What ‘Right to Feel Safe’?

The current notion that we must avoid hurting anyone’s feelings is becoming oppressive. Particularly in academia, deviation from this standard can lead to educational or career consequences. Speaking up for gun rights, for instance, is virtually verboten; even a seven-year-old boy who chewed a Pop-Tart into the vague shape of a gun was punished by school authorities, who suspended him for brandishing the pastry in play.

Now a court has jumped on the bandwagon. On April 27, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Friedman v. City of Highland Park, Illinois, voting two to one to back the city’s banning of certain firearms and magazine capacities, partly based on feelings: “If it has no other effect, Highland Park’s ordinance may increase the public’s sense of safety.##If a ban on semiautomatic guns and large-capacity magazines reduces the perceived risk from a mass shooting, and makes the public feel safer as a result, that’s a substantial benefit.” Left unexamined is how anyone’s feelings are more important than actual risk, or how the court can override the Bill of Rights. As the dissenting judge correctly stated, “Both the ordinance and this court’s opinion upholding it are directly at odds with the central holdings of Heller and McDonald.”   

Being disagreeable has become a justification for censorship.

With increasing frequency, administrations and student bodies in schools from kindergarten through universities have censored free speech because it could make someone feel “unsafe.” Unsurprisingly, speech that makes some people feel “unsafe” correlates 100 percent with beliefs they find disagreeable. Being disagreeable has become a justification for censorship. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (for whom one university that is now a hotbed of political correctness was named) said: “Fear . . . cannot justify oppression of free speech and assembly. . . . It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”

The shift toward demanding kid-glove treatment of one and all is a cultural change that bodes ill for our future as a people of strength, initiative, and creativity. Attempting to wall off ideas so that others won’t get their tender feelings hurt goes beyond political correctness. It invents a new goal for humankind: freedom from fear. This phrase was first used by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 as one of his Four Freedoms, when he was describing America’s war goals. He meant freedom from fear of annihilation, which was then acute in much of the world. It has evolved to the point that some Americans demand the right to be free from feeling uncomfortable about what others might say. Ensuring such freedom would require the most rigid kind of censorship. And who would determine which beliefs pass muster and which are beyond the pale?

Why do people in 21st-century America imagine they should never have to be afraid? Fear is a healthy reaction to real danger — but not to mere words. Is the adage “words will never hurt me” passé?

One needn’t feel shaken by others’ unpleasant beliefs or opinions. They can test our own assumptions and lead to greater understanding. And one can’t rely on “trigger warnings” to shield against unpleasant encounters. That comes from self-confidence, which grows when we face our own vulnerabilities, needs, and hurts. Wisdom comes from experience, and it comes fastest in learning from bad experiences.

In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the physiological requirements for life come first: air, water, food, adequate shelter. Once these are satisfied, the next requirement is safety. Once we have that, we can experience love and belonging, and the esteem of others and ourselves. Finally we can seek self-actualization, to try to lead the ideal life we should have. But safety comes first.

Feeling “safe” now seems to be mixed up with desires for love, a sense of belonging, and self-esteem. In a twisted way, we sometimes try to feel safe by disregarding others. But rejecting others because their ideas differ from our own or our group’s is a regression in development, individually and socially. People used to seek a higher education because it challenged one’s assumptions and social attitudes and thus led to intellectual and emotional growth. Education today too often prescribes right thinking and demonizes dissenters.

People who have lived through traumatic experiences do hurt when they are reminded of their traumas. They re-experience them when they encounter reminders of them. But the world doesn’t adapt itself to individuals’ fears. The realistic, caring intervention is to provide help for the traumatized so they can cope with the world and learn to protect themselves — not to sanitize their world of all triggers, an impossibility. Adults, trauma sufferers and all, have the responsibility to seek help for their own hurt. That means some form of counsel, whether friendly encouragement or formal psychotherapy, and sometimes medication for strong or persistent symptoms.

Let’s cut to the chase. There is no “right” to feel safe. There is certainly no right to be safe in this world. Most of us most of the time assume we are safe; we don’t think about it, and, luckily, are mostly right. Occasionally something dreadful and unforeseen happens, which can shake us to the core if we survive. We can run into unpleasant people with unlikable opinions, sometimes about us. These are opportunities to grow, to reinforce our own safe boundaries, emotionally and physically, and live fuller lives. We can’t grow if we are sheltered from being challenged, hurt, or questioned. That infantilizes us.

As to our nation’s risks, Benjamin Franklin said: “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech.” How free is speech when we can’t tolerate objectionable ideas? Do we still disapprove what someone might say while defending to the death his right to say it? Isn’t the best cure for abhorrent speech more virtuous speech?

The wish always to feel perfectly safe is an irrational ideal, unattainable both physically and emotionally (much like a world without gun violence, or any violence). The best we can do is to minimize our own hurtful speech and actions. Trying to prevent others’ hurtful words is the worst we can do. A “safe” world — as conceived by those who expel children for pointing a finger and saying “Bang!” — would be a world without change or growth. We’d be automatons instead of the complicated humans we are. We are responsible for our own emotional well-being, not everyone else who might say something we hear.

— Robert B. Young, M.D., is a psychiatrist who also writes for Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership at 


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