With the advent of the Wuhan virus outbreak, safety became a hot topic in American culture. The kerfuffle is far from new, but the public became acutely aware as issues of safety impinged on their daily lives.
Democrat mayors and governors, backstopped by compliant health experts, ordered their citizens to submit to house arrest, involuntary business closures, prohibitions on gatherings of any kind–including church meetings–and useless homemade masks when venturing out for groceries or a sanity walk.
The fuss struck many conservatives and traditionalists as hysterical and tangential, but only because they lacked context to grasp the stakes. Academics have noticed the increasing safety focus of Americans for a while and that it portended something momentous. In 2018, social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote a book entitled Coddling of the American Mind, in which they discussed the emerging safety culture in America, particularly among the young. They dubbed the movement ‘safetyism’.
Believe it or not, the future of the United States hinges on the triumph or failure of safetyism. The reasons will become evident in a moment. First a look at what’s been happening.
SAFETY, SAFETY EVERYWHERE
Safetyism has cropped up in almost every American political battleground of late. According to the latest edition of the progressive catechism, sexual and racial minorities have the fundamental right to safety from speech that is in their experience hurtful, demeaning, or uncomfortable in any way. For years, universities have set up “safe spaces” as refuges for vulnerable ears; and contentious materials, viewpoints, and even professors have been removed from university curricula for student safety. The accusation “this makes me feel unsafe” is a commonplace salvo now to banish ideological deviants and scuttle dialogue.
Appeals to safetyism extend well beyond arguments over speech and school curricula. Americans are told by progressives that they have the fundamental right to safety from gun violence–meaning the state should further limit and control lawful firearms owners, or even remove firearms from private hands altogether. Black Lives Matter and its sister initiative ‘Defund the Police’ frequently couch their arguments in the unsupported assertion that the police make most black Americans feel unsafe. Statues of Confederate generals and founding fathers also must be removed for the safety of black Americans feel. ICE makes illegal immigrants feel unsafe, so ICE must be abolished.
As the outbreak picked up steam, ‘safety’ was the rationale proffered for a laundry list of civil rights abrogations and the imposition of a low-grade police state. Anyone who complained or broke quarantine was browbeaten and publicly shamed for endangering the safety of others, as though contrarians were walking around in public tossing virus grenades over their shoulders. When skeptics noted the dearth of scientific proof for masks, they were told that it didn’t matter whether masks really helped to retard the spread: wearing them made people feel safe, a symbolic gesture of caring and mutual security.
Each new day brings fresh demands to make the United States safer for what are termed “vulnerable groups,” a grab bag that defies objective taxonomy but that makes a point of excluding the “privileged”–those who presumably live in perpetual safety by virtue of their whiteness, straightness, maleness, wealth, and the like.
WHY SAFETY MATTERS
To understand why safety and safetyism are so important, recall that our Constitution was founded upon the classical liberal philosophy of the Enlightenment. In this system of thought, A free citizen was assumed to possess the natural right (or “privilege”) to do whatever he liked, so long as his actions–his liberties–did not run afoul of The Test. The Test was:
“Does the exercise of a liberty harm others?”
If the answer to The Test was “yes,” the citizen’s liberty stopped. No citizen’s freedom extended to harm of others: e.g. assault, murder, theft, destruction of property, betrayal of his country, and in some periods adultery and blasphemy. For most of American history, ‘harm of others’ was narrowly defined by a pre-Enlightenment moral consensus rooted in traditional religion and traditional culture. In other words, to know what ‘harm of others’ meant, look at the Ten Commandments or English Common Law.
Safetyism seeks to revise The Test, to radically and permanently change our culture’s understanding of what ‘harm of others’ means. The Revised Test promoted by modern progressive safetyists is something like:
“Does the exercise of a liberty make any vulnerable groups feel harmed?”
This is a small change, but a very important one. It’s also very sneaky and very clever. The change strikes not at the Constitution itself but at the pre-Revolutionary system of ideas upon which the Constitution rests. To use an analogy, safetyism doesn’t attack the fortress walls; it tunnels under the walls and captures the fortress intact by swapping out the fortress commander with a guy who looks enough like him that most people inside the walls don’t notice.
Under the doctrine of safetyism, any liberty must pass a ‘harm test’ administered by an assortment of vulnerable groups. They evaluate the liberty not just objectively–“does this exercise of liberty murder anyone?”–but subjectively–“does this exercise of liberty make anyone FEEL murdered?” Should any vulnerable group cry emotional or psychological harm, then a particular liberty is invalid–in fact not a “liberty” at all but an “oppression” that must be banned.
Does all this sound familiar? Do you hear echoes of what’s unfolding in the United States today?
The shift from objective harm to subjective harm opens the door for the state to curtail traditional rights and liberties thought to be inviolable: the right to free speech (if a vulnerable group feels threatened by the speech); the right to free worship (if a vulnerable group feels harmed by a faith’s rules on, say, gay marriage); the right to self-protection (if firearms make vulnerable groups feel threatened); the right to peaceable assembly (if a vulnerable group feels its health or dignity threatened by the assembly) and on and on.
It should now be evident why safety is a political football today and the most important question facing the United States. Adoption of the philosophy of safetyism by a majority of Americans will fundamentally change the meaning of the Constitution without altering a single word of the document. Progressive lawmakers and the judiciary will gain a license to interpret or disregard the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in radically new ways.
THE COMING SHOWDOWN
Should safetyism triumph and become the ethos of American society–which seems increasingly likely with each passing day–conservatives will find themselves in an almighty bind. Their two dismal choices:
- They can accept safetyism’s back-door change to the philosophical basis of the republic and submit to ferocious censorship, total disarmament, state control of faith, and a plethora of other safety interventions (as Europeans largely have already done).
- Or they can declare the Enlightenment underpinnings of the Constitution hopelessly corrupted, liberal democracy in America dead, and seek to reconstitute government on a new philosophical basis.
Said another way, conservatives will have to choose between embracing the unknown and legitimizing with their assent that, yes, the emperor (an illiberal progressive authoritarian government) is in fact wearing clothes (a liberal democracy). No third alternative presents itself, at least at this time. No matter how furiously some might fill the the pages of National Review and hope, the United States hasn’t a prayer of rewinding the tape to a classical definition of objective harm and narrow traditional liberties. That battle has been fought and lost. Opinion polls show more and more Americans–and particularly the young–support safetyism’s efforts to enact legislation criminalizing subjective harm, such as “hate speech” laws, “assault weapons” bans, institutionalized privileges for vulnerable groups, and the like.
It’s probably not too far off the mark to say the United States is one progressive president away from a point of catastrophic failure for the traditional view of liberties and rights–from conservatism being run out of town, philosophically speaking. So like the Marines used to say: “Smoke ’em if you got ’em.” Safetyism will forbid you from smoking in your own home soon.