The Value of Intellectual Safe Spaces

by Bharath Vallabha

In September 2016 Richard Swinburne gave a keynote address to The Society of Christian philosophers. The text of his talk is here, which is linked to in a post at the Daily Nous.

The part of the talk which caused a firestorm is on pages 11-13 (starting at the end of 11), where Swinburne claims: “Having homosexual orientation is a disability – for a homosexual cannot beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment.”(12)

He goes on to say that homosexuality has both genetic and cultural causes, and so if “there was a general recognition in society of an obligation to abstain from homosexual acts, that would prevent homosexual behaviour being presented as an option for young people of equal value to the heterosexual one which makes possible procreative marriage.”(12-13) He claims older gay people might not be “cured” this way, but nonetheless if they abstained from homosexual acts they “would be doing a great service to others, and one which would help to make them themselves saints.”(13)

There is a lot going on here, about homosexuality, but also about disability, and generally about what ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ mean. I find the last sentence particularly hurtful. Suggesting gay people might become saintly by forgoing their sexual impulses strikes me as callous and dehumanizing in the extreme. But I recognize this is the crux of the issue. If you think being gay is a sin, of course you think resisting the sin will make you saintly. If you don’t think being gay is a sin, you might think a gay person following his sexual impulses is perfectly normal and his fighting for his rights inspiring.

The question I want to take up here is: if you think there is nothing wrong with being gay and that is a settled issue for you (as it is for me), how should you react in a professional context to Swinburne?

This is related to Dan Kaufman’s recent post about an alternate organization to the APA. I share the feeling that the ways in which some are responding to these issues is mistaken, and a frenzied approach will prove more harmful than helpful. So it is pressing to figure out if and why it is mistaken, and what might be alternative approaches.

In the question I raise I highlight “in a professional context,” because I imagine people will have strong emotions in private. People might curse, scream, put down the opposing side and question their morality and compassion. They might say “Fuck that asshole,” “Screw him,” “They are going to hell” or “These people are so stupid,” and worse. I wish people (including me) didn’t vent like this even in private and that we are guided more by a spiritual or stoic equanimity. But the issues are painful and some venting is perfectly understandable — in private. In this age of social media, it is worth holding onto the private/public distinction.


The basic fact is that Swinburne was giving a talk. If he was harassing gay colleagues or trying to force them out of the profession, that’s one thing. That calls for complaints and for action to be taken. But in this case he was at the podium, which should be treated as an intellectual safe space.

Not a safe space in that anything goes. If the presenter starts belittling people or ranting or exposing himself, obviously that’s not allowed. Nor is it an emotional safe space, where the top priority is to be mindful of people’s traumas. A talk could be an emotional safe space, and I would love to see that more, not in the sense that people be forced to be emotionally sensitive to others’ trauma, but that people choose to incorporate such sensitivity into their theorizing and their behavior.

An intellectual safe space is one where one’s ideas are bracketed from certain social contexts in order to examine them simply as ideas. Of course, no ideas are disconnected from social contexts.  They always arise somewhere, somehow, in certain power structures, etc. But the bracketing is a matter of engaging in a kind of as if; as in, as if ideas exist as points in a crystalline structure of thought and as if everyone in the room at the talk are co-explorers of that intellectual terrain.

Marx said “philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” But, of course, one way of changing the world is to interpret it. In fact, taking the as if attitude that ideas exist independent of context has been one of the great propellers of change. It is only by detaching ideas from their context that new possibilities come to light.

As Dewey argued, this is the life cycle of ideas. They have to be first wrought from their context, and then after analyzing them as ideas, they have to be embedded back into it. Without the first two steps, we are only automata. Without the last step, we are like farmers who meticulously grow fruits, only to leave them on the branch for them to rot there.

At any given time and for any given idea, people will differ on where they are in this life cycle. One person might be just coming to wonder if God exists. For that person, considering the ontological argument as an abstract series of premises and conclusion might be exhilarating. But for another person, who is bored of such things, the ontological argument might seem – as it did to Pascal and Kierkegaard – like empty nonsense that has nothing to do with living faith. Or as it did to Marx, like a cover under which to enslave the masses.

Well, which is it? What is the worth of the ontological argument? There is no definitive, “correct” view. Not because there is no answer about whether God exists, but because people vary so much on where they are, in the search for an answer.

If atheists conclude the existence of God is a settled matter and protest any discussion of the ontological argument as traumatic and outdated (as, of course, happened in some communist countries), this would betray the ideal of intellectual safe spaces. The atheists might be right about the existence of God and are certainly right about the trauma imposed in God’s name. But that doesn’t show that everyone has to be at the same stage in the life cycle of this idea as they are. The reality is that a great many people are not at that stage, and the “end stage,” as the atheist sees it, can’t be imposed on those still struggling with the issue.

I would love for everyone to think being gay is normal and healthy; that it be so integral a part of our values that wondering if being gay is a sin wouldn’t be a live issue for anyone. But this is patently not the world we live in. For a great many people, including some people who are gay, it is a live issue. To impose the end stage on this topic, as I see it, ultimately would be counter-productive. It would only lead those who disagree or are not sure to repression, anger and righteous indignation that their intellectual life-cycle is being cut short.

No one is obligated to listen to or read Swinburne’s talk. Not even the people at the conference were obligated to do so. If you can’t stand the talk, don’t go. Or if you are there and can’t stand it, leave. That makes sense. You don’t have to admire the speaker or the talk. But respect the space. If you are up to it, enter the space to engage with his talk intellectually. Highlight the flaws in his argument, and do it for as long as you are able. This is not letting yourself be oppressed by Swinburne or “the establishment,” but you doing a service for your cause. You are reaching out to Swinburne and to those in the audience who are undecided. Don’t let their uncertainty about your values unsettle you. Let your certainty about your values inspire you to show the coherence of your beliefs.


“But he’s a bigot! I can’t engage respectfully with a talk which aims to prove I am perverted. Isn’t debating with Swinburne tantamount to acknowledging he might be right?”

No. This is the power of the as if element of intellectual safe spaces, and it protects everyone involved.

Swinburne and I disagree about the nature of homosexuality. We could hash out the disagreement in the streets, through physical fighting; or through media and advertising, in terms of who can emotionally move people more.

By entering an intellectual space, like a talk, Swinburne is at least committing to a better method: of hashing out the disagreement through debate. People take to the streets or to emotional manipulation, because they can’t articulate the thoughts that are moving them. Swinburne is, in Brandom’s phrase, making it explicit. If nothing else, I can respect that.

Perhaps Swinburne is a confirmed bigot, who would never break bread with a gay person. Or perhaps he goes on holidays with family members who are gay. Either way, by giving a talk he is adopting a pose as if he and his opponents, even those who are gay, have something in common – reason – which can be used to navigate the disagreement.

To engage with Swinburne’s argument doesn’t require doubting your view, any more than getting into a boxing ring to decide the issue does. Intellectual safe spaces are just a different type of ring. They are social constructs meant to facilitate peaceful engagement, even when emotions are running high. Be passionate in your beliefs and your confidence. But also be passionate in respecting the life cycle of your opponent’s ideas and in guiding rather than forcing them to your conclusion.

“Sure, I can debate Swinburne. I am an intellectual after all. But if I debate him, it will be used against me. Anti-gay rights politicians will use the fact of the debate to claim the issue isn’t settled, and so will claim anti-gay laws are justified as “just their view.”  Why set myself up this way?”

During the colonial period, the colonized faced a similar dilemma. If you respect the law, you are complicit in your own oppression. If you disobey the law, you are treated as criminals. The way out of this dilemma was non-violent resistance. The non-violence showed respect for the concept of law even as the resistance showed disagreement with the existing law. The ability to show respect and disagreement at the same time moved hearts, which then changed laws.

If you debate Swinburne, but wear your disdain for him on your sleeve, it will end up being used against you. If you don’t debate him but attack him instead, you will be pegged irrational thugs. But if you take seriously the as if element of intellectual spaces and engage with Swinburne as if he is debating in good faith, it will move hearts. I haven’t seen any reason to think Swinburne is using the debate as just a ploy. But even if he is, if you don’t use it as a ploy but take seriously the value of respecting the other side which is foundational to intellectual debate, it will move people. It is the best way of moving people.

In that spirit, in the comments, I am happy to discuss not only this post but also the content of Swinburne’s talk.


  1. Dan-K,
    The ancient laws as interpreted through the rabbinical tradition. Without the halakhah, there isn’t much left of Judaism, as a religion (as opposed to a culture).

    I have been going on and on about the rule of law, as well I should, since it is so incredibly important. For this reason your remark greatly resonated with me. Jewish society was the first place in the world that developed a clear, rigorous system for the rule of law. It is often thought that we inherited our concepts of the rule of law from the Romans. But that is not true. We inherited the concept from the Jews who developed it more than a thousand years earlier then the Romans.

  2. Bharath,
    I complement you on your fine essay and the way you conducted the resulting conversation. It was superb. I learnt a lot from you. We touched on many issues. Some were tangential to your central theme and I would have loved to explore them further with you. That will have to wait for another occasion. We should not neglect Dan-K’s fascinating essay about the enlightenment. True to form I have there contributed a thoroughly contrarian comment to the conversation 🙂 I hope it provokes thought and not offence!

  3. EJ,

    “If it were 1930, and a German University club allowed Hitler to advocate his “scientific anti-Semitism” – as long as he remained calm and didn’t engage his usual rhetorical or performative flourishes – should this be allowable? And while Hitler never spoke at any university, he had advocates who did – and we know some of the consequences of that…..”

    In my post I am defending the strong claim that, in your hypothetical, as long as Hitler was following the norms of intellectual debate, he should be allowed to give that talk. I think intellectual virtues in a pluralistic society requires it.

    But you are raising a legitimate concern: what if people only use the vaneer of intellectual debate to undermine debate in society more generally? This is what happened with the Nazi professors “debating” “scientific anti-Semitism”. The problem with this is that Nazi thugishness in society was being imported into academia, whereas academic debate requires that the order of influence should be the other way around: the values of academic debate should create open and free dialogue in the broader society. This process is, by its nature, as you say, a bit nerve racking, and there are bound to be tough cases. They can be shoved under the rug, since the tough cases just are the deepest ruptures in society. Better to bring it out in an intellectual context than to repress them more and have them come out in a thugish form.

    1. Bharath
      But you are raising a legitimate concern: what if people only use the veneer of intellectual debate to undermine debate in society more generally? This is what happened with the Nazi professors “debating” “scientific anti-Semitism”.

      We dare not stray outside the principled observance of the rule of law. When we do that we validate the behaviour of the thugs who operate outside the principled observance of the rule of law. EJ is hinting that there may be occasions when we can suppress free speech. This is an extraordinarily dangerous idea that should never be tolerated outside times of declared emergency and wartime.

      The Nazism issue is a non sequitur since something deeper and more fundamental was going on.

      I do support the idea of laws prohibiting hate speech. India has them and hate speech is prohibited by the constitution of South Africa. Our experience has been positive. Our constitution says this:-

      Freedom of expression
      16. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes—
      (a) freedom of the press and other media;
      (b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
      (c) freedom of artistic creativity; and
      (d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

      (2) The right in subsection (1) does not extend to—

      (a) propaganda for war;
      (b) incitement of imminent violence; or
      (c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that
      constitutes incitement to cause harm.

      16. (2)(c) is a most enlightened clause but interpretation can be difficult.
      The phrase ‘constitutes incitement to cause harm’ embraces more than just physical harm. For example degrading ones’s public standing or damage to dignity constitutes harm.

      The important thing is that this form of speech can only be silenced by due process of law and being carefully tested in a law court where the accuser and the respondent must carefully argue their cases.

      The kind of silencing that EJ hints at is so badly wrong because it does not go through the due process of law, allowing the case for and against to be carefully argued in court.

      When we abandon the due process of law we open the gates of hell.

Leave a Reply