However, our culture no longer derives the concept of human dignity from either the imago Dei or from an understanding of man as a rational animal. We are an agnostic society. We no longer uphold mankind as metaphysically superior to animals, and we are plagued by a sinking suspicion that we will not always be unique in our ability to reason, to employ logic. The only thing we all have in common—the answer to what constitutes essential humanness—is, again ironically, a sense of our own individuality. Enter radical individualism, the ideology that the highest goal for a human is to achieve an “authentic” sense of self in the face of a meaningless existence.
The recent protests on the University of Missouri campus have shown a spotlight on the phenomenon of “safe spaces”: designated areas on campuses where students can go to escape ideas they don’t like, conversations they find threatening, or values they reject. Here, no aggressive, divisive, or even potentially hurtful words are allowed, and students’ identities are affirmed and protected (assuming, of course, those identities don’t include criticizing any other identity).
“Safe spaces” attempt to reduce public discourse to self-admiring yes-fests that ban disagreement or critiques that could potentially hurt someone’s feelings. It’s hard to take them seriously because of their obvious ideological discrimination, but take them seriously we must, for what is accepted on the university campus tends to become accepted by society as a whole.
Lest anyone think this is an overly dramatic assessment of the situation, consider the European Union’s Equal Treatment Directive (ETD), which would allow business owners to be sued by anyone who feels discriminated against. Ever worse is that “the burden of proof must shift back to the [accused] when evidence of such discrimination is brought.” The ETD document does not define “discrimination” but implies that having one’s feelings hurt counts. So if a business owner hurts someone’s feelings, he is guilty of discrimination until proven innocent. Essentially the ETD would make the entire EU a “safe space.” It is just one nation’s approval away from being enacted as law in all twenty-eight EU states (Germany has expressed concerns about its economic ramifications).
But why are people so sensitive? Why do college students flee from anything that doesn’t affirm what they already believe, and why does the EU’s proposed discrimination laws start with an assumption of guilt? The problem is more than educational or political—it’s metaphysical. “Safe spaces” reveal a seismic shift in our understanding of the West’s foundational idea: ironically, the dignity of the individual human being.
Respect for the individual is borne out of respect for what that human shares with all other humans. For centuries Western thinkers believed humans shared two things: the imago Dei, or the image of God, as explicated by the Judeo-Christian tradition, and an identity as “rational animals” (an understanding of which is rooted in the work of Aristotle). If every human bears the image of God (or exercises rationality, a characteristic of the divine for Aristotle), his essence participates in the divine. That participation in the divine leads to human dignity, an essential quality we all have simply because of what we are, not because of what we do or experience. This traditional Western view dignifies the individual because he is human, an identity with an anchor that transcends this world.