Trigger warning: How our varsity students turned into whining wimps
Our fragile, coddled undergrads are abandoning the empiricism and tolerance that underpinned the Enlightenment
It’s the suddenness that’s so shocking. Until about five years ago, no one had heard of “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings”, “cultural appropriations” or “micro-aggressions”. Now, university life seems to revolve around them.
From one moment to the next, undergraduates became apparently incapable of dealing with challenging opinions. Oxford’s law students are now given formal warnings before they read about gory crimes. Its English students are counselled before encountering literature that might upset them. Undergraduates are given a trigger warning, for example, when presented with Robert Lowell’s 1964 poem For the Union Dead because it contains the n-word. Never mind that Lowell, a committed civil rights campaigner, was writing a homage to the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Context is irrelevant: feelings, or at least imagined feelings, now trump facts.
What is new is not left-wing radicalism on campus, but the loudly proclaimed fragility of our students, their determination to take offence at the smallest thing, their demand that nothing should make them feel uncomfortable (a logic that they don’t extend to the targets of their protests).
Consider the recent agitation against the statue of Cecil Rhodes at my old Oxford college, Oriel. It is easy enough to imagine students abusing the diamond magnate in the 1990s or, indeed, in the 1960s. But those students would have been aggressive and domineering in their anti-colonialism. The tone of today’s demonstrators is very different. It is introverted, injured, plaintive.
Undergraduates complain that they “suffer violence” every time they walk past the little guano-encrusted statuette, which is set so high in its niche that they must be making quite an effort to look at the thing they’re determined to be wounded by.
What has changed?
The answer is provided in a brilliant new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Haidt, a softly spoken psychology professor at New York University, is, for my money, currently the most important social scientist in the world. His insights on how our opinions are rooted in our evolved intuitions have revolutionised our understanding of politics.
The elevation of passive-aggressive victimhood has spread with astonishing rapidity over the past three years from American campuses to those in Britain, Canada and Australia. Yet it remains largely unknown in Europe, let alone further afield.
“Safetyism,” Haidt tells me, “is a uniquely Anglosphere problem.” In part, this is because ideas travel swiftly within a linguistic and cultural continuum; the French, by contrast, instinctively distrust American imports. It also reflects, Haidt believes, the way top universities in the English-speaking world are modelled, ultimately, on Oxbridge.
He stresses “top universities”. Safetyism is much rarer in technical colleges, especially those that are non-residential. You need to be removed from the amused reaction of your parents or work colleagues to be susceptible.
Formal education also starts earlier in the English-speaking democracies than in Europe and that, for Haidt, is part of the problem. “We’ve over-scheduled, over-protected and over-supervised our kids,” he says. They are less likely to walk or cycle to school. Playgrounds have been made risk-free. Social media encourages young people to think of opposed opinions, not as an intellectual test, but as a form of moral contamination.
This is far more worrying than “political correctness gone mad”. We are turning our backs on the central idea of the Enlightenment.
Over the past four centuries, at least in the West, we have absorbed a set of precepts that do not come naturally. We have taught ourselves that someone can disagree with us without being wicked; that people whose ways seem strange might yet possess wisdom; that we don’t know everything, and that listening to new ideas broadens our understanding.
This last idea – the recognition of our ignorance – is the foundation of modern science. For thousands of years, our ancestors believed that all truth was contained somewhere, usually in a sacred book. Only very recently have we reached the view that letting different ideas jostle is the best way to improve our knowledge.
In 1644, John Milton advanced a revolutionary argument: “A man may be a heretic in the truth, and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.” Milton would immediately have recognised what is happening in our leading universities. Certain ideas are sacralised, lifted out of the field of rational enquiry.
Four centuries ago, heresy meant challenging the teaching of the church. Today, it means questioning the received dogmas on diversity and equality. We are abandoning the empiricism and tolerance that underpin the Enlightenment, and returning to the older notion of judging an idea on the basis of whether the speaker is from our own tribe – though “tribe” is now defined by political and cultural affinities.
How can we pull out of the nosedive?
In the long term, we should be readier to let our kids play unsupervised. Let them devise their own games, set their own rules, work out what to do if they gash a knee. In the shorter term, the leaders of our universities need to be prepared to defend free speech, in letter and in spirit.
And in the immediate term? Well, reading Haidt and Lukianoff’s book would be a start.
– © The Sunday Telegraph