Extremely important and really interesting article by renowned social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic on a truly disturbing cultural phenomenon, what Haidt terms “vindictive protectiveness” (or what others have called the “New Infantilism“). The Haidt article focuses on how this victim stance impacts, and is ultimately psychologically harmful to, college students:
The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness. That’s partly right, although there are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and ’90s. That movement sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives. 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 […]
But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. 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. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.
I think this term Haidt uses – vindictive protectiveness – is really quite apt for describing a larger cultural phenomenon, often attributed to Millennials, for a certain kind of oversensitive, entitled, victim stance many people in the contemporary culture are wont to take, and how they use this stance to create a climate of fear which serves to silence anyone with (gasp!) an opinion they happen not to like (see, for example, the case of liberal feminist Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis who said some stuff some liberal students didn’t like and got in a lot of trouble over nothing).
I’ve briefly touched on a variant of this in a piece I wrote a while back for Ethos Review, “Have We All Turned into A Bunch of Wusses?” It’s nice to see a social psychologist – and another liberal – calling this pernicious bullshit out for what it is, at least within the context of higher education.
The truth is, we need to be respectful, empathic, tolerant, unbearably wonderful human beings to each other. But we don’t need to like all the shit someone has to say.
Nevertheless, “I”m offended!” [read “I don’t like what you said] has become the hallmark of vindictive protectiveness.
The thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to what Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor at this magazine, calls the “offendedness sweepstakes,” in which opposing parties use claims of offense as cudgels. In the process, the bar for what we consider unacceptable speech is lowered further and further.
Setting aside the deleterious psychological impact of this attitude on each individual’s psychological well-being, the greater downside of vindictive protectiveness is one of curtailing speech: all of the sudden saying stuff other people may not happen to like is a reason not to say it:
Since 2013, new pressure from the federal government has reinforced this trend. Federal antidiscrimination statutes regulate on-campus harassment and unequal treatment based on sex, race, religion, and national origin. 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.
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.
This should give librarians – individuals who advocate freedom of information and the free exchange of ideas – an enormous amount of pause.