scene from Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons,” in which Sir Thomas More is arguing with a prosecutor named William Roper. Roper says, “I’d cut down every law in England” to punish the devil, to which More replies, “Oh? And when the last law was down and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat?” safety is an enticing but poisonous offer that we should emphatically reject. In addition to stagnating discussion, protecting my emotional safety means taking away yours, and protecting yours would mean throwing out mine…and childish, even detestable, is nothing like a “threat” to anybody.

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