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What Does Intellectual Safety Really Mean?

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We hear the phrase intellectual safety thrown around in political and social dialogue, especially on college campuses. Centers that host dialogues where people with different views can talk to each other (like Interfaith Centers) tend to consider themselves intellectually safe spaces. But, what does it mean to be an intellectually safe space? Or better yet, what should it mean to be an intellectually safe space?

An intellectually safe environment, as typically construed, is something like an environment “in which a person feels comfortable sharing ideas and opinions without fear of harsh judgment or repercussions.” This conception of intellectual safety focuses on being open-minded, tolerant and not judging others. An intellectually safe space like this would look like this:

Person 1: “I’m against same sex marriage.”
Person 2: “Why?”
Person 1: “Because of x, y, and z in the Bible.”
Person 2: “Oh okay. I’m not going to judge you and I guess I can tolerate that.”

Something seems a little off here. Clearly Person 2 is responding out of tolerance and not judging Person 1, but there should be more that goes on here. We should be able to question the interpretation of x, y, and z in the Bible, we should be able to question the applicability of the Bible in the modern world, we should be able to talk about the incoherence in the Bible and with the person’s beliefs systems. When we question these assumptions and beliefs, people are typically personally attacked and harshly judged, so we associate intellectual unsafety with these questions that cause a person to feel this way.

However, we need to face these critical questions and criticisms in our every day lives, we’ll never grow if we don’t. As a philosophy major, I think that one of the most important things we can do in our lives is to always maintain our capacity to think critically about our beliefs and continually question our beliefs. This means we’re going to have to deal with people who disagree with us, think about the beliefs of differing people, question the validity of our belief sources, and so on. Having a conversation with people who disagree with you is an integral part of life.

If that’s the case, then our typical way of thinking about intellectual safety is wrong. We need people to harshly judge us; we need people to think our views are BS and completely wacky; we need people brave enough to tell us that our views are insane and entirely wrong. But feeling attacked and disliked because someone disagrees with you is a problem and produces intellectually unsafe space.

To combat these negative feelings and to produce intellectually safe spaces we need to build an environment based on trust not tolerance. Tolerance breeds unquestioned acceptance of (potentially) stupid beliefs; whereas trust breeds the ability to question beliefs in a way that aims at finding the answers. If you don’t trust the person criticizing you, you’re going to feel attacked and intellectually unsafe.

People in the intellectually safe dialogue need to be there to try to figure out the answers—not to personally attack people—and to trust that this is what’s going on in the dialogue. Intellectual safety needs to be about community trust, not belief tolerance. When everyone in the dialogue trusts that their peers are there to grow as a community, disagreement and criticism seem less scary and confrontational.

An intellectually safe environment done in the correct way is one in which everyone can be critical, call people out, and judge (even harshly) in a way that aims at a mutual understanding of the truth.

That being said, an intellectually safe environment can’t easily be one in which people just meet for 5-minute speed-date sessions to talk about beliefs. Those might be fun events, but people typically can’t build trust with another person that quickly.

An intellectually safe community meets regularly with the same people, gets to know these people and their goals, and slowly builds trust in the members of the group. An intellectually safe dialogue needs to be based on one where each person listens to understand the other’s point of view and then once there’s a mutual trust and understanding, both sides can engage in a critical dialogue that checks the assumptions and beliefs each side has.

Calling people out, questioning beliefs, and questioning the validity of sources are all necessary to produce an intellectually safe and productive environment.

The unexamined life is not worth living. - Socrates
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