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.