One of the things that most bothers me about the modern “victimhood culture” of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces is how directly it flies in the face of the world’s greatest wisdom, which I reviewed in The Happiness Hypothesis. For example, chapter 7 is about the uses of adversity: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” as Nietszche put it. Mencius explained the idea more fully in the 3rd century BCE:
When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, […and] place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent
Nasim Taleb nailed the idea with his recent book “Anti-Fragile.” A carton of eggs is fragile, so you’d better handle it with care. But many things in our world are anti-fragile: they are systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. The immune system is anti-fragile: If you protect your kids from dirt and germs, you’ll weaken their immune system and set them up for more autoimmune diseases. Similarly children and teenagers are anti-fragile. If you protect their feelings with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and micro-aggression training for everyone in the community, you weaken them, you make them fragile.
I was making a list in my mind of all the ways that victimhood culture violates ancient wisdom when I was invited to give a talk at the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale. In my talk, I run through three sets of ancient ideas that many modern “coddling” universities (and high schools) violate, and I imagined what a university would look like if it was built on ancient wisdom instead. I called this mythical university “Strengthen U.” In the video, I pretend to be admissions officers from the two universities, trying to recruit high school students to apply.
Here is the video (30 minutes):
Here is a link to a condensed transcript of the talk, including most of the slides.
Incidentally, I thought the Buckley program was terrific. It’s a student organization for conservatives, but in my visit I found that it has some real political diversity in it. The audience at my talk was roughly a third right of center, a third left, and a third libertarian — this is the most political diversity I have ever seen when speaking at a university. These students are engaging with arguments from all sides, and doing it civilly. They will emerge stronger and smarter. Progressive Yale students who don’t get involved with Buckley have few other chances to be exposed to conservative ideas or conservative faculty. (That’s what happened to me when I was at Yale in the 1980s.) If they go on to careers in law, politics, or business, where they must engage with conservative ideas and arguments, they will not know what to say, and will fall back on the kinds of Marcusian rhetorical devices that I describe in the video, and which you can see in action in the Twitter exchange at the bottom of this post. For more on the benefits of political diversity at universities, please see HeterodoxAcademy.org.Read More
Below is the letter to the editor that Greg Lukianoff and I submitted to the New York Times in response to an op-ed by Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne, which defended the use of trigger warnings.
The Times did not respond to our submission, so here it is:
To the Editor:
Re: “Why I use trigger warnings” (Opinion, Sept. 19): Kate Manne’s efforts to alert her philosophy students about potentially upsetting course content shows her to be a caring teacher. But her critique of our essay condemning trigger warnings begins with a non sequitur. She is surely right that “the evidence suggests” that some of her students “are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma.” But that does not logically imply that “the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant.” We have not found any empirical evidence that trigger warnings yield any psychological benefits, whereas there is empirical evidence suggesting that they might be harmful. So it is more logical to conclude that if trauma is common, then the harms caused by trigger warnings might be significant.
Manne then offers an analogy: “Exposing students to triggering material without warning seems more akin to occasionally throwing a spider at an arachnophobe.” This is not a valid analogy. Asking students to read novels or Greek myths that include sexual assault is like saying the word spider in the presence of an arachnophobe, which anxiety experts tell us is a good way to reduce the long-term emotional power of spiders. If well-meaning teachers and friends work together to help an arachnophobe avoid exposure to the word spider, or to pictures of spiders, spider webs, and Spiderman, they will strengthen the arachnophobe’s conviction that mere reminders of spiders are dangerous. This is how a temporary and reversible phobia can be hardened into a lifelong and debilitating identity.
Manne also asserts that “there seems to be very little reason not to give these warnings.” It’s simple courtesy, no? Trigger warnings are like “advisory notices given before films and TV shows.” But those warnings are given so that parents can keep their children safe from material for which they are not yet emotionally mature enough. This is why the American Association of University Professors has condemned the use of trigger warnings as being “at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”
Furthermore, once a few professors start giving these warnings, students will begin to request them from their other professors, and this may lead to a cascade of caution among the rest of the faculty. Last year, seven humanities professors from seven colleges penned an Inside Higher Ed article stating that “this movement is already having a chilling effect on [their] teaching and pedagogy.” The professors reported receiving “phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings.”
There is a more subtle harm caused to students when professors use trigger warnings. One of us (Haidt) teaches in New York City. Suppose Haidt took his students on field trips all over the city, but every time he took the class to the Bronx, Haidt took additional steps: he gave the class a warning, weeks in advance, and he hired a paramedic to ride with them in the bus. Just in case. What effect will this have on the students, and on their future willingness to visit The Bronx on their own?
Do we really want to tell our students that some of their fellow students could end up in emergency care if they were to read certain novels without being properly steeled for the task? This message would reflect and strengthen the “culture of victimhood” that sociologists have identified as emerging on our most egalitarian college campuses. It could weaken students to the point where we might, someday, really need paramedics in our classrooms.
For the record, below is the Twitter exchange I had with Manne as a result of this blog post. Note that Brad Wilcox’s tweet was not part of this exchange — it just happened to be posted during my exchange with Manne.