“This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. 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.” — Thomas Jefferson, upon founding the University of Virginia.
A new vernacular has emerged on college campuses over the past several years — safe spaces, “microaggressions,” triggers warnings and so on. While conservatives may find these terms easy to mock, and many dismiss them as the grievances of a few spoiled children, professors from across the political spectrum have voiced concerns about a pathological victimhood mentality that underlies their usage.
The first sign that things were getting bad was a 2015 article published in Vox titled, “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” Next was the Halloween brouhaha at Yale, in which a professor was shouted down by a student mob after defending his wife’s email to the student body urging them to be less sensitive about costumes that “appropriate” the markers of certain cultures. Later came the mobs — often violent — calling for heads of figures like Charles Murray, Heather Mac Donald, and Milo Yiannopoulis for voicing controversial opinions.
It doesn’t take a sophisticated analyst to see that wearing a sombrero on Halloween is not comparable to physical violence. However, much of the criticism of the “special snowflakes” by the right has only thrown more fuel on the fire. It has created a vicious cycle, whereby the anti-free speech left sees the inflammatory language as further proof that certain voices must not be heard. Once that point is granted, it’s easy to continually shrink the boundaries of acceptable speech. While there are some who may wish to inflict emotional pain on over-sensitive college students, the vast majority of professors and guest speakers who have been silenced have had good intentions — namely to share their knowledge and opinions in an environment where the ideas can be challenged and discussed in the open.
NYU psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has attempted to give a platform for all truth-seekers with his Heterodox Academy — a group of academics dedicated to increasing “viewpoint diversity.” The platform functions as something of a “safe space” amid the increasing hostility to free exchange of ideas on campus. Haidt’s latest book The Coddling of the American Mind (co-authored with Greg Lukianoff of The FIRE) goes beyond the mockery and intentionally inflammatory speech directed at the small subset of college students who are most visibly outraged by political incorrectness. He applies principles of psychology to understand what drives the urge to suppress free speech and shows how this is precisely the wrong way for triggered young adults to handle their anxiety.
Equal parts pro-liberal philosophy and behavioral therapy, Haidt and Lukianoff’s book lays out the paradox of anxiety, and how our efforts to shield ourselves from negative ideas and emotions makes us less able to cope with them. They say that blame-seeking, or “vindictive protectiveness,” re-labels well-intentioned people as “aggressors,” and is having a disastrous effect on people’s mental health. They back it up with data, too, showing how the "iGeneration" now entering their college years is seeing skyrocketing rates of severe anxiety as a result of having been shielded by adults from real life.
A New York Times review of the book wonders if our cultural obsession with safety could spell the “Downfall of Democracy.” With stakes this high, we need more thinkers like Haidt — and more conversations that bring hard questions and ugly truths to the surface where they can be debated, studied, and understood by the next generation of politicians, professionals, and thought leaders.
JJonathan Haidt joined the show of ideas - not attitude - on Sunday (9/9) from 8–9am PACIFIC. He and Bob analyzed how well our top schools stack up to the Jeffersonian conception of the university as a place to fearlessly pursue the truth, and talk about how students can better prepare themselves mentally in this important quest.
Share the link with any students beginning their freshman year, or continuing in their education at a school where these issues are being worked out in real-time.
- Whose Free Speech? Our Free Speech!, Marieke Tuthill-Beck Coon, April 16, 2017
- Freedom *From* Speech? The New Face of Censorship, Greg Lukianoff, November 2, 2014
- Free Speech- There is No America Without It, with Greg Lukianoff, March 3, 2013
- Is Your Alma Mater a Soviet Gulag?, Harvey Silverglate, September 18, 2011
- Jonathan Rauch on the New Attacks on Free Thought, January 18, 2015