Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have just published an article in The Atlantic entitled The Coddling of the American Mind that illustrates yet another pathological artifact of the bitter determination of our species to preserve the fantasy of objective morality. They describe the current attempts of university students to enforce ideological orthodoxy by vilifying “microaggressions” against the true faith and insisting on “trigger warnings” to insure the pure in heart will not be traumatized by allusions to Crimethink.
Haidt has done some brilliant work on the nature of human morality, and his The Righteous Mind is a must read for anyone with a serious interest in understanding the subject. Lukianoff is the CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which supports free-speech rights on campus. According to his own account, his interest in the subject was catalyzed by his personal struggle with depression.
According to the article,
A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.
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 80s and 90s. That movement sought to restrict speech… 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.
Which brings them to the theme of their article – that this “vindictive protectiveness,” as they call it is not protecting students from psychological harm, but is actually causing it. The rest of the article mainly consists of the claim that modern students are really the victims of some of the dozen “common cognitive distortions” that are listed at the end of the article, and suggests that “cognitive behavioral therapy,” which helped Lukianoff overcome his own struggle with severe depression, might be something they should try as well.
Maybe, but I suspect that the real motivation behind this latest “movement” has no more to do with “preventing psychological harm” than “preventing discomfort or giving offense” were the real motivations behind the PC movement, which, BTW, is at least as active now as it was in the 80s and 90s. Rather, these phenomena are best understood as modern versions of the ancient game of moralistic one-upmanship. In other words, they’re just a mundane form of status seeking behavior. As usual, by taking them seriously one just plays into the hands of the status seekers.
If you’d like to see what the phenomenon looked like in the 60’s, and didn’t happen to be around at the time, I recommend you have a look at the movie Getting Straight, starring Elliot Gould and Candice Bergen. It’s all about the campus revolutions of the incredibly narcissistic and self-righteous Baby Boomers who were the “youth” of the time. Encouraged by their doting parents, they imagined themselves the bearers of all worldly wisdom, guaranteed to be the creators of a future utopia. Their doting (and despised) parents, of the generation that transcended the Great Depression, defeated the Nazis and fascists in World War II, and fended off Communism long enough for it to collapse of its own “internal contradictions” so their children had the opportunity to stage cathartic but entirely safe “revolutions,” are uniformly portrayed as idiots, standing in the way of “progress.” The “student revolutionaries” in the film are every bit as pious as their modern analogs, and have equally idiotic demands. The Brave New World will apparently only be possible if they are allowed to have coed dorms and gender and ethnic studies programs at every university, presumably to insure they will have no marketable skills, and so will be able to continue the “revolution” after they graduate. The amusing thing about the film, especially in retrospect, is that its creators weren’t intentionally creating a comedy. They actually took themselves seriously.
For earlier versions of “vindictive protectiveness” most of us must turn to the history books. The great Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, devoted a great deal of his time and energy to fighting its manifestation as the “Uplift” of his own day. Many examples may be found in his six volumes of Prejudices, or his autobiographical Trilogy. The latest version, BTW, has string bookmarks, just like the old family Bibles. I’m sure the old infidel would have been amused.
Shakespeare loathed the “vindictive protectiveness” of his day, which came in its first really modern version; Puritanism. See, for example, his Twelfth Night, which scorns the “morally righteous” of his day as personified by that “devil of a Puritan,” Malvolio. For cruder, less culturally evolved versions, one can go back to the Blues and Greens of the Byzantine circus, or the Christian squabbles over assorted flavors of heresy in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries.
In a word, there is nothing new under the sun. I’m sure Haidt realizes this. After all, he devotes much of The Righteous Mind to describing and analyzing the phenomenon. He plays along with the “cognitive behavioral therapy” stuff, because that’s what blows his co-author’s hair back, but still gets enough in between the lines to describe what is really going on. For example, from the article,
A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, 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.
And that really is, and always has been, the crux of the problem. Nothing can be “objectively wrong.” The origin of all these sublime and now microscopically distilled moral emotions will probably eventually be found in the ancient portions of our brains that we share with every other mammal, and probably the reptiles as well. This “root cause” of moral behavior exists because it evolved. It did not evolve because of its efficacy in fending off microaggressions, or to insure that Mesozoic mammals would be sure to issue trigger warnings. No, it evolved for the somewhat unrelated reason that it happened to increase the odds that certain “selfish genes,” or perhaps “selfish groups,” if you believe E. O. Wilson, would survive, and pass on the relevant DNA to latter day animals with big brains, namely, us. We get into trouble like this by over-thinking what our reptile brains are trying to tell us. The problem will never go away until our self-knowledge develops to the point that we finally grasp this essential truth. Until that great day dawns, we will have to grin and bear the annoyance of dealing with the pathologically and delicately self-righteous among us. Roll out the fainting couches!