Reports of students regularly attacking teachers verbally and physically, speakers being disinvited from campuses, and presidents and administrators being forced into exile has become a disturbingly frequent occurrence, elevated by the most volatile political climate in recent memory, it’s clear these are not normal times.
It started happening several years ago when terms like troll, trigger warning, safe space, Trumpism, partyism and snowflake began filtering into the American lexicon. Around that same time, civil liberties lawyer Greg Lukianoff and psychologist Jonathan Haidt sat down to try and dissect the disturbing rise in this new lawlessness. The result was an article for The Atlantic called ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, it ended up becoming one of the most widely read pieces in the history of the site.
It struck a nerve with concerned parents and teachers everywhere and kicked off an urgent discussion about why we were witnessing this type of bizarre behaviour amongst students. Lukianoff and Haidt came to some unsettling conclusions, that since the late 90s parents had been derailing the psychological development of students.
Encouraging them to not only hide and run from any possible harm (including ideas) but teaching them to see the world as bipolar, as in good or bad. Things which have led to not only an abandonment of civility but a severe rise in anxiety and depression for students.
The college has always been regarded as a sacred institution, a safe space if you will to learn, challenge and grow not to turn away, recoil and shut down.
They say children are our future but what if that future is full of young people who cannot separate their emotions from their thoughts, who shout and shame before they’ve had a chance to digest. Is this the new America? We spoke with civil liberties lawyer Greg Lukianoff to find out.
Protests against Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley, 2017. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
You say in your book ‘Something is going on, something has changed the childhood experiences of kids born in the late 1990s’, Why do you say that and what do you think that is?
Well, we noticed some time around 2013 and 2014, there was a dramatic shift in what we saw on college campuses. We could always rely on students to be the most pro-free speech, but this started changing pretty dramatically and seemingly overnight.
That’s when this also kind of popped into the public point of view partially through the increase and rise of microaggressions and trigger warnings. Something I hadn’t even heard of despite working in this field for a long time.
Demands for new free speech codes, Microaggression for example. And what really made it different from what we’d seen previously was that the arguments for these new limitations were coming from students.
It was essentially saying that having this speaker or speech take place on campus would be traumatic. It would be harmful on a psychological level and that’s actually one of the reasons why I reached out to Jonathan [Haidt], to talk about this. Because the medicalisation of this as a reason for censorship was new and strange.
So you were working on the front line as a civil liberties lawyer. I find that fascinating and I find your book a portrait of the very unstable times we’re living in. Give us an idea of one of the more cataclysmic events that made you think, “oh no, something is happening here.”
Probably the time we noticed a change in the tenor and style of argument was for a protest I was otherwise highly sympathetic to.
Ray Kelly was the former chief of police of New York City. He was one of the people who advocated for ‘stop and frisk’, which is stopping civilians and frisking them to see if they’re carrying a gun or other weapons.
I’m a civil liberties guy so I totally understand the justification for wanting to protest him but that is when the students tried to get him disinvited to a speech at Brown. What the university came back with was an hour of question and answer, where they could really ask Ray Kelly some tough questions.
And from a traditional protest/academic angle that sounded like a great solution to me and actually to a lot of people who protested at the time.
But rather than a forceful back and forth taking place, the students showed up and shouted down Ray Kelly. They were equating his presence on campus to a form of violence. That was one of the first signals we got that things were changing, and very quickly over the next couple of months, we did notice this much more enlightened censorship idea that I hadn’t seen much of coming from students in my career.
"It was essentially saying that having this speaker or speech take place on campus would be traumatic."
So talk to me about the broader culture we’re living in because it feels like this is wrapped up in a time which people feel a general sense of unease in society. Asking white people to stand at the back of seminars and not say a word, ushering speakers into other rooms because they’re scared they’re going to be struck by a mob. This is not normal behaviour.
Well, I’ve seen these different phases in the history of my career. The first one was mainly administrators throwing their weight around, sometimes for ideological reasons, for a 12 year period. Then we had some fights with the department of education over the different rules they were coming up with. Those were the two major trends before we started having student involvement as a significant factor in a lot of our free speech cases. But once that happened things started accelerating faster and faster.
Our article “The Coddling of the American Mind” came out in the summer of 2015. That fall we see protests at universities all over the country, on the one hand as a first amendment person I was thrilled to see students using their freedom of speech to protest usually what they saw as racial injustice on campus.
But the troubling part is that in many of those cases they were also asking for newspapers to be punished, for professors to be fired for what they said, for administrators to be fired for what they said. So you do have a right to oppose the first amendment, but it’s troubling when people are using their free speech to oppose it.
That was another phase. That was 2015, and the next year, of course, we see the election of Donald Trump. In the following semester that was the first time in my career, I’d seen severe outbreaks of violence related to speakers on campus. I’m not familiar with things like that happening since the 1970s on college campuses, at the scale you saw at Berkeley regarding Milo Yiannopoulos for example.
The left is known for a much more moderate, idealistic, passive dialogue. But they’re breaking all the norms from what I’ve noticed. Is this a case of civil liberties and free speech gone too far even from the left side?
Well, I take a long-term look at freedom of speech. In law school, I studied censorship during the Tudor dynasty and what the trends were back then.
When it comes to definitions of left and right and what they look like from time to time, it’s so changeable from decade to decade and generation to generation, and the normal situation for most of human history is censorship.
We don’t tolerate people we disagree with. We make them take hemlock; we crucify them, we burn them at the stake, we ostracise them from our community, we get rid of them in some way or other. That’s most of human history. The more radical idea is freedom of speech. That includes the idea of listening to the people who aren’t on your side. Listening to people who might be a different religion than you or not one of your kin. These are ideas we take for granted but go against a lot of our tribal instincts.
So in a sense freedom of speech is a fragile right, because deep down a lot of us have a powerful urge to censor people who disagree with us. We’re very rooted in our tribalistic social natures.
“Higher education […] is one of our best institutions for fighting tribalism. But instead of ameliorating it I’m afraid it might actually be making it worse.”
How is the economic, political, and social climate contributing to this pandemonium. Is there a general insecurity that’s creating this divisiveness?
In a lot of cases, there’s less of a relationship between big-picture economic and political situations and people’s happiness.
Sometimes those are less correlated than you think. But I do believe there are interrelations between the polarisation we see both in the United States, also in Europe, also in other countries. The sort of populist uprising.
Mostly people like Ronald Inglehart were talking about this early on in the 1970s; he was envisioning a society in which freedom of expression and association would play increasing importance in our daily lives.
What he meant by that is we would increasingly join together in communities that would reflect our values. That would allow for both technological changes and economic changes allowing us more flexibility in where we live.
All of which has come true. When you say we get to live in communities that reflect our values the downside of it is, you do end up in an echo chamber, if you end up around people who you agree with, it’s very easy to start seeing a sort of ‘us and them’ dynamic that becomes increasingly hostile and tribal.
What’s lamentable about the role of higher education in the United States and probably Britain as well is that it’s one of our best institutions for fighting tribalism. But instead of ameliorating it I’m afraid it might actually be making it worse.
But here’s where I get stuck. How can we live in a culture right now where even the liberal intellectuals are the ones shouting at each other. Influential people like Roxane Gay, Owen Jones, Laurie Penny and Chimamanda Ngozi. All substantial thinkers but unable to cross the divide. What does that mean?
We shouldn’t romanticise how civil we were in the past. There’s a great quote from a book by Teresa Bejan called Mere Civility, that talks about the ferocity of debate and discussion around ideas of religion even in early America.
The much-glorified 60s included thousands of cases of bombings in the United States by in some cases students. They were mostly aimed at properties thankfully, but that’s something that when people hear about they think, wow that’s crazy.
When it comes to the polarisation that’s something that plays out in the data. When you poll Americans on various voting issues they’re not that far apart.
If you want to get to why there’s polarisation, it’s not how much you judge the two issues to be far apart from each other; you have to get to how much people hate each other over what may seem to you like small differences.
When you look at the data right now, partyism is now the strongest diversion that people have in the United States. Where it once was, I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry someone who is a Catholic or a Protestant; now it’s, I don’t want my daughter marrying someone who’s a republican or a democrat. And that is getting worse, and it is playing out in our politics.
I strangely think of this as a problem of progress; mostly if you’re able to have these other improvements in ways of life, there are new problems that crop up that come from the fact that we live in these communities that reflect our values. So I do think that things are, when it comes to the nature of our politics, getting worse and more tribal. And one of the institutions that could help calm that down is revving it up, and that’s higher education.
"If you tell students they can be harmed by words and ideas, [that is] a powerful way to disempower them and create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they become more anxious and more depressed."
You’re saying that there are three great untruths in the book, as to why students are behaving the way they are.
Just a couple, one, we’re rearing our kids with increasingly fragile hands. Two, students are using emotional reasoning to think instead of detaching themselves from their thoughts. How did that evolve?
It’s interesting because when we talk about emotional reasoning we speak about a cognitive distortion as identified by cognitive behavioural therapy. Cognitive distortions are mental exaggerations that practically all of us engage in, that are a pretty sure fire way to make you feel anxious or depressed. I know this from personal experience. I’ve practised cognitive behavioural therapy. It’s helped me deal with very intense bouts of depression that I used to have. I find them infinitely more manageable thanks to some of the habits that I’ve cultivated through CBT. And CBT’s success is very well documented, John wrote about it in his book Happiness Hypothesis for example.
The problem is that if you tell students they can be harmed by words and ideas or the presence of a speaker on campus, or that trauma is something always going to be with you, it then becomes a powerful way to disempower students and create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they become more anxious and more depressed. They perceive themselves and others as being more fragile. Which is not a psychologically healthy environment to encourage.
So you and Jonathan are at Evergreen, this is just a hypothetical situation. One of the more psychotic episodes that you write about. It was kind of surreal to watch as it almost ended up at the point of anarchy. You’re brought in as a way to mediate the situation. What do you and Jonathan say to these very stressed, very heightened students who are willing to strike at any time?
That’s a question I want to put back to readers. It’s a challenging and kind of scary situation in which emotions ran very high around something that wouldn’t have even been all that controversial even ten years ago.
Everything seemed to spiral out of control partially due in my opinion not just to the lack of leadership at Evergreen, but to a president of the university being far more sympathetic to students who wanted to fire him for opposing to have a white people free zone for a day.
Bret Weinstein, someone who considers himself a political liberal, said no, that’s not going to bring people together.
Him objecting to it was treated as if that was a racist act in itself. The problem came from the fact that the university president seemed to take the side of the students who wanted Bret and Heather gone.
Bret and Heather ultimately did leave. Look, if you have a vacuum where there’s not even the opportunity to have a serious discussion, you have gone wrong in the way that you’ve structured your institution that can be easily fixed.
Do you think this is going to get worse before it gets better?
I think it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. But I also have to agree with Jonathan . . .. the problem is if you haven’t taught students about norms of freedom of speech and academic freedom and the importance of that before they get in, or on their first day during orientation.
If they’ve never been taught any of that it’s then tough to try and explain it on the fly when they’ve been taught that it’s more important to get rid of people they see as aggressive on campus. So by the time you have a situation that has gotten as deep as Evergreen, it’s probably too late to do anything.
So you mentioned that this will get worse?
You know, I wonder. We are hearing from a lot of parents, university presidents, professors that there’s a desire to undo some of these great untruths, and some of these trends that make expressing a point of view on campus feel so dangerous.
My prediction about it getting worse before it gets better goes right back to when we started writing the book in 2016. Back then I was noticed a big spike in this whole area, especially with Trump and alt right mobs going after liberal professors.
It’s certainly getting worse in that way professors need to worry; thinking am I saying something that’s going to offend the least reasonable people on the left or the least reasonable people on the right? But in that sort of impossible situation, we almost have no choice but to get back to universities having to teach respect for academic freedom, tolerance for opinion, but also showing zero tolerance for any violence and misbehaviour.
"It’s certainly getting worse in that way professors need to worry, thinking am I saying something that’s going to offend the least reasonable people on the left or the least reasonable people on the right?"
Let’s talk about the trend of call-out culture, identity politics and getting your point across in the most violent of ways which are shouting on social media and what that looks like at the moment.
It’s one of these things where you don’t want to sort of repeat the mistakes of the past. We are currently seeing a lot of really negative side effects to social media whereas five years ago, in the heyday of the Arab Spring there was a lot of techno-optimism around it.
We’re now in an age of techno-pessimism. And I think there’s an argument to be made that both are correct. That essential technology and social media makes wonderful things possible, and it makes these, to say the least, less wonderful things possible. Whether it’s tribalism, and making nastiness a more prevalent and easier thing to engage in. I hope that our culture will adjust and that there might be some ways in which media companies can help. But I’m a little bit sceptical of that as well because I’m sometimes afraid that the cure of what people see as a disease might be even worse. If you’re on Twitter, you know that there’s no point in trying to argue with the trolls.
“It’s no coincidence that the incidence of violence that we talk about happened in some cases weeks after the election of Trump.” Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
But Donald Trump is the biggest troll of them all. So how does he set a precedent as a role model?
It’s one of these things where I think a lot of the trends we see in the book would still be going on without Trump. But there’s no doubt that in the age of Trump it’s an emphasised and accelerated when it comes to the polarisation, when it comes to the sense of everything going out of control. It’s no coincidence that the incidences of violence that we talk about happened in some cases weeks after the election of Trump. It heightened the sense of urgency, especially for students.
Do you think with this book you’ll be disinvited from university campuses?
You know, I don’t know. I did speak at Carleton college at one point, and apparently, the students didn’t like the original article. I was told that the students had planned to protest, but then they looked into my actual record when it comes to defending students and they couldn’t really figure out what to protest me for.
And what it turned into was, a student got up and sounded very angry but she said she agreed with me on the following four things that I said, but then talked about intersexual feminism and I was like, okay that’s fine. By all means if you’re coming to argue, please come to argue. Does this mean I’ll be disinvited from campuses or be protested at campuses? Who knows anymore.
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is out now through Allen Lane