By Finbarr Curtis
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt want to protect you. Or more precisely, they want to protect you from people who are harming you by trying to protect you. Their recent piece on the coddling of American students warns of political correctness on college campuses. In its recent incarnation, political correctness damages young people's psyches by protecting them from the inevitable harm we all must face in the harsh real world. Hypersensitive students invent increasingly subtle forms of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and ableism, and then seek to protect themselves by asking professors to make these threats visible through markers like trigger warnings on course syllabuses.
Critics of political correctness are not just talking about college. Victims of hypersensitivity nationwide have found their most prominent spokesman in current Republican front-runner Donald Trump. When questioned by debate moderator Megyn Kelly about his disparaging comments about women, Trump responded that the "big problem this country has is being politically correct." Trump is the perfect anti-trigger warning. Liable to say anything at anytime, his supporters are drawn to his honesty, his willingness to tell it like it is, his refusal to cower in the face of fraudulent liberal niceness, his insistence on giving offense as a much needed lesson to losers who take offense. Speaking truth to sensitivity feels liberating to people tired of having to politely self-censor in order to avoid charges of racism and sexism. The Trump-For-President Movement is a twenty-first century free-hate commune where you can express all your deepest, darkest, pent-up frustrations and everything is groovy and there are no judgments.
Many who decry political correctness on college campuses are mystified by Trump's rise. There seems to be a difference between Lukianoff and Haidt's attacks on hypersensitive students and Trump's attacks on hypersensitive journalists. But it is worth considering whether people making the same arguments for the same purposes might have similar motives.
In an earlier post, I discussed laments about protected students. I did not weigh in on whether mechanisms like trigger warnings on college syllabuses were a good idea. I just noted that images of sheltered college students contradicted social reality. It is analytically incoherent to portray a generation with unprecedented access to images and information as protected from negative images and information. While diagnoses of infantilization and coddling might work as polemical put downs, they offer little explanation.
The question of how to address the sensibilities of diverse students seems like a hard case, the kind of issue about which there are a number of reasonable points supporting different positions. Lukianoff and Haidt could have acknowledged that students were trying to do something about harmful forms of injury while still suggesting that mandated trigger warnings might not be the best way to achieve their goals; or they could have pointed out that administrative procedures that investigate Title IX complaints are designed to protect institutions from lawsuits rather than meaningfully address discrimination; or they could have questioned whether pscyhoanalytic language about trauma is the best way to talk about social harm. Lukianoff and Haidt chose none of these options. Instead, they double-down on psychoanalytic diagnoses and speculate that fragile psyches are causing a rise in mental health problems. Rather than argue against what proponents of trigger warnings say, Lukianoff and Haidt construct a self-referential psycho-socio-historical theory and then argue against that.
Their theory is that sometime around 1980 parents began to protect their children:
The surge in crime from the ’60s through the early ’90s made Baby Boomer parents more protective than their own parents had been. Stories of abducted children appeared more frequently in the news, and in 1984, images of them began showing up on milk cartons. In response, many parents pulled in the reins and worked harder to keep their children safe. The flight to safety also happened at school. Dangerous play structures were removed from playgrounds; peanut butter was banned from student lunches. After the 1999 Columbine massacre in Colorado, many schools cracked down on bullying, implementing “zero tolerance” policies. In a variety of ways, children born after 1980—the Millennials—got a consistent message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.Quasi-histories of coddled generations often fail to keep their nostalgia straight. They tell us that once upon a time, the world was less dangerous so parents did not protect their kids. Students who grew up in this simpler time, however, were also toughened up by a Darwinian survival pit. Opie of Mayberry would fish in the morning and get bullied into maturity in the afternoon. This is a curious inversion of 1960s "culture of poverty" theories that warned of declining families. Now the families are so strong and the parents are so protective that children are incapable of confronting the world. The coddling hypothesis also flips the focus from the poor to the wealthy without discussing class. After all, the term "millennial" rarely describes poor or working-class people born after 1980. Although their analysis could work only for parents who have the resources to protect their kids, Lukianoff and Haidt lump together the parenting experiences of an entire generation
Fretting over coddled youth is nothing new. As this Ngram chart tracking the word "coddled" suggests, we might not have reached the peak coddling periods of the mid-twentieth century.
Lukianoff and Haidt feel vulnerable when facing the possibility of unwittingly offending someone. This threat has grown with new policies:
Until recently, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights acknowledged that speech must be “objectively offensive” before it could be deemed actionable as sexual harassment—it would have to pass the “reasonable person” test. To be prohibited, the office wrote in 2003, allegedly harassing speech would have to go “beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.” But in 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply “unwelcome.” Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.There is a fair point to be made that legal solutions implemented by administrative bureaucracies are poor arbiters of offense. Because abstract principles cannot consistently govern what counts as offensive, nervous college administrators will likely react by generating time-consuming procedures that will enrich lawyers while discouraging discussion of potentially controversial subject matter.
But Lukianoff and Haidt don't stop with practical objections; they take an extra shot at emotional people. The easily insulted are those who Trump would call "losers," the bleeding hearts whose thin skins render them unable to deal with the rough-and-tumble world of economic and military competition. Because offended people are unreliable sources, we should instead appeal to a "reasonable person" standard. But who would this be, exactly? Apparently, the best people to judge offense are those who have never been offended.
One hypothetical candidate for reasonable person could be the paragon of reason, Thomas Jefferson. At the conclusion of their essay, Lukianoff and Haidt cite Jefferson's comments about the founding of the University of Virginia as the gold standard for intellectual freedom: "For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." One irony is that if they had searched through all of human history, they could not have found a more perfect example of how a brilliant political and scientific mind could reconcile lofty ideals of freedom with practices of racial and sexual domination. You would think that an essay trying to convince you that racism is no big deal might not want to cite a slaveholder as an authority on freedom.
But then again, Lukianoff and Haidt could be telling us that the trouble with politically correct students is that they are so preoccupied with Jefferson's racism and sexism that they fail to appreciate his vision of freedom. Students can be trained to see racism and sexism as less of a problem if they learned to think differently. To this end, Lukianoff and Haidt recommend confronting threats as a form of "exposure therapy," which is how you can get over something like an irrational fear of elevators:
You might start by asking the woman to merely look at an elevator from a distance—standing in a building lobby, perhaps—until her apprehension begins to subside. If nothing bad happens while she’s standing in the lobby—if the fear is not “reinforced”—then she will begin to learn a new association: elevators are not dangerous. (This reduction in fear during exposure is called habituation.)With enough exposure therapy, students will learn that racism and sexism are not dangerous after all. The real problem is their irrational fear of nonexistent threats. To inoculate yourself from threats, Lukianoff and Haidt recommend a stoic approach in which you change yourself rather than attempt to the change the world around you:
Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control. One of the great truths taught by Buddhism (and Stoicism, Hinduism, and many other traditions) is that you can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to your desires. But you can master your desires and habits of thought.I am not sure exactly what sutras teach this nor am I persuaded that Stoicism and Buddhism contain interchangeable "great truths." But it is worth considering how this brand of positive thinking would work for someone like Bailey Loverin, a University of California, Santa Barbara student who sponsored a resolution on trigger warnings and described herself: "first as a student, second as a woman and third, as a survivor of sexual abuse." She does not seem coddled. But Loverin is coddled, according to Lukianoff and Haidt, because she fails to recognize that abuse is just a projection of the negative energies in her mind. No abuse really can hurt you if you realize that bodies are illusions, and that sentient attachments are the source of suffering.
Paeans to stoicism are coming not only from popular magazines. The American Association of University Professors' statement on academic freedom is a ringing endorsement of an exposure therapy approach to pedagogy. The AAUP characterizes the concerns of students like Loverin as "infantilizing and anti-intellectual" and asserts that they "threaten the academic freedom of teachers and students whose classrooms should be open to difficult discussions, whatever form they take." As someone who feels comfortable within academic cultures of rigorous debate, I get where the AAUP is coming from. But I also have to consider the possibility that not everyone shares my sensibility. The AAUP, however, thinks that students are blank slates. The AAUP assumes that trigger-warning advocates cannot handle discussions about difficult topics because these are intellectual problems that students have never encountered before they stepped foot in a college classroom. But what students like Loverin are saying is that these subjects are all too familiar and real.
The AAUP's Jeffersonian conviction that the truth will set you free might be less persuasive to those who have stoically endured different forms of social harm for a long time and have yet to see exposure make injuries go away. Rather than embrace classroom discussions in "whatever form they take," advocates for safer spaces assert that some matters are better dealt with in environments of care, precision, and a self-critical awareness of people's vulnerabilities. As Kelly J. Baker explains, her pedagogical approach "emphasized respect, dignity, and empathy in our discussions of those hard topics. Sometimes, students' feelings were hurt, and so were mine. I recognized the legitimacy of their feelings. More important, I modeled mutual respect and empathy."
To be honest, I do not know what the right answers are for how to develop policies that can include the diverse teaching and learning styles that make up universities. But it seems unhelpful for the AAUP to tell a survivor of abuse to stop being such a baby.
One thing that the ferocity of the AAUP's response to students makes clear is that trigger warnings are remarkably successful at making professors feel vulnerable. In a thoughtful reflection, Rei Terada addressed Laura Kipnis's experience of facing a Title IX complaint as an example of how a tenured professor had to face an unwelcome feeling of precarity:
I’m not unsympathetic to Kipnis’s experience of administrative persecution, its protocols “under-explanatory in the extreme” (Kipnis, “My Title IX”). Rather, it sounds all too familiar, like what people lower in the hierarchy, people unlike myself, often experience. Faculty continue to sound oblivious to the conditions in which others in the university live. Kipnis’s original essay contends that “it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around” (“Sexual Paranoia”; my italics), and at length this turn-about seems to be much of the problem. It’s shocking to Kipnis that due to the animosities, “a tenured professor on [her] campus” might now lie “awake at night worrying” about losing her job (“My Title IX”); but the novelty of the experience suggests that the tenured professor does not lie awake worrying about others’ losses, and doesn’t find them intolerable.Kipnis's experiences point to real problems in administrative responses to student complaints, but they also point to some limits in how we think about those problems. Instead of talking about how social inequalities produce vulnerable people, anti-coddling manifestos identify other people's vulnerabilities as the problem. The vague sense that political correctness is on the rise is not caused by sheltered students but by assertive students willing to file legal complaints against professors. Professors feel vulnerable in the face of threats like stressful legal proceedings or conceivably losing their jobs. It is frightening to think that you might work your whole life to get to a position where you feel free and empowered and have all of that taken away by someone whose feelings you cannot anticipate and whose politics you do not share. What trigger-warning advocates are saying is that it is okay to be vulnerable, but focusing on the harm caused by Title IX proceedings without considering the harm that Title IX is supposed to address is a choice to privilege some vulnerabilites over others.
Complaints about political correctness are always responses to an experience of vulnerability that is novel. You thought you knew what was offensive until someone finds previously invisible forms of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and ableism in something you said. This feeling of being wounded by criticism informs Lukianoff and Haidt's warnings about college campuses or Trump's warnings of a nation of losers. Not long after decrying political correctness, for example, Trump attacked Kelly for not treating him nicely even though he had been very nice to her. While he had little time for the criticism from the many women he had insulted, he did ask us to consider his own hurt feelings.
What this means is that the feeling that you have when you complain about coddled college students, that is the feeling of Trump for president. You get it. There is some Donald Trump in you too. That feeling of threat, of vulnerability, that sense that others fail to appreciate your hard work and might take everything from you, that is your inner Trump speaking.