The Coddling of the American Mind has made me reconsider. To my surprise, I now find myself somewhat sympathetic to the perpetrators. The authors, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, argue that many of these students lack the emotional armoury to handle free enquiry and are genuinely being ‘triggered’. The culture of safe spaces and no-platforming is a response to a generation that has been driven towards mental illness by over-protection.
Lukianoff and Haidt put it less bluntly than this but mental illness is what it amounts to. The peculiar combination of extreme hyper-sensitivity and aggression exhibited in some of the notorious campus videos suggests that we are dealing with people who are not entirely well. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that a large number of young people have been brought up in an over-protected environment, with too little unsupervised play as children and siloed in the echo chambers of social media as teenagers. At university, they see themselves less as students and more as customers, making demands of administrators who are all too willing to capitulate to their whims. Rules are designed to suit the most sensitive members of the community – or those who complain the loudest.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not about Millennials (born between 1982 and 2000), but about ‘iGen’, the generation born between 1995 and 2012 which came of age during the rise of the smartphone. The authors provide evidence of rising rates of depression, suicide and psychological disorders among young people since around 2011, particularly among women, which they attribute to their immersion in social media. Significant for their hypothesis is the fact that the first outbreak of campus hysteria began in 2013 when the youngest members of the iGen turned 18. It is a neat coincidence – almost too neat – and deserves further investigation.
Lukianoff and Haidt note that these campus events share many of the characteristics of the witch craze, with sudden, violent outbreaks spreading like a virus. The worst affected universities are those where the fragile narcissism of students is pandered to by cynical, post-modernist academics who want to rip it up and start again. By dividing the world into victims and oppressors, the poisonous ideology of intersectionalism offers an academic justification for the politics of resentment. Portraying words as violence, the social justice warrior seeks to shut down debate – either literally, as with no platforming policies or more subtly by creating so many offences and microaggressions that students, not knowing quite what they are allowed to say, say nothing at all.
This poses a threat to wider society. Many of shrieking SJWs will grow out of their student politics, but some of those who do not will start careers in politics and human resources where they can do significant damage. The rise of safe spaces and identity politics in the corporate world has received less attention than the campus wars but it deserves a book of its own.
Witch hunts had a habit of stopping as suddenly as they begun, sometimes after the witchfinder was exposed as a fraud. It is possible that the current wave of woke hysteria will go out of fashion just as quickly. The authors give enough examples of snowflakery to establish it as a genuine phenomenon and yet it would be easy to exaggerate its scale. The wave of censoriousness and self-pity has largely failed to cross the Atlantic and there are plenty of American universities which have remained immune.
When all is said and done, I can’t shake the suspicion that a lot of it is just showing off. Campus administrators seem able to nip it in the bud by explicitly asserting the principals of free expression if they are minded to do so. The problem is that many of them are not, and some academics who express concern about the direction of travel in private are too scared of the mob to speak out publicly.
But it is not all virtue-signalling. If Lukianoff and Haidt are right about the causes of the phenomenon, it is a harbinger of a wider mental health crisis which could be here to stay. It could be, as the authors argue, that many of these students are indeed victims, but not for the reasons they claim.