In 2017, a group of angry students at a liberal arts college on America’s west coast took over the school in protest, holding some administrators hostage and even denying them the freedom to use the toilet.
The students were mad about what they perceived as racism on behalf of some faculty staff. The protesters briefly occupied the president’s office to press their complaints.
In one recorded exchange, they demanded he didn’t use hand gestures when he spoke to them because they might be considered threatening. He quickly obliged.
When the story began trickling out, making national headlines, it was confirmation that something strange was taking hold on university campuses in parts of the country.
One professor at the college, Bret Weinstein, who called for open debate about the issues being raised by the students, had to stay away from campus for his own safety and move his family into hiding because they didn’t agree with that suggestion.
He has since left with a payout from the university, and has become the face of a group of educators (there is a growing list) who have been shouted down and forced out of their job by a small group of aggrieved students.
To some, as strange as it sounds, he is a martyr for reasoned debate in the face of aggressive identity politics which dictates ideas must be safe, and never harmful or offensive. This is the age of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and deplatforming those you disagree with.
Jonathan Haidt is an American social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He has had a front-row seat to what he views as a very problematic cultural shift happening on US university campuses.
“This took us all by surprise in 2014 and 2015, we could not understand what our students meant when they said they don’t feel safe, but now this is common language on our campuses,” he says.
It’s a trend he links to the use of social media among early teens, and the rise in anxiety and depression that it helps breed.
“As this more anxious generation began entering university … we found that many students were acting as though words, books and speakers were not just offensive to them but dangerous, physically dangerous. Leading to requests and demands that authorities protect them.”
‘DON’T BECOME LIKE US’
Prof Haidt is heading to Australia for the first time in July, where he will be attending academic conferences and giving public talks in Sydney and Melbourne.
While few political cultures are as polarised as the United States, he suspects Australia is downwind of his country when it comes to this rise of so-called safetyism among a minority of Generation Z.
“I know these trends are beginning in Australia, although they’re not as severe as they are in the United States,” he says.
“In part I am coming as the ghost of Christmas future, warning Australians: Don’t end up like us, don’t make the mistakes that we made.
“Our democracy and our universities are in big trouble now. We have a new moral culture that gives us constant outrage and makes its much more difficult to talk openly or make jokes. I hope this doesn’t happen in Australia.”
He understands it as a combination of a new political idea often referred to as safetyism, higher rates of anxiety, and very weak leadership at the upper levels on universities.
“You put that together and you get these explosions,” he says.
CODDLING & CALL OUT CULTURE
Prof Haidt is well known for his work in psychology and morality as the author of popular books, The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind.
When his friend and fellow academic Greg Lukianoff came to him about five years ago worried about student behaviour, it soon became clear there was something that needed exploring.
Lukianoff had used cognitive therapy to treat his depression, and saw this group of students engaging in a way of thinking that he believed would lead them to become increasingly unhappy.
“If students are learning to think in this distorted way, if students are doing catastrophising, overgeneralising, black and white thinking, then it’s going to make them depressed,” Prof Lukianoff warned his colleague.
The pair wrote an article in The Atlantic which struck a chord and became the title of their new book: The Coddling of the American Mind — a play on the title of a 1987 book by the philosopher Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind.
The subheading for the book gives you the thrust of the problem it hopes to address: “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure”.
While it is only a small minority of students that engage in this type of political posturing, tactics of public shaming and “callout culture” means they are often successful in silencing dissenters.
“These new moral values have incentivised a young generation to link everybody’s words to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or islamaphobia,” he says. Those who don’t tow the party line are at risk of being called out.
“If 1 per cent of people in your town are muggers and they mug 10 people a day, then everyone is going to be careful, and that is the situation we have.”
When discussing the consequences of what he sees as the erosion of robust debate on sensitive topics in the name of student protection, Prof Haidt is fond of quoting John Stuart Mill: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”