Something strange has happened in America the past generation moving through our institutions of higher learning. A movement has arisen, largely undirected and driven in most part by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. A movement founded in political correctness that has accelerated in recent years and is rapidly progressing to a fever pitch.
There’s a common saying academia: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. This idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today however, what we call the Socratic method, is a way of teaching that encourages critical thinking, in part by allowing students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.
This philosophy of allowing students to examine their beliefs from perspectives they may not have considered has given way to what is some are calling an era of vindictive protectiveness. Vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. The vindictive nature of the new political correctness is obvious and everywhere. ‘Safe Spaces’, ‘Trigger Warning’, ‘Micro-aggression’ are the buzz words of the movement. Lack of critical thought has given rise to a ‘Mob Rule’ mentality to be used to right injustices perceived contrary to their deeply politically correct beliefs.
So how did we get here? The press today has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness. That, I believe, is only partly right. Although it is important to note the differences between what is happening now and what happened in the 1980s and ’90s when it was sought out to restrict speech (specifically hate speech targeted at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives.The current movement on the other hand is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the typical college goers psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, as it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more so than the movement of the ’80s and ’90s, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. Punishment with the intent to destroy. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection?
This culture of vindictive protectiveness prepares students poorly for careers and for a professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong.
The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically, a pathology that can and has been seen in violent protests at colleges daring to invite controversial speakers to their campuses.
I am not usually one to encourage federal government involvement in education issues, but in this case, they had a hand in creating this mess.
Since 2013, new pressure from the federal government has reinforced the trend of punishing people for speaking contrary to their idea of what is politically correct. Federal anti-discrimination statutes regulate on-campus harassment and unequal treatment based on sex, race, religion, and national origin. Until recently, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights acknowledged that speech must be “objectively offensive” before it could be deemed actionable as sexual harassment—it would have to pass the “reasonable person” test. To be prohibited, the office wrote in 2003, allegedly harassing speech would have to go “beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.”
But in 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply “unwelcome.” Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.
The new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion or debate.
So what can be done to restore a more practical Socratic environment on our college campuses so graduates have a fighting chance when they enter the ‘real world’?
The biggest single step in the right direction does not involve faculty or university administrators, but rather the federal government. The Department of Education should release universities from their fear of unreasonable investigation and sanctions by their agency. Congress should define peer-on-peer harassment according to the Supreme Court’s definition in the 1999 case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. The Davis standard holds that a single comment or thoughtless remark by a student does not equal harassment; harassment requires a pattern of objectively offensive behavior by one student that interferes with another student’s access to education. Establishing the Davis standard would help eliminate universities’ impulse to police their students’ speech so carefully.
Attempts to shield college students from the words, ideas, and people who might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will end up being mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. They are also bad for American democracy, which is already cripplingly paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When ideas, values, and speech of the opposing side are seen not just as wrong but as a willful and unjustified aggression toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.
Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control. One of the great truths taught by Buddhism (and Stoicism, Hinduism, and many other traditions) is that you can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to your desires. But you can master your desires and habits of thought.