Some Thoughts on Mind Coddling

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote an Atlantic article arguing that trigger warnings and campus speech codes have lead to a rise in depression and mental illness among campus students. While I think there are problems with the ‘speech code’ ideology (more about that in a bit), that has to be one of the most ridiculous statements I’ve heard all year–and Maureen Dowd and Richard Cohen are weekly columnists, so there’s some pretty stiff competition.

Off the top of my head, I can think of many things that could lead to an increase in mental illness on campus:

  1. Concerns over post-graduation employment.
  2. Concerns over college loans.
  3. The perception (or misperception) that they are in a jackpot system, and thus are under pressure to excel–and, as critically, not fail.
  4. The sudden withdrawal from helicopter parenting (something Lukianoff and Haidt themselves raise).
  5. An environment that can be so competitive, some students think taking phenethylamines, often without even superficial medical supervision, is a good idea (that alone should be a possible sign of mental distress).

Somehow, regardless of what thinks about them, campus speech codes and trigger warnings do not seem like these other things.

That said, Lukianoff and Haidt blunder into a very important symptom of a serious problem (one that is often exacerbated by cover-their-asses-at-all-costs administrators and legal departments). It’s not emotional reasoning, but what I’ll call testimonial reasoning. As a rule of thumb, whenever you hear someone begin an argument with “As an [X]”, that’s testimonial reasoning. Anti-vaxxers do this all the time with the “As a mom…” (as if managing to survive pregnancy–as billions of hominids have before you–somehow confers some awesome wisdom). It essentially shuts down the possibility of any counterargument, especially if you don’t have your own heart-rending testimony with which to counter. Worse, it turns every argument into an existential conflict: when a statement is couched in terms of personal identity, any disagreement becomes a fundamental assault on that identity. When you critique someone who is ‘speaking his truth’*–or even simply ask a question–any critique, reasonable or not, becomes a criticism of that person. This is a particularly bad habit to inculcate.

In fairness, testimonial reasoning does have a place as a political theory of organizing. As the risk of going Full Metal Lawrence Goodwyn, with many problems, important first steps include recognizing that an injustice actually has taken place, alerting other people to the existence of the problem, as well as creating solidarity with others who have suffered that injustice. Too often, unfortunately, that’s all that happens, or worse, there’s a degeneration into calling out people who disagree or criticize–and with the Internet, there is never of shortage of people to call out (a fair number of whom are idiots)–rather than leading to the next organizational steps of reaching out to people outside of the “As an X” group (which, like it or not, is an essential step in changing policy and, sometimes, even hearts and minds).

So how does this relate to trigger warnings and speech codes? Leaving aside well-intentioned regulations and nervous ninny administrators, taken to an extreme, testimonial reasoning requires speech codes–they are a logical outcome. If an intellectual challenge is believed an attack on a student, rather than a disagreement, even a vehement one, then the solution is to limit these challenges.

To the extent these campus codes do have long-lasting psychological effects (again, consider the list near the top of the post), there is a rigidity that prevents working, speaking, and, yes, disagreeing with those different from you (I agree with Lukianoff and Haidt on this point). The supremacy of testimony as a philosophy of political action also has led to a belief that calling out idiots (as fun as it might be) is the same as building coalitions and engaging in the hard–and dirty, corrupting–work of political change; moreover, it can be counterproductive. Finally, it harms students as forces them into less diverse settings, making them less able to cope when confronted with people different from them.

Speech codes are a symptom, not a cause.

*Can we stop linking words together in bizarre ways to sound erudite? It doesn’t.

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