Safe Spaces, Trigger Warnings & Holding Teachers Hostage

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The first time I heard someone make a reference to a university's "safe space," I imagined a bunker-style shelter to which students could retreat in the event of a campus lockdown. Instead, it turned out to be a room containing stuffed animals, coloring books, calming music, Play-Doh, and a video of puppies playing. It was the kind of place one would think had been designed for children who had endured trauma. In 2015 Brown University made such a room available as a "safe space" for students who had been psychologically "triggered" by a debate about sexual violence on campus, who felt the debate "invalidated" their personal experiences, and who were "feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs," as one student said.1

I completed undergraduate school in 2003. At that time, students exercised their right to free speech, but even then, professors and administrators sought to curtail such speech as didn't conform to the politically correct standards of the day. What Alan Bloom predicted in his Closing of the American Mind (1987) had played out, particularly in the arts and humanities: relativism and tolerance were in; objective moral truths were out.

Ten years ago, administrators were the ones who were hypersensitive to anything that might be deemed offensive to any group, but students still freely exchanged ideas. Student groups felt free to invite guest speakers sympathetic to their perspectives and to hold debates on opposing views. They also felt free to protest guest speakers, and if a protest or call to dis-invite a speaker occurred, it was for moral, not psychological reasons.

But now, students have joined the administrators in trying to ensure that no one on campus feels uncomfortable or "invalidated" for any reason. Thus we have students who demand sensitivity training for faculty, trigger warnings before lectures, and safe spaces to retreat to if their ideas are challenged. Did things change so much in just ten years' time?

The iGen

According to Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the answer is yes. Their book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Penguin Press, 2018), pinpoints 2013 as a pivotal year on the college campus. It was the year the so-called iGen entered college.

The iGen, or internet generation, comprises those born after 1995. The term was coined by Jean Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us (Atria Books, 2017).2 This generation has effectively always lived under the shadow of 9/11 (the oldest iGen kids were only six years old at the time of the attacks), experienced the Great Recession of 2007–2009 during their childhood, and, most importantly, has never known a world without the internet.

Lukianoff and Haidt interviewed Twenge to get an idea of the differences between iGen members and their older Millennial peers. Twenge told them that Millennials do not have the same safety paranoia as members of the iGen, who also suffer much higher rates of depression and anxiety. Twenge attributes much of the latter to the constant use of smartphones and social media. These are the children who competed with their parents' smartphones for attention and lived their adolescent years online.

Three Great Untruths

The temptation is to look down our noses at iGen as weak and spoiled—coddled in the derogatory sense. But Lukianoff and Haidt use "coddling" to mean overprotection. They point out that "today's teens are not necessarily spoiled or pampered, but they grew up in a world that takes excessive care not to upset them."3 The authors' thesis is that iGen are the inheritors of well-intentioned but bad ideas, which they have distilled into what they call the Three Great Untruths:

1. The Untruth of Fragility (i.e., "What doesn't kill you makes you weaker")

2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning (i.e., "Always trust your feelings")

3. The Untruth of Us versus Them (i.e., "Life is a battle between good people and evil people")

These untruths perpetuate the kind of distorted thinking that makes what should be small problems, such as encountering a speaker whose views differ from your own, into overwhelming and terrifying crises. Here's how:

1. Fragility: When children are treated as though they are fragile and are shielded from discomfort, they end up missing out on life experiences that build emotional resilience. So when they enter college, they are truly distraught by views that challenge their own.

2. Emotional Reasoning: When children are taught that their feelings are the arbiter of truth, they will enter college with the assumption that anything that makes them feel bad must be bad.

3. Us versus Them: When children are taught that people are either with you or out to get you, instead of being taught that people and relationships are complex, they will enter college ready to sniff out their "enemies" and will justify violent acts and witch hunts as being necessary to get rid of threatening people.

Lukianoff and Haidt cite the rise in peanut allergies as an example of how this kind of well-intentioned overprotection can cause harm. Before 1990, only about 0.4 percent of schoolchildren were allergic to peanuts. Nevertheless, as a precaution, schools banned all peanut products from students' lunches, even at schools where there were no children with the allergy. Parents, too, avoided feeding their children peanuts, as a precaution. And pregnant women were told to avoid eating peanuts as well—again, as a precaution. As a result of all these precautionary measures, many children failed to develop a natural tolerance for peanuts, and instead became allergic to them—the very thing that hyper-careful parents and teachers had been trying to avoid.

Change "peanut allergy" to child abduction, psychological trauma, or car accidents, and you start to see how parents in the 1990s took too many unnecessary precautions, causing their children to miss out on life experiences that build healthy emotional resilience. Despite parents' fears, the reality is that crime rates have decreased markedly since the 1990s, and the likelihood of an iGen child being abducted is actually lower than when his parents were watching America's Most Wanted and receiving "Have You Seen Me?" fliers in the mail. Child abduction is horrible, and it can still happen, but isn't it better to teach children what to do if they think a situation is unsafe than to keep them always under lock and key?

But parents are not the only culprits here. Our culture pressures parents to be hypervigilant, and, as we will see, college administrators carry on where parents and society have left off.

Untruths Played Out

Lukianoff and Haidt's Three Great Untruths have played out most starkly in instances of campus violence. In October 2015 Claremont McKenna College and Yale University both experienced campus protests that resulted in harassment of the faculty involved and their eventual resignation. The inciting events were the sending of innocuous emails that were intended to be helpful. But for students operating on the basis of the three untruths—fragility, emotional reasoning, and us-versus-them—the professors' statements were unacceptable and justified demands for their resignation.

Matters escalated in 2017. There were violent protests at UC Berkeley over an invitation to firebrand journalist Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus, and McKenna College was back in the news for violent protests over guest speaker Heather MacDonald's presentation on the Black Lives Matter movement. Middlebury College erupted in protest over Charles Murray coming to campus, because Murray had co-authored The Bell Curve in 1994, abook proposing that one's IQ was influenced by genetic, environmental, and racial factors.

Even more disturbing were the events that occurred at Evergreen State College in May 2017. Evergreen State is known for being liberal and progressive. The teachers do not give grades, but written evaluations, and students construct their own degree programs. The school holds an annual "Day of Absence," on which the contributions of minority students and staff are acknowledged by their (voluntary) absence from campus on that day. However, organizers of the 2017 Day of Absence called for white students and staff to stay off campus that day instead of minorities. They implied that any white person who didn't absent himself was a racist.

Biology professor Brett Weinstein objected, saying that a person's voluntary absence would be "a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression," but a demand that anyone stay off campus was "a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself." Weinstein also said that "on a college campus, one's right to speak—or to be—must never be based on skin color." For this, he was accused of being a racist, and for several days the campus devolved into anarchy as student protesters took over, going so far as to hold faculty, administrators, and staff hostage.

The Consequences of Corrosive Ideas

Lukianoff and Haidt see in such situations something akin to the mania of witch hunts, but I am reminded of Dostoevsky's novel Demons (1871; sometimes translated as Possessed). An important theme in Demons is that ideas have consequences, and that the ideas of one generation are passed down to the next. Dostoevsky lived during a time when Russia's traditional institutions were being undermined by the political idealists of the 1840s, whose ideas were played out in the rise of the radical nihilists of the 1860s.

The "demons" in his novel are not the characters themselves, but the corrosive ideas that drove them to violence, anarchy, and murder. As Russian literature scholar and translator Richard Pevear says in the introduction to his and Larissa Volokhonsky's translation of Demons, "The demons, then, are ideas, that legion of isms that came to Russia from the West: idealism, rationalism, empiricism, materialism, utilitarianism, positivism, socialism, anarchism, nihilism, and underlying them all, atheism."

Just as Stepan Trofimovich was the father of the ideas that bred the nihilistic revolutionaries and the deadly violence in Demons, so the seeds of modern-day campus violence were planted fifty years ago. Lukianoff and Haidt point to Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), a neo-Marxist philosopher who became known as the "father of the New Left," as doing much to propel the radical student movements of the 1960s. Many of those same students are today's professors.

Lukianoff and Haidt make a compelling case that viewpoint diversity, which is important to the free exchange of ideas on college campuses, plummeted in the 1990s. A ratio of two or three liberals for every conservative on a campus is sufficient to maintain viewpoint diversity and ensure that majority ideas are challenged. But this ratio tilted strongly in favor of liberals by the 1990s, as professors from the Greatest Generation, many of whom were World War II veterans and conservative-leaning, began to retire, and Baby Boomers became the largest group of professors. The latter were "more diverse by race and gender but less diverse in their politics."4

On a YouTube video of the Evergreen events, a student protester can be heard saying to a professor being held hostage, "Didn't you educate us on how to do sh** like this?" And in an email written in the midst of the campus chaos, an Evergreen media studies professor admitted that the students were "doing exactly what we've taught them."5

In separate chapters, Lukianoff and Haidt discuss six factors—examples of which can be seen in the incidents described above—that explain how they believe the Three Great Untruths took hold: "The Polarization Cycle"; "Anxiety and Depression"; "Paranoid Parenting"; "The Decline of Play"; "The Bureaucracy of Safetyism"; and "The Quest for Justice." But perhaps Dostoevsky's explanation for the radical uprisings of the 1860s also applies today: what starts with the denial of the existence of God ends with the denial of meaning.6 And where there is no meaning, emotivism and power plays are left to fill the void.

1. Quoted in The Coddling of the American Mind (hereafter Coddling), 28.
2. For a summary of the key points in Twenge's book, see her article in The Atlantic: "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" (September 2017):
3. Coddling, 13
4. Coddling, 111
5. Coddling, 117.
6. My paraphrase of a quote by Dostoevsky in the introduction to Demons (page xx): "The scientific and philosophical refutation of the existence of God has already been abandoned, present-day practical socialists are not occupied with it at all (as they were for the whole past century and the first half of the present one), instead they deny with all their might God's creation, God's world, and its meaning. Here in this alone does modern civilization find nonsense."

has an M.S. in chemistry from the University of Texas at Dallas, and an M.A. in bioethics from Trinity International University. She resides in Dallas and currently works as a freelance science writer and educator.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #49, Summer 2019 Copyright © 2020 Salvo |