When conservatives criticize our country’s culture of “safetyism,” naysayers often claim such concerns are overblown. But as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued in The Coddling of the American Mind, the “three Great Untruths” of our era—“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people”–continue to operate unchecked, fostering a culture that threatens free expression and democratic institutions.
The pursuit of safetyism now extends well beyond de-platforming controversial speakers or canceling inappropriately woke faculty members; even symbols that are deemed threatening by a few individuals are now fair game for cancellation.
In Pelham, N.Y., the New York Times recently reported, the superintendent of a public school district prohibited employees from wearing any symbols that might be construed as supportive of law enforcement. The offending item was a sweatshirt that featured a small “thin blue line” flag, a longtime symbol of support for law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. The shirt also featured the name of New York Transit police detective George Caccavale, a resident of Pelham who was killed on the job in 1976. As the Rockland/Westchester Journal News reported, the sweatshirt “was designed and sold by Caccavale’s family to raise money for police spouses and families of slain officers. Four of his grandchildren are currently students in the district.”
No matter. The school superintendent declared that the thin blue line flag was “threatening in nature” and claimed that banning it was the only way “to protect students.” Meanwhile, the school district allowed employees to wear T-shirts with the names of black people who had been killed by cops, and other symbols linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, until an uproar prompted her to rescind that policy as well. Thus, the school was forced to declare all symbolic clothing off-limits to employees (students are still allowed to wear political items as long as they aren’t “disruptive.”)
When some parents and local law enforcement officials offered to bring police officers into the schools to discuss students’ concerns and fears about the symbol, minority students rejected the idea outright. That just goes to show that the objectors’ interest isn’t in fostering understanding or cooperation but banning speech and symbols with which they disagree. One high school senior in Pelham told the New York Times that the flag should be banned because it might remind students of color of “racist experiences they have had” with cops.
The thin blue line flag has become more popular among law enforcement supporters in recent years as a counter to the “F**k the Police” and “All Cops Are Bastards” messages promoted by members of the Black Lives Matter movement. Today, BLM’s most recognizable symbol is a raised black fist (itself quite a change from the symbols of the old Civil Rights Era, such as the black and white hands clasped together that was the symbol of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Since 2016, the pro-police flag has made many appearances at rallies for Donald Trump, which perhaps explains the newfound antipathy for it among progressives.
College students, too, have claimed the flag is a direct threat to their safety. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, student activists have demanded that the university’s police department (which they also want to abolish) should not be allowed to display the flag in their own office.
“It is endorsing white supremacy,” one student told a local news outlet. “It’s indicating that they refuse to validate and acknowledge that black lives do matter, that every concern that is being expressed, it’s basically just invalidating all of that. And it’s upholding and enforcing the white supremacist ideology of police departments. And it is just a direct threat.” (The same news outlet also asserted, without evidence, that the flag “is widely regarded as a symbol of racism and white supremacy.”)
Like the people protesting in Pelham, UW-M students argue that if even one person is offended by the symbol, or chooses to interpret it as a symbol of white supremacy, it shouldn’t be displayed at all. “If it does mean different things to different people, and if it means something harmful to someone, then maybe it’s not a good idea to have it up,” a representative from the student BIPOC coalition said.
This is a dangerous line of argument for those on the left to make. If the thin blue line flag can be said to be endorsing white supremacy, then the many symbols and slogans associated with the BLM movement can be said to be equally supportive of violence. If someone else’s pro-law enforcement symbol makes you feel unsafe, then the BLM raised fist can just as easily be shown to make those on the other side feel unsafe, too.
Likewise, claims that imagery supportive of law enforcement are threatening because cops sometimes kill suspects can be countered by claims that any imagery supportive of BLM is also threatening. After all, some BLM protests feature demonstrators who encourage violence and destruction, including the killing of innocent people.
This extreme safetyism principle would also apply to other triggering symbols, such as imagery that glorifies communism or socialism, as those could be said to make people who know the history of Venezuela, the USSR, or China feel threatened by what they are seeing. Do progressive really want to relinquish their hipster Che T-shirts and ironical Mao posters?
Individualized safety concerns such as these, like the growing popularity of hazy notions such as “lived experience” and “my truth,” deliberately obscure the principle their advocates claim to defend. “X makes me feel unsafe,” whether said by suburban high schoolers or elite reporters at places like the New York Times, has become a catchall justification for some disturbingly authoritarian behavior.
Safety can be both objectively measured (a stranger’s T-shirt is not, in fact, a deadly threat) and subjectively experienced (what seems fine to one person may appear aggressive to another, e.g.). That’s why we have robust free speech rights: not so that people will be protected from others’ views, but to protect others’ right to express them, regardless of how they make anyone else feel. There are limits to this principle, of course, but the starting point should always be an assumption of freedom.
Speech policies that take extreme safetyism as their starting point assume that feelings matter more than those freedoms, and as a result often end up functioning as window dressing for ideological power grabs rather than protecting students. Ruthlessly suppressing others’ right to express themselves sounds much better when it is swaddled in safety rhetoric. It is also more difficult to fight rhetorically since no feeling is deemed too unimportant to coddle. As the mother of one Pelham student put it about the thin blue line flag, “If even one kid said, ‘I am afraid of that symbol,’ isn’t that enough?”