The Atlantic: Students are hurting education—and themselves—by protesting speech

Authors argue young people's need for protection hurts their mental health

There is a growing student movement to eliminate speech on college campuses that is they find uncomfortable or offensive, argue Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in September's The Atlantic.

However, these students will only end up hurting themselves, say Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Haidt, a social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business. The two survey psychological literature in an attempt to understand the roots and long-term effects of the new culture they call "vindictive protectiveness."

Lukianoff and Haidt conclude that the rising climate of "coddling" is pulling students and colleges away from the mission of higher education; it is grounded in emotion rather than evidence and prevents critical thinking, they argue.

Ultimately, they say, these students only end up hurting themselves, because these thought patterns are making them habitually depressed, anxious, and angry.

Also see: 1 in 7 college students were treated for anxiety in the past year

"I feel it, therefore it must be true"

The vindictive protectiveness culture is guided by "emotional reasoning," argue Lukianoff and Haidt, citing a description of it as "I feel it, therefore it must be true."

Emotional reasoning guides much of today's free speech debates, they say. To accuse someone of being "offensive" is not merely to express your feelings—it is "a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense."

The students behind this cultural shift believe they have a "right not to be offended," argue Lukianoff and Haidt.

They add that the social prohibition on "blaming the victim" prevents anyone from questioning the accuser's charge—or demand for retribution—even in cases where there is little evidence of wrongdoing.

Undermining critical thinking—and mental health

Lukianoff and Haidt then explore several examples of vindictive protectiveness and compare them with a list of cognitive distortions identified by psychologists. This kind of bad thinking, they say, not only gets in the way of critical thinking but also makes students feel more anxious, depressed, and angry.

Trigger warnings, argue Lukianoff and Haidt, are an example of the "fortune-telling" distortion, citing a definition of it as "anticipat[ing] that things will turn out badly," and "seeing potential danger in an everyday situation."  

Although trigger warnings have therapeutic origins, students are now using them to censor political ideas they disagree with, according to Lukianoff and Haidt. They argue that students are projecting their distaste for these ideas onto other people, certain that "their reaction could be devastating."

Related: Was Seinfeld right? Have college students lost their sense of humor?

Microaggressions, another concept tied to the new campus culture, are also an example of cognitive distortion, according to Lukianoff and Haidt. They compare microaggressions with magnification ("exaggerate[ing] the importance of things") and labeling ("assign[ing] global negative traits to yourself and others").

"The recent collegiate trend of uncovering allegedly… discriminatory microaggressions doesn't incidentally teach students to focus on small or accidental slights. Its purpose is to get students to focus on them and then relabel the people who have made such remarks as aggressors," say Lukianoff and Haidt.

Looking to the future

Lukianoff and Haidt offer several recommendations for colleges interested in stemming the culture of vindictive protectiveness. They encourage schools to:

  • Raise awareness about the tricky balance between free speech and tolerance;
  • Discourage trigger warnings explicitly;
  • Teach students common cognitive distortions and how to avoid them; and
  • Recruit faculty members with more diverse political opinions.

Lukianoff and Haidt say tactics will help colleges return to their "historic mission" rooted in the pure pursuit of truth and reason (Lukianoff/Haidt, The Atlantic, September 2015).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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