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Of Vitriol and “Safety-ism”

In 2014, Greg Lukianoff, a First Amendment lawyer who runs the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, began to notice a shift in controversies over free speech on college campuses. Students had begun to argue that ideas of which they disapproved were sources of danger and needed to be removed from classrooms and campus culture. Controversial speakers needed to be disinvited or shouted down, and potentially upsetting writing required trigger warnings—not just because they were wrong, but because they were so harmful that they would impede students’ ability to function.

The underlying premise was that students are fragile, that certain ideas are dangerous to their health. Based on his own experience with cognitive behavioral therapy, Lukianoff hypothesized that students were thinking with cognitive distortions common to those suffering from anxiety and depression. This, in turn, increased their likelihood of becoming easily hurt and paralyzed. As he later noted, “avoiding triggers is a symptom of PTSD, not a treatment for it.” The kind of thinking that psychologists teach patients to rebut was hardening into campus dogma.

Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the acclaimed professor of psychology at New York University, went on to coauthor an article in the Atlantic that in turn begat a book of the same name. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure begins by asserting that our young people and universities are in the grip of Three Great Untruths, a Great Untruth being a harmful idea that contradicts the wisdom literatures of many cultures and modern psychological research on well-being. The three Great Untruths of our time are:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

We all know the fruits of these Great Untruths, from the hounding of Erika and Nicholas Christakis at Yale University and mob action at Middlebury College, to a faculty witch hunt at Evergreen State College and riots at the University of California at Berkeley.

The first Untruth points to how legitimate concerns for physical safety have come to encompass emotional safety as well. In a process of “concept creep,” the word “trauma” once described only a physical agent causing physical damage, but now means any experience that a person feels has inflicted lasting harm of any kind. According to this logic, students and professors can label the words and ideas of others as a kind of violence. Some further argue that verbal violence should be prevented by physical violence, as the rioters in Berkeley did in 2017.

It’s Not What You Say, But What Someone Else Hears

For emotional reasoning, take the now popular concept of “microaggressions,” which Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue (who coined the term) defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insights toward people of color.” These include objective experiences, such taxi drivers avoiding picking up black passengers or praising accomplished people of color as “clean and articulate.” But Professor Sue defined microaggressions as potentially unintentional and ultimately determined by the subjective listener’s interpretation. The focus is not the intent of the speaker, but the impact felt by the listener. Students are now trained to perceive more aggression in ambiguous interactions, to take more offense and not less. What matters is not what you say or how you say it, but how someone else hears it.

As for our tribal instincts, Lukianoff and Haidt acknowledge that humans are hardwired to belong, to be a part of an “us” that is not “them.” But they say there are good and bad forms of identity politics. Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced “common-humanity identity politics,” arguing for an expansion of who belonged in the unifying circle of America. Unfortunately, students are less enamored of King than of Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist philosopher who helped give birth to the New Left. For Marcuse, justice entailed not unity or equality, but a reversal of power. This requires denying basic rights to people who advocate aggressive and discriminatory causes. Free speech that says the wrong things is harmful and should therefore be denied protection. 

The authors point to 2013 as the year when the university’s landscape began to change and a culture of “safetyism”—the belief that safety from all physical and psychological harm should trump all potential dangers—began to reign. The trend came to a head, they say, for many reasons.

The polarization and vitriol of our political discourse have increased. When conservative media denounce campus life and professorial tweets, they only throw fuel on the fire. The rise of social media and smart devices have left many young people, especially girls, more anxious and depressed than they were. Constant screen use, helicopter parenting, and the decline of free play mean that young people have had less unsupervised time to interact with friends and solve interpersonal conflicts in person. 

Hence students turn to the many-tentacled administrations of their universities to keep them safe. And administrators, with Title IX and other federal regulations looming over their heads, not to mention threats of lawsuits and bad publicity, are happy to oblige. 

Lastly, students’ sense of social justice is driven strongly by a desire for equal outcomes, not equal treatment: an equal number of men and women earning doctorates in the natural sciences, for example, not equal access for men and women to PhD programs. Any explanations for such discrepancies other than discrimination are taken as false and distractions from what must be a reflection of bias and privilege.

More Mindfulness, Less Screen Time

To combat the Great Untruths and their pernicious effects, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, we need to encourage young people to seek out challenges, free themselves from cognitive distortions, and to take a generous view of others, which includes looking for nuance in others’ arguments. College should not be an intellectual safe space but an intellectual gym, the best place to learn how to deal with differing opinions and offensive or hostile people and ideas. As Hanna Holborn Gray, former president of the University of Chicago, put it: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”

Instead of teaching students that they are fragile, they continue, we need to help them become “antifragile,” resilient and stronger for the adversity they overcome. Kids need more unstructured time and practice dealing on their own with frustration and conflict—more cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness, less homework and screen time. 

We also need universities that put the pursuit of the truth first, adopting rigorous freespeech protections and standing firm against harmful demands from student protesters. Diversity policies should include viewpoint diversity (that is, hiring conservative faculty). We must encourage politeness and empathy, not the militant naming of microaggressions. Instead of equal-outcome social justice, we should encourage students to focus on questions of equal treatment and non-discriminatory causes for deviations in social phenomena.

The authors’ diagnoses and prescriptions focus on psychology and are helpful as far as they go. Lukianoff and Haidt discuss the rise of social media and smart devices as causes of anxiety and depression but they ignore the hookups, alcohol, porn, and overwork rampant in student life today. More than that, they do not give a sufficient explanation for why the Great Untruths dominate. After all, human beings do not just want to feel good and think clearly; we want to know the truth and to do justice. This inevitably entails asking philosophical questions about what it means to be human. Again and again, Lukianoff and Haidt punt on these questions, focusing instead on mental well-being and pragmatic results. Psychological outcomes are their criterion, not whether or not an idea is true.

Uncovering Why Untruths Rule 

All three Great Untruths are the triumph of our subjective feelings over an objective reality outside of and not determined by the self. Many philosophers and theologians have offered accounts of this shift; Lukianoff and Haidt never begin to mention it. To give two examples, our culture broadly subscribes to emotivism, the idea that moral judgments are simply an expression of preference or feeling, and utilitarianism, which seeks to make moral decisions on the basis of maximizing pleasure and preventing harm for the most people. The campus culture that Lukianoff and Haidt decry is the logical outgrowth of these ideas. If you want to fight safetyism, you will need to give students an account of right and wrong that does not depend on minimizing harm. If you want to fight emotional reasoning, you will need to argue that there is something more objectively true than their emotions. 

But the authors want to leave this philosophical framework unchallenged.  They also want to keep some of the progressive ideas motivating campus protesters. “The arc of history bends toward progress on most measures of health, prosperity, and freedom,” they write, “but if we can understand the six explanatory threads and free ourselves from the three Great Untruths, it may bend a little faster.” 

Perhaps, but activists’ behavior makes perfect sense if their quasi-providential, pop-Hegelianism is true. Why should pragmatism put up with obvious injustice? And what happens when those on the wrong side of history refuse to get out of its way? Moderation won’t solve the problem. A better understanding of human action and history might.

In short, students need more than improved mental health and exhortations to be nice. They need robust frameworks for what is true and good. Those who work with students need to create communities where teachers and students pursue the truth, together, in a spirit of intellectual friendship. They need to show students what to love, not just what to critique. If contemporary universities are intellectual gyms, students need the personal training of good professors so they can properly use the free weights. Wiser students and universities will come when we direct students toward wisdom that is more than practical and psychological.

Reader Discussion

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on August 28, 2019 at 10:37:32 am

“We also need universities that put the pursuit of the truth first.”

And therein lies the crux of the problem.

Denying the inherent Dignity of the human person as a beloved son or daughter, by permitting slavery, racism, the destruction of a particular son or daughter residing in their mother’s womb, or the reordering of our beloved sons and daughters according to sexual desire/inclination/orientation, which sexually objectifies the human person, in order to justify sexual acts, that regardless of the actors, are not, and can never be acts of authentic Love, are all progressive acts that do violence to the inherent Dignity of the human person, by not conserving the fact that man is not an end in himself/herself, nor is man a means to an end; man was Created to live in Loving relationship with one another, in communion with The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Who Willed us worthy of Redemption.

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Nancy
on August 28, 2019 at 15:37:54 pm

K-12 Students also need liberty--the right to wear their hair the way they want and grow it the way they want, the right to wear the clothing they want and the way they want, the right to eat what they want during lunch, the right not to go to assemblies or graduation ceremonies, etc.

If you don't give students liberty in middle and high school, they'll take it out on the other kids during college. If you tell me I can't wear an NRA shirt in high school cause we have uniforms, I'll prevent anyone from speaking on campus in college in retaliation.

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Heiress Tottle
on August 28, 2019 at 15:46:22 pm

The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.

The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

We all know the fruits of these Great Untruths, from the hounding of Erika and Nicholas Christakis at Yale University and mob action at Middlebury College, to a faculty witch hunt at Evergreen State College and riots at the University of California at Berkeley.

Seriously? From the long history of wars of religion and ideology to the latest mass shooting of people who are “not like us,” the carnage of the Great Untruths mounts to the heavens. Yet you noticed these harms only when they impinged upon the prerogatives of YOUR social class? You weep not for the 22 dead in El Paso, but for Nicholas Christakis?

For emotional reasoning, take the now popular concept of “microaggressions,” which Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue (who coined the term) defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insights toward people of color.” These include objective experiences, such taxi drivers avoiding picking up black passengers or praising accomplished people of color as “clean and articulate.” But Professor Sue defined microaggressions as potentially unintentional and ultimately determined by the subjective listener’s interpretation. The focus is not the intent of the speaker, but the impact felt by the listener. Students are now trained to perceive more aggression in ambiguous interactions, to take more offense and not less. What matters is not what you say or how you say it, but how someone else hears it.

Yeah. And your point would be...?

Two alternatives:

1: The idea that people experience stress based on a socially prescribed series of messages about subordination is false—or is so offensive to my sensibilities that I want to treat it as false. The fact that black people in the US experience extraordinarily high levels of hypertension—whereas black people in Africa do not—is a myth. The fact that people’s behavior is influenced by their environment—and that by altering that environment we can alter their behavior—is a myth. Education research showing that stress can diminish a person’s capacity to take in and retain information is a myth. The research cited in Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow about cognitive load is a myth. Etc., etc., etc.

2. Our society so values free speech and inquiry that we ask people to bear certain burdens in order to make free speech and inquiry possible. We understand the burdens this places on people—especially people in traditionally subordinated groups—and appreciate the sacrifice we require of them for the good of society at large.

From this essay, it is unclear to me whether Lukianoff and Haidt argue that microaggressions have no effect (Alternative 1), or that students must learn to weather microaggressions as part of growing (Alternative 2).

I embrace Alternative 2. I believe the theory of microaggressions, and believe that certain settings facilitate learning. I also value free speech and inquiry. And I believe that free speech and inquiry may come at a cost. Schools must balance those considerations—although public schools may face greater limits on limiting free speech. I generally want a school—and institution created to promote education—to create environments best suited for education. I will defer to researchers about what that environment entails—including Lukianoff and Haidt.

The authors point to 2013 as the year when the university’s landscape began to change and a culture of “safetyism”—the belief that safety from all physical and psychological harm should trump all potential dangers—began to reign. The trend came to a head, they say, for many reasons….

Lastly, students’ sense of social justice is driven strongly by a desire for equal outcomes, not equal treatment: an equal number of men and women earning doctorates in the natural sciences, for example, not equal access for men and women to PhD programs. Any explanations for such discrepancies other than discrimination are taken as false and distractions from what must be a reflection of bias and privilege.

Forget grad school: Did the authors note that students from poor families/students of color/first-generation students drop out of college at a greater rate than other students do, and that colleges perceive that they have a moral and financial interest in changing this outcome?

College should not be an intellectual safe space but an intellectual gym, the best place to learn how to deal with differing opinions and offensive or hostile people and ideas.

What kind of gym do you visit anyway—some kind of dystopian high school gym dominated by bullies? In the gym I attend, people are collegial but respectful, and I choose which machines to challenge myself with.

The metaphor Peters seeks is not a gym, but combat—a forum where, ready or not, your ideas must be prepared to fight to the death, with no quarter. Perhaps related to that, the NYT found that the Socratic Method has fallen out of favor in law schools. More coddling, perhaps—or perhaps a focus on finding more effective pedagogical methods

As Hanna Holborn Gray, former president of the University of Chicago, put it: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”

I would qualify that: Education is meant to make people LEARN. To some extent, making people uncomfortable facilitates that process. And beyond a certain point, it detracts. Either way, the effectiveness of pedagogical methods is a question of FACT, not ideology.

[Lukianoff and Haidt argue that k]ids need more unstructured time and practice dealing on their own with frustration and conflict—more cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness, less homework….

Ha--what a bunch of hippies!

Lukianoff and Haidt discuss the rise of social media and smart devices as causes of anxiety and depression but they ignore the hookups, alcohol, porn, and overwork rampant in student life today…. Psychological outcomes are their criterion, not whether or not an idea is true.

Speaking of the need to focus on whether or not an idea is true, could we see some research on whether “hookups, alcohol, porn, and overwork” (?!?) are more prevalent now than in the past on campus? Perhaps they’re just more prevalent on Fox News….

[S]tudents need more than improved mental health and exhortations to be nice. They need robust frameworks for what is true and good. Those who work with students need to create communities where teachers and students pursue the truth, together, in a spirit of intellectual friendship. They need to show students what to love, not just what to critique. If contemporary universities are intellectual gyms, students need the personal training of good professors so they can properly use the free weights.

Seriously? You want to deputize today’s oh-so-liberal college professors to not only lecture students about facts and theories—but to lecture them on values? Other than the value of free inquiry—which, admittedly, is a big part of this discussion—I don’t see what aspect of a PhD program qualifies a person for that role. Perhaps parents and clergy might be better suited for that task….

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nobody.really
on August 28, 2019 at 16:48:22 pm

“Seriously? You want to deputize today’s oh-so-liberal college professors to not only lecture students about facts and theories—but to lecture them on values?”

If the purpose of education does not include developing the mind through imparting good values and morals that will lead one towards living a virtuous life, then the State has no business being involved in education. Having Good values and morals is the “foundation” for being not just a Good student, but a Good citizen.

In fact, I would argue that securing our inherent Right to Life, to Liberty, and to The Pursuit of Happiness, depends upon securing our inherent Right to choose to live a virtuous life.

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Nancy
on August 29, 2019 at 14:15:43 pm

" Perhaps parents and clergy might be better suited for that task…"

INDEED, they would

AND YET

how often do we observe the Proggies of the world interfering in the parents (and clergy) ability to so induce those values in their children?

Something is amiss and nobody really knows what it is (or does he?).

BTW: Stop inflating the *tension* that students may feel as it oftentimes serves only as a self-induced incitement to protest. quite regularly, it may be deemed sophomoric, childish, ill informed, if not downright ignorant.
Consider just one example at Evergreen State College where students upset after having terrorized a professor proceeded to the school cafeteria, scaring away half the staff (oh, BTW, these cafeteria workers were POOR people) and demanded to be instantly fed. when service was not instantly provided they then launched into an endless and pointless list of grievances and DEMANDED that a cafeteria worked be FIRED because he had exposed these fat little shits to the dangers of "malnourishment" (their words)

And you would have us accept that these *tensions* are behind the students grievances.
Take it from one who has actually gone hungry, that their little protestations are nothing more than childhood insolence, intolerance and an inability to accept the real world's assessment that "they are not quite as special as their grade / middle school teachers assured them."

Signed the Hungry but Jolly curmudgeon

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gabe
on August 31, 2019 at 07:44:08 am

Amazing analysis, Nathaniel!

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Ruby

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.