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What Is the Torah Perspective on Safe Spaces, Trigger Words and Political Correctness?

What Is the Torah Perspective on Safe Spaces, Trigger Words and Political Correctness?

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Question:

I currently attend a college in the U.S., and lately there has been much controversy surrounding “safe spaces,” where students can retreat to avoid the overwhelm caused by triggering words and ideas. Many insist on their importance, while others contend that they hamper dialogue and free speech.

I was wondering, what is the Jewish perspective on safe spaces and the overabundance of political correctness on campuses these days? Should professors and other lecturers not speak about certain topics or use certain words because students might feel triggered?

Reply:

I’m well aware that this controversy is nuanced and politically charged, so without getting into the particulars of safe spaces, let me give you a Jewish perspective:

A quick visit to any Talmudic study hall is enough to make it abundantly clear that Judaism is very much in favor of boisterous, spirited (to put it mildly) debate to help sharpen one’s opinions and reach a correct conclusion. The Talmud itself is essentially arranged as a series of arguments between the rabbis, debating a host of Judaic subjects.

In fact, the Talmud tells us that one can really acquire Torah knowledge only through learning in groups, and it has some very harsh words for those who don’t want to learn with others.1

In short, it’s clear that healthy and even heated discussion between opposing viewpoints is the Jewish way. The real question, however, is: what is the Torah’s view on freedom of speech? Should some speech be curtailed?

Freedom of Speech and the G‑d Factor

First, we need to understand an underlying philosophical difference between the Constitution and the Torah. According to the Constitution, man was created with natural rights, so the government sees it as its job to create laws that protect those rights. According to the Torah, however, G‑d did not just create us and leave us up to our own devices; rather, He is actively involved in the world and cares what we do. Therefore, He did not give us passive rights, but active responsibilities and duties.

So as much as the Torah holds vigorous debate and speech in high regard, it doesn’t hesitate to prohibit certain types of speech, such as lashon hara—i.e., to speak negatively about someone else, even if it is true.2 Speaking negatively about someone violates the biblical commandment “You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people. You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood. I am the L‑rd.”3 And depending on the situation, talebearing can violate up to 31 Torah commandments.4

To be sure, if keeping silent will result in physical or financial harm to someone, then one is required to speak up.5 Nevertheless, all things being equal, such speech is prohibited. (For more on this, see my article Whistle-Blowing in Jewish Law.)

Onaat Devarim—Hurtful Speech

Of course, your question isn’t so much about whether one can speak negatively about a person to someone else, but whether one can use speech that may be hurtful or arouse negative emotions in the listener.

The Torah states that “one shall not aggrieve his fellow, and you shall fear your G‑d, for I am the L‑rd your G‑d.”6 Jewish law explains that this prohibition of onaat devarim includes purposely saying something that will hurt, frighten or embarrass someone.7

Onaat devarim includes reminding someone who repented of his previous sins, telling someone that his troubles and misfortunes were caused by his sins,8 or even speaking negatively to a convert about his prior life.9 This prohibition applies to all times and spaces.10

At the same time, if one is saying hurtful things to you or someone else, you are not required to remain silent in fear of replying in a hurtful manner and transgressing this prohibition.11 (Contrary to popular belief, “turning the other cheek” is not a Jewish value. For more on that, see Is Turning the Other Cheek a Jewish Value?)

Practically speaking, if Jewish law deems certain speech to be negative or hurtful, it is prohibited in almost every circumstance. The concept of a safe space is irrelevant. (At the same time, it should be noted that not all speech that a safe space is meant to protect from is necessarily prohibited according to Jewish law.)

This leads us to the next part of your question, whether a teacher should make sure to be politically correct in the classroom and avoid certain words.

Political Correctness and Noah’s Ark

The Talmud points out a fascinating detail in the Bible’s description of Noah gathering all the animals into the ark.12 The verse states, “Of the pure animals, and of the animals that are not pure . . . two by two they came to Noah into the ark, male and female, as G‑d had commanded Noah.”13

This is an unusual expression. In general, the Torah is written in short and concise language. Every letter has meaning, and no letters are extraneous. So why call an animal “not pure” instead of “impure,” which uses an extra eight letters in Hebrew? Because the Torah is avoiding referring to these animals in a derogatory way, teaching us the importance of refined speech.

But then the Talmud goes on to say that many times the Torah does use the term “impure”—because when it comes to teaching students, one should always use clear, concise language, even at the expense of more refined speech.14

So although teachers need to be mindful of what they say, and certainly never intentionally use harmful speech, when choosing between PC and non-PC language, it is important that clear, concise and unambiguous language be used, lest the lesson become garbled and misunderstood.

Safe Spaces Are Still Up for Debate

We’ve left plenty of room for your classmates to debate the pros and cons of safe spaces from the perspective of constitutional rights. Just keep in mind that from a Jewish perspective, talking negatively is almost always prohibited.

Footnotes
1.
Talmud, Berachot 63b.
2.
See Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 156:10.
4.
Chafetz Chaim, prohibitions 1–17 and positive commandments 1–14.
5.
See Sifra, Leviticus 19:16; Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 426:1; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Metziah uFikadon 33; Chafetz Chaim, Be’er Mayim Chaim, Hilchot Issurei Rechilut 9:1.
7.
Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b; Sefer HaChinuch 338; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228:1.
8.
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228:4.
9.
See Shulchan Aruch, ibid.
10.
See Sefer HaChinuch 338.
11.
Sefer HaChinuch, ibid. Nevertheless, if one can remain silent and it will not be detrimental, then that is the ideal.
12.
Talmud, Pesachim 3a.
14.
See Talmud, Pesachim 3b, and commentaries ad loc.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Sheldon Steinlauf Park Ridge, IL March 1, 2017

Safe spaces as discussed in the instant matter are for children. Adults should never retreat from verbalization that their inner child finds stressful. Retreating and sucking your thumb is self defeating. Reply

Michael Boston March 1, 2017

Constitutional Rights The rights in the constitution are not enumerated so government would "create laws that protect [them]", but rather to ensure government creates no laws which infringe upon them. Furthermore, the realm of religion and government must differ. What upsets G-d and degrades society is not always sufficiently damaging to require government compulsion. Merging these is a path towards authoritarian rule. Reply

Esther New York February 28, 2017

Implied meaning Unfortunately, people who support "safe spaces" interpret the word "hurtful" as "anything we disagree with". So refusing to call a man a woman or vice versa is considered hugely hurtful, when it's really an acknowledgement of the truth and how Hashem created the world. The Torah says "mi'devar sheker tirchak" (distance yourself from falsehood). Reply

Mohamed Ali December 25, 2016

Peace be upon our Prophet Moses , Prophet Noah as well ! I appreciate this answer! We should refrain from speaking ill of others, sometimes when it happens we immediately have to seek forgiveness from G-d and have to pray sincerely...asking G-d for His forgiveness our G-d is a Single G-d, the Creator and the Sustainer...Belief in G-d is foremost important for Muslims ,Jews & Christians...the differences exists...We must avoid the differences and have to focus to learn lot from our religion to leave in peace, harmony with all communities in the world...as a common Muslim... i do respect Jews and Christians as well ! Pray G-d for humanity, peace and preach always good values of Torah as we muslims do like Christians ...We do have to follow our religion as much as we can and in fact we muslims believe Torah & Gospel the Book of G-d...our religion Islam is a peaceful religion...to be very frank it does not encourages violence in the name of religion ! May G-d bless all A'meen ! Remember us in your prayers too !Sorry if i had said anything! Reply

Christine Fargo nd USA November 14, 2016

wisdom So speaking up is good to protect... But be wise in your speech. Reply

Y Oliver Baltimore, Maryland via chabadofparkheights.com November 13, 2016

sorry This article avoids the real issue of "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings"--not offense from crass insults but pearl-clutching histrionics from the dissonance at being confronted with unwanted ideas that are deemed bad because they conflict with the dominant leftist narrative. Reply

jim dallas November 9, 2016

sefira is very accomplished with artwork to article match not wanting to mention certain elections, i will hold my piece! Reply

Karin Kruger Oklahoma City, OK/USA November 9, 2016

PC - college perspective Because this question came from a college student, in 1971 I was at OU working on completion of my degree after a stint in the Army.

One of my required subjects in sociology was a class called "minority groups" and was taught by a Jewish professor who happened to be a survivor out of Auschwitz.

Dr. Silverstein started the class on the first day with an exercise; he asked the class to list all the derogatory words we had ever heard to describe other groups ... and filled 3 blackboards! I was the only Yid in the class and "gave myself away" to him when I used some Yiddish words.

I was shocked not only at the size of the list but also learning that words I heard all my life, certainly not offensive in my geographical area, were offensive to others in different areas of the country.

Needless to say, by the time the class was complete, none of us used certain words. Pragmatically, some lessons last a lifetime. Reply

Ben West Fargo, ND November 8, 2016

These Words came while all man spoke a common language. The meaning is perfect. Only purity can be measured by man although it contains immense knowledge. A mortal man can only argue the he knows what is pure. Noah brought a few extra animals then he knew he should have onto the Arc. Reply

Missie Atlanta November 8, 2016

Please Explain or Reword This Confusing Phrase "...students can retreat to avoid the overwhelm caused by triggering words and ideas."

I don't understand that phrase. Is "overwhelm" a noun? Is "triggering" here a verb, or used as an adjective describing "words and ideas"? So is someone here triggering (verb) words and ideas, or overwhelming others with words and ideas that are supposed to trigger something? Reply

Kenneth Cole Arizona November 8, 2016

I am just curious Dear Mr. Shurpin. From you mention of the U.S. Constitution I wonder if you live here in the U.S. Firstly the Constitution does not speak of man being created with natural rights. Not even the Bill of Rights, the Amendments, speak of that, though it does guarantee that the government will not require people to worship in a state sponsored religion. However, the Declaration of Independence does speak of those rights, In fact, it speaks of those rights as coming from our Creator, that those rights are unalienable, coming from G-d after all. the Declaration was the U.S.'s demand for freedom. The Constitution was the blueprint for a gov't to protect that freedom, and to protect the citizens of the U.S. from that same gov't should in become tyrannical against it's people, such as making laws revoking freedom of speech. That first amendment protects three unalienable G-d given rights. To deny one is to deny all. I would say, rather, to those offended souls, "Man Up!" This is life. Blessings Reply

Baruch Katz Minneapolis November 8, 2016

While I appreciate that this article demonstrates the Torah sensitivity towards the use of speech, I think it is dismissive of the concepts of safe spaces and trigger words. If someone was a victim of rape, discussions of rape might be triggering to them by bringing back some of those traumatic memories, requiring hours or days for them to recover their emotional equilibrium. On the other hand, rape is an important issue that must be discussed and addressed in society. Even the victims themselves need a safe space where they can share their emotions and heal without fear of potentially traumatic comments from insensitive but perhaps well-meaning critics. The concept of a safe space is different than the rules you mentioned about not saying things that are unnecessarily damaging, and is not irrelevant. Reply

James Fresno, California November 8, 2016

Thank you for this good, illuminating discussion. As a semi-retired university professor I appreciate it greatly. Let me clarify one thing, though. PC, trigger warnings, and safe spaces have nothing to do with the genuinely hurtful kind of behavior that an observant Jew, and, I should hope, any well-bred, civil human being, should avoid. They are about the advancement of an ideological agenda that is selective, historically mendacious, and without any qualms about hurting those in disagreement with it. It is in fact inimical to Jews, Judaism, and Israel, and intends us and other fee and decent people harm. I should go so far as to say that it is in the service of the Sitra Achra, whether or not its proponents realize it. Reply

Fran P. November 8, 2016

Re: K. Knight and Support Groups No, you are not wrong. You need the anonymity to express yourself and your feelings. You are not living in an easy situation and your feelings are real. I'm wishing you well and hope things turn for the better. Reply

Anonymous USA November 8, 2016

A moving target The problem is not speech, but that the definitions of evil and negative are changing and the intent is to change society in a political direction, away from truth. To be politically correct is to lie for the purpose of not triggering fake outrage. Reply

Avrohom Plotkin Los Angeles November 8, 2016

I agree with Brett that "negative" may be too broad a term. Reply

K. Knight Iowa November 8, 2016

Support groups I belong to a "safe" anonymous online group of wives of alcoholics. We use the anonymous forum to vent our frustrations of our alcoholic husbands and their abuse of alcohol, drugs, us, and our children. We often speak unkindly and painfully truthful of our husbands. Am I breaking Jewish law participating? I honestly feel once I have typed my negative feelings and read agreement that yes, I have reason to be angry, I am freer to bring love and forgiveness to my husband. But now I worry I am wrong. Reply

Brett Summerland BC November 6, 2016

Maybe understanding paradox and G-d revealing negative and positive might help.
Who uses more negative words than HaShem? 613 revealings of Divine wisdom given in positive form 248 times and negative 365.
A person who understands the value of paradox can hear negative speech with positive outcome.
We must define between evil speech and negative speech.
They are not the same.
Just as Noah had to discern between pure and impure, we must define between evil and negative. Reply