Coddling of the American Mind
In my September 2015 cover article for The Atlantic with Greg Lukianoff, we argued that a new form of “vindictive protectiveness” is sweeping across American universities, with dire consequences not just for free inquiry but for the students’ own mental health.
Overview, via FIRE:
My Media Appearances:
- >KCRW: The Point (a radio show with some heated exchanges, e.g., Harvard’s Paula Caplan says that microaggressions are in the eye of the beholder, and Wendy Kaminer points out that this is precisely why the concept is so dangerous)
- >Diane Rehm (this is the most detailed discussion so far)
Critical Responses: So far there has been hardly any pushback. The only criticisms published in major media are:
- >The New Republic: The trigger warning myth, by Aaron Hanlon. This is a thoughtful essay about the sensitivities needed to lead a seminar class through difficult material. His main point is that TWs are not a form of censorship. I agree. He argues that sometimes guidance is needed beforehand. I agree with that too. I just think its very bad for students to call it a “trigger warning,” or to do anything to convey to students the expectation that they will be warned about… everything. We had a good discussion in a HuffPost Live joint appearance.
- >The Guardian: Trigger Warnings don’t hinder freedom of expression: they expand it. Lindy West argues that Lukianoff and I are motivated by the need to defend the status quo — our male privilege. This is the most common response to our essay in the blogosphere.
- >At Reason.com, Anthony Fisher rounds up critiques from smaller blogs, as of 8/26/15.
- >Have Microaggression Complaints Really Launched a Whole New Sort of ‘Victimhood Culture’? by Jesse Singal, at New York Magazine. (I agree that the article in question did not prove that a change has occurred, but it is a theoretical article that got a lot of people thinking, and some will do the empirical work. Also: earlier grievances did not include claims of one’s own fragility. That part is new, and justifies the term “victimhood culture”.)
- >A New York Times op-ed by Kate Manne, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University on why she uses trigger warnings to prepare students for potentially difficult subject matter. (9/20/15) Here is my response to her, including our Twitter exchange afterward.
Other responses and extensions of the Ideas:
Miscellaneous Points I’d like to make about vindictive protectiveness and the new PC:
>Video: Parody of a freshman lit class loaded with trigger warnings, aided by a huggable trauma pillow
>South Park, on Safe Spaces:
>Sahill Gupta, a Yale Undergraduate, in a comedy sketch about the Coddling article, and how some students today want to go into “airplane mode” to cut themselves off from frightening things.
>Alternate viewpoint cancelling headphones
“The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”
American Association of University Professors
One topic I’m interested in is freedom in general and freedom of speech specifically. Especially at universities, given that I have spend almost two decades in that environment, either as a student, a PhD student, or a Post-Doc.
So I’m more than a little concerned about the outbreak of “political correctness” and the silencing of different opinions at US universities. I’m in Germany, but as a school teacher of mine once said: “Trends that start in the US usually arrive here within 5 to 10 years.” That was before the Internet became common so the time frames might be even shorter now. And there are signs that this trend has already reached England.
But there are also increasing signs of a backlash against a movement that undermines the basic function of a university. Some come in the form of humorous criticism (like this musical treatment of safe spaces), others in more serious and insightful pieces.
Regarding the later, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written an essay for “The Atlantic” titled: “The Coddling of the American Mind”. The teaser reads:
“In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.”
Greg Lukianoff is the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and organization that is well-worth a look if you are interested in free speech — or have problems with free speech on campus. Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist who researchers moral psychology. He did an impressive presentation about moral reasoning and wrote a very interesting book titled: “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”. I’ll write on his book in another posting, but it’s well worth checking out if you want to find out what makes people’s morality tick. In fact, it motivated me to apply his model (or what I understood of it at the time) to outrage porn and the like — and it fits really well.
These two heavyweights provide some insightful perspectives, esp. by using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as an explanation. It might sound strange to refer to therapy here, but given the influence perception and thinking have on how people see and interact with the world, it’s extremely useful. Personally, I’d also point to the work on resilience (which also makes use of CBT), for example the book “The Resilience Factor” by Reivich and Shatté. And yup, resilience is something you can and should learn. Everyone gets shit in his or her life, online and offline. Better develop a thick skin.
I’d also point to the more … tangible effects of this kind of “thin-skinned” culture at colleges. The authors point to a case where an accusation was made against a professor who was passed over for a sabbatical. It might have been a “misperception”, but it could also be a case where “offense” was weaponized or used as a shield. And this is something that might be tempting to a lot of students who are stressed out and use outrage as a vent to deal with a stressful new situation (like college/university is for many students). The downside is — of course — that this is a really bad way to cope (unless it’s massive harassment). You likely need to unlearn some habits from school and learn how to learn at the college/university. While such a vent might provide some immediate relief, it doesn’t help you to get through college/university.
Also, my guess is that there’s a whole section of people in colleges and universities who directly thrive on this outrage culture. Don’t get me wrong, there are cases where students (both male and female) are a hazard to others (both male and female). And it’s good that there are people who provide support to the victims in these cases. But in a world of skewed perceptions and primed/biased thinking, you need a lot of people who deal with these grievances. There’s a lot of money to be made for people who are into this line of work, and who — perhaps — care a little too much and don’t have other moral foundations to stand on.
Ah, and one more thing … PTSD. I’m currently updating my knowledge about it (clinical psychology was a while ago). It seems to have been in fashion, both in therapy and in research. Yes, some people do get a PTSD, in some areas of life/work a lot. Especially in the military. But overall PTSD is a) rare, b) not a natural consequence of an emergency or a “traumatic event” (if you define traumatic solely by an extremely negative situation), c) in many cases, the symptoms decrease and the disorder vanishes on its own, and d) if it doesn’t vanish, it’s well treatable by a therapist (Yeah!).
And frankly, reading case histories of people suffering from PTSD, I’m more than a little pissed how the term is used by the perpetually offended. It’s a disorder with symptoms that can severely undermine your ability to live a happy and fulfilling life. But if you have it, it’s not the end of the world, because it’s treatable. And if it persists, it’s something that warrants treatment. What it doesn’t need is people who try to censor the world, esp. the academic world, to “protect” potentially affected students from “triggers”. These people don’t do anything positive. On the contrary. They weaken Academia and students. And they leave people with disorders untreated and in perpetual need of protection.
So, yeah, a really interesting and worthwhile article.
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