Writing in the Atlantic Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have clarified the issues surrounding the current college campus delirium about trigger warnings and microaggressions. In large part they have succeeded.
Lukianoff is a lawyer and is CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Haidt is a social psychologist who teaches at NYU’s Stern School of business.
The mania that has infested the nation’s campuses rests on a wish to ensure everyone’s emotional well-being. Thus it is based on a theory of what does and does not inflict psychological damage on students:
The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
Constitutionally, these practices seem clearly to be indefensible. Pedagogically, they are designed to produce mindless clods. More salient, for our current purposes, is the fact that they are more likely to instigate than to help treat emotional distress and mental illness.
The authors explain:
A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety.
To buttress their point they offer some statistics. It turns out that, as college students become more alert to microaggressions, as they receive more sensitivity training, as they learn how to avoid offending anyone, their mental health is declining:
Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems was rising at their schools. The rate of emotional distress reported by students themselves is also high, and rising. In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54 percent of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months, up from 49 percent in the same survey just five years earlier. Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them. The question is whether some of those changes might be doing more harm than good.
To show what is wrong with trigger-warnings and hypersensitivity to slights, the authors explain the bases for cognitive-behavioral therapy, beginning with a proposition that needs to be somewhat clarified:
For millennia, philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is; we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments.
In truth, some philosophers believe that reality is as we see it or interpret it. They tend to throw up a veil of ideas before the real world and invite us to believe that what is real is what affirms our beliefs. Plato, for example, argued that we do not deal with real objects, but only with appearances.
Other philosophers, mostly in the empirical and pragmatic traditions, begin with facts and attempt to draw hypotheses that they then test experimentally. In scientific reasoning, it must always be possible to disprove the hypothesis. Otherwise you would be playing with loaded dice.
In idealistic thinking, however, there is no such thing as a piece of information that can disprove your idea. Such was Karl Popper’s famous objection to Freud. It applies to many other theories. For someone who believes in anthropogenic climate change there is no such thing as a piece of information than can disprove the theory.
Lukianoff and Haidt explain that cognitive therapy tries to free people from the illusions of idea-based or ideological thinking, thereby allowing them to come to terms with reality:
The goal is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately. You start by learning the names of the dozen or so most common cognitive distortions (such as overgeneralizing, discounting positives, and emotional reasoning; see the list at the bottom of this article). Each time you notice yourself falling prey to one of them, you name it, describe the facts of the situation, consider alternative interpretations, and then choose an interpretation of events more in line with those facts. Your emotions follow your new interpretation. In time, this process becomes automatic. When people improve their mental hygiene in this way—when they free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts that had previously filled so much of their consciousness—they become less depressed, anxious, and angry.
By their view, critical thinking belongs firmly within the empirical tradition:
By almost any definition, critical thinking requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis. But does campus life today foster critical thinking? Or does it coax students to think in more-distorted ways?
Of course, there are many different ways to see critical thinking, to say nothing of critical theory. Many versions oblige you to think critically about your culture. If you follow them you will see all aspects of the culture through the lens of an ideology that denounces Western civilization as a capitalist, imperialist, colonialist, racist, sexist, patriarchal conspiracy designed to advance the privileges of some at the expense of others.
The authors continue to point out, quite correctly, that the habits of thought that are being inculcated on college campuses are most likely to instigate dysfunctionality. They are disturbed by the notion that an emotional reaction can count as objective proof that something bad has happened. If this is so, your emotions can never be questioned. They can never be examined to see whether they refer to something real:
If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.
Moreover, a course curriculum and classroom discussion designed to avoid any reference to any trauma are more likely to aggravate than to ameliorate the effects of said trauma. As I have occasionally pointed out on this blog, trauma victims recover from their experience by gradual exposure to potentially harmful stimuli.
Lukianoff and Haidt explain:
According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.
But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy…. This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy.
Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation. Classroom discussions are safe places to be exposed to incidental reminders of trauma (such as the word violate). A discussion of violence is unlikely to be followed by actual violence, so it is a good way to help students change the associations that are causing them discomfort. And they’d better get their habituation done in college, because the world beyond college will be far less willing to accommodate requests for trigger warnings and opt-outs.