Too much caring, not enough sharing
Well before they ever came for me, I got a relatively early look at the phenomenon of students protesting about speech, quite by chance. In April 2017 I was in California to give a talk at wealthy liberal arts college Claremont McKenna. Student guests were to observe a strict dress code, and would enjoy a three-course dinner, after which they would be required to remain upright and vaguely sentient during the talk by me. Arriving at the building with my young family who were travelling with me, we were greeted with the incongruous sight of two policemen slouching at the entrance, guns prominently to the fore of their belts, vetting the preppily-dressed people trooping in to hear me discuss burning issues in the philosophy of fiction and imagination.
My host explained that four days earlier there had been a large protest against a speaker in the same lecture series as mine. The speaker was conservative Heather Mac Donald, author of a book that had criticised the Black Lives Matter movement. A large crowd had gathered in protest before her talk, chanting, shouting, pounding on the glass windows of the building, and blocking the entrance so no-one could get in or out. The police were now at my talk in case of further trouble.
Some of these protestors later defended the action against Mac Donald in an open letter. In the tediously dramatic idiom I now know to be a staple of the genre, they wrote that “Engaging with her, a white supremacist fascist supporter of the police state, is a form of violence”. I learnt of this recently, as I finally got round to properly reading the 2017 book The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The incident at Claremont McKenna is described in detail in this book, amongst many other similar ones.
Five years later, and as bombs rain down on those huddling in Mariupol bunkers, twenty-somethings in British Universities continue to emulate their American counterparts in complaining about words - although, perhaps predictably, they tend to do it with more self-conscious inhibition and a bit less razzmatazz. The latest example I know of was a depressing-looking protest at Julie Bindel’s talk at the University of York last week.
There’s a now-standard story about the psyche of the student that protests about speech, popularised by Lukianoff and Haidt’s book, and advanced by Frank Furedi before them. This story says: the parents of these students probably overprotected them in childhood and adolescence, smoothing their way through school and praising them to the hilt, whilst playing up the spectre of multiple physical hazards and risks outside the home. With fewer opportunities for independent interaction with peers, and with the internet as their main proxy for real-life experience, the students haven’t learnt the kind of resilience and confidence that would allow them to absorb the feelings of anxiety produced by hearing robust challenges to their views. Instead, they expect the adults around them to take care of their needs and to protect them from unpleasant experiences. They arrive at university as passive consumers in search of parental substitutes, revelling in their own sense of victimhood, and not as autonomous and effective self-movers. This, in other words, is Generation Z framed as Generation Safety Blanket.
I’m not saying this story is wrong. There’s definitely something in it for quite a few cases. However - having by now met quite a lot of those people I mentally label, along Covidian lines, as “the speech-sanitizers” - I don’t think it gets the psychology quite right for some of them. In my experience, this personality isn’t so much passive and child-like as full of vigorous agency and confidence, however misplaced.
Take, for instance, the undergraduate I knew who came every week to my office hour for feedback and advice, got a First, successfully stood for election onto the student union executive, and then immediately announced that my views were hateful and started leading deputations to senior management to try to stop me teaching them in future. Or take the group of postgraduates, well into their mid-twenties, who, on discovering that I was due to give a research talk to my department, had the chutzpah to organise a rival public denunciation event at the same time as mine, and to advertise it on University email lists. When I was a student, I rarely got out of bed before noon, struggled to keep up with essays, and did nothing extracurricular except watch Neighbours and drink copious pints in the bar. I lived in fear of being criticised by lecturers and would avoid unnecessary interaction with them at all costs. This new generation manage to balance a hectic schedule of studying and paid work, and still manage to find time and motivation to witch-hunt their teachers on the side.
One explanation for the behaviour of such people is that they’re simply trying to get ahead, having inferred - probably correctly - that influential people in the progressive workplaces and social circles they aspire to join will approve of them for acting that way. Certainly, the fact that some of my former persecutors are now to be found on Linked-In advertising their interests in anti-capitalism doesn’t lessen this impression. But, mustering as much charity as I can – which is not much - I think something else is going on too, at least for some of them. Unlike Lukianoff and Haidt, I won’t focus on the fact, if it is one, that these people were protected too much in childhood and adolescence by the adults around them. Instead I want to explore the idea that in at least one significant sense they were protected too little.
Lukianoff and Haidt emphasise symmetries between contemporary student attitudes and the kinds of distorting thinking symptomatic of anxiety disorders - catastrophising and negative filtering, for instance. But I think we should also consider potential links with another dysfunctional state of mind. Specifically, we should attend to connections and parallels between what I’ll call the speech-sanitizer mindset and the kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder sometimes called “harm OCD” - a disorder that leaves you convinced that you’re likely to do other people harm, or have somehow already done so, whether you meant to or not. With full-blown OCD of this kind, every action you commit or don’t commit can become mentally freighted with the unending potential to damage others, so that you become wracked with terror and guilt as you scroll through the worst possibilities in your mind and become convinced you are already somehow responsible for them, or will be soon.
Obviously this is a serious and agonising condition, and I’m not saying that it’s the default state for the average student speech protestor. What I am suggesting is that we increasingly live in a culture which encourages us to have thoughts a bit like this. The result for some, and especially the young, seems to be an excessive sense of moral responsibility and guilt, and a desire to expiate by means of public actions such as protesting, open letter-writing, denunciation, and so on - all under the guise of saving others from harm. And at least one widely cited study of Generation Z in the US backs me up, concluding that “To Gen Z, the right beliefs are the ones that don’t hurt anybody”.
This, then, is the point I want to stress: that when students attempt to sanitize speech, they mostly do so on behalf of others. They are trying, in some inchoate and instinctive way no doubt, to save others from harm and not (just) themselves.
In effect, the speech-sanitizer’s preferred ethic seems to me to be a crazy-making mash-up of two rival moral traditions. On the one hand, a deontological ethic (such as the one popularised by 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant) places great emphasis on the existence of categorical moral obligations that, it presumes, are inescapably operative on all of us in virtue of our nature as rational beings. It also stresses the appropriateness of feelings of blame and disapproval towards those who break those obligations. Blame for intentional obligation-breaking can involve righteous anger towards others; or, if you yourself are the culprit, legitimate self-punishment in the form of feelings of guilt.
At the same time, deontology would draw a fairly tight and psychologically manageable circle around the sorts of thing for which you legitimately can blame others or yourself. The objects of blame and guilt are usually limited to what you intended or voluntarily chose to do. So in this tradition, you can’t be blamed or legitimately feel guilty for the unintended consequences of your actions. A sincere “I didn’t mean that to happen” will usually let you off the hook.
In contrast, a different moral tradition - the utilitarian one - places emphasis on getting particular outcomes from actions, regardless of any accompanying voluntary choices or intentions. The sort of utilitarianism that seeks above all to avoid harm, for instance, would recognise no difference, in terms of the intrinsic moral wrongness or badness of an action, between positively and deliberately doing something to cause harm, versus merely foreseeably allowing harm to happen as a result of what you fail to do; nor generally between harm that’s deliberately intended and harm that’s merely foreseen; nor even between harm that’s foreseen, versus harm that isn’t foreseen or anticipated at all. The only thing that matters morally in this worldview is whether harm is, was, or will be produced or avoided by a particular action.
At the same time, though, harm-oriented utilitarians are not automatically committed to the practice of extending blame towards others for causing harm, or feeling guilt about your own harmful actions. Essentially, they think it’s only a good idea to blame others or to feel guilty if doing so will further lend itself to the cause of the reduction of harm. And it may well be that angrily upbraiding others for harms they have committed, or feeling guilt for harms you have committed, is unproductive of that desired outcome in at least some circumstances.
Effectively, the speech-sanitizer takes an obsession with blame and guilt from the deontological tradition, and an ever-expanding circle of moral concern from the utilitarians, and permits feelings of angry blame (towards others) and guilt (towards the self) to radiate outwards towards unintentional and even unforeseen consequences of actions, as long as those actions are perceived to cause harm or to be likely to do so. And the net result seems to me to be distorted thinking, somewhat reminiscent of harm-based OCD, and feverish moral activity.
For instance, it’s fairly common these days to hold a speaker responsible for all of the possibly harmful implications and mental associations accompanying their particular word choices, whether or not the speaker intentionally meant those things. (This "Safe Spaces" policy from the University of Edinburgh Student Assocation, for instance, tells students they should “Be aware of the connotations of their language”). What used to be considered as beyond an agent’s control and so not relevant to the blame game – namely, the mental colourings and personal associations associated with your words by hearers, over and above their standard public meanings - are now treated as aspects of your words for which you might still be held responsible, even though you have no real control over how others hear them.
So despite the fact that - in the official vernacular - “microagressions” are defined as including unintentional slights and annoyances caused by words, this doesn’t stop the people whose behaviour produces them being automatically treated as blameworthy because of it. It has now become expected in Universities that you obsessively monitor your own and other’s word choices in case you commit a microagression, and apologise profusely if you do.
Relatedly, there’s also the apparently popular thought that defending other people’s right to defend a harmful idea in speech or writing is just as bad as defending the harmful idea directly yourself. You may intend only to defend free speech, whilst remaining critical of the harmful idea in question; but as far as speech-sanitizers are concerned, since in defending free speech you might make it more likely that the harmful idea will be disseminated and taken up, your intentions are irrelevant and you should be blamed anyway.
There’s other stuff too: like the charming habit of trying to get people sacked or disciplined by employers to stop them causing future harm; or the idea, apparently popular in progressive circles generally, that guilt travels by association. Because of this, speech-sanitizers think you should refuse to be in public dialogue with anyone with whom you strongly disagree on moral matters, in case you end up inadvertently lending them credibility or somehow otherwise being morally contaminated by unforeseen consequences.
And then there’s the idea that if someone has not mentioned moral issue X publicly recently, that must show they don’t care about issue X (and if not, why don’t they care??). Profoundly stupid as this is as a theory of human nature, it does at least give some insight into the tormented mindset of some speech-sanitizers: a mindset that says you should be talking all the time in public about the things you morally care about, or else somehow be causing harm by your silence.
The mania that this thinking style tends to induce is made worse by social media, where all of your acts and omissions are available for the judgement of real or imaginary others at any time, now or in the future. Many are clearly feeling moral performance anxiety. In this pressurised context, the clinging of some young people to a sense of victimhood, as noted by Lukianoff and Haidt, could just as easily be the unconscious expression of the desire to be released from a burden of heavy moral responsibility, as the outcome of too much shielding from harsh reality in the first place.
How did speech-sanitizers arrive in so rigid and pitiless a moral universe? Part of the background problem here is still parents, I think, but this time deflecting their own anxieties about the iniquitous state of the present by making their offspring panicky and guilty about the future. Lukianoff and Haidt focus on a parental obsession with imagined physical danger, but I suspect that a relentless emphasis on possible moral danger is just as influential here. The liberal-left may talk a good game about the arc of moral progress bending towards justice, but in practice when it comes to child-rearing they don’t seem to have much confidence in their own prediction, preferring to give kids no time at all to luxuriate in a joyfully aimless present when they could be stressing them out about what comes next.
Every aspect of a child’s life now seems to be treated as a potential means to some future end: not just assessment-packed school life, of course, but even unstructured pre-school play, which is now presented as “serious learning”; or a baby’s “tummy time”, now glossed as “baby’s first exercise”. Returning to infant-rearing after a long gap, I discovered that babygros these days say things like “I am the future” and “Even the smallest one can change the world”. Only a few years after being given such inspiring messages, the wearers of these will be told that the world is on fire, racism is everywhere, and nuclear holocaust might soon be on the cards. It’s a lot for a six-year-old to cope with.
This dynamic is particularly apparent in the way adults talk to children about climate change. The new punishment for middle-class children is to have to sit through the final twenty minutes of a David Attenborough documentary. During this segment, viewers are clubbed over the head, seal-like, with apocalyptic predictions about the loss of Arctic habitat, having first been lured in to watching by gorgeous images of cute polar bear cubs snowboarding, or whatever. Many children are now convinced that every time they turn a light on, a penguin dies. Barely having discovered the existence of the natural world, they are told that it is up to them to save it. In one international study surveying 10,000 children, more than 50% reported they felt “sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty ” about climate change – and no wonder.
But there are other deeper forces at work here too, I think. It’s hardly an original point, but as community bonds loosen and we all spend more time on our own or on the internet (which is not that different), we are less likely to come into contact with social situations that would call for the exercise of a full range of moral capacities. A naturalised account of the origins of morality sees it as an adaptive tendency, whose original purpose was to facilitate cooperation within groups and so enhance survival. (Indeed, this is a point stressed by Jonathan Haidt in another book of his.) Ideals of fairness and honesty regulate competition and rivalry between individuals in situations of limited resource; ideals of loyalty and trust enable groups to bond as social units; ideals of promise-keeping and reciprocation facilitate smooth social exchange; and ideals of care and harm-avoidance keep the young and the vulnerable safe and healthy. All of this reduces conflict and stress, and maximises the success of the group. But we have always needed real-life situations to put these ideals into practice, and to learn from more experienced others about how to exercise them. We aren’t born knowing this stuff. In relative social isolation, as humans in the West increasingly are in the 21st Century, it’s easy for your moral compass to start spinning. And in isolation, it’s also easy to become far too cocky about your own moral judgements, because you aren’t testing them out in the crucible of daily human relations and getting good feedback.
Equally, under conditions of relative social isolation, it’s easy for a moral sensibility, however deformed, to assume too large a habitual mental focus. Shared communal activities with others face-to-face not only help you to develop a full range of moral capacities, but also gives you a sense of proportion: not everything in life need be about right and wrong, good and bad! There are plenty of valuable things in life that have nothing to do with moral judgement, or shouldn’t do: beauty, friendship, art, love, laughter, sex, food, ideas… And then there’s also the solace of shared responsibility via group influence – you aren’t always on your own, and it’s not always up to you alone to decide what’s right.
In an ideal world, adolescents would come to university, learn all this, and feel the relevant consolations. But I’m not sure they do. The old idea of the University as a vibrant and cohesive community of individuals, forced into productive relation with one another in the shared pursuit of truth, is very old hat. For a start, nobody really believes in truth anymore. And in terms of faculty, Universities are mostly composed of rootless individualists and lone wolf-types, full of animosity and suspicion for one another, and who possess few social graces with which to cement bonds. Meanwhile on the student side, decreasing resources mean less time and money is spent each year on trying to create a proper community from a bunch of disparate teenagers with no connections otherwise. In my experience, what few social events are laid on by Schools and Departments get larger in scale and fewer in number as costs are cut, which ultimately makes them less successful at connecting developmentally awkward and shy people, I think. It is fairly common for a student to know practically no-one in their seminar classes, even during their final year. And whenever I meet alumni, I’m always surprised that relatively few seem to have kept in touch with others in their cohort.
For today’s student, then, there’s less rubbing up against coordination problems that might temper childish moral intuitions; fewer distractions for the adolescent moralist, trying to do all of the right things all of the time; and little consolation to be found in losing oneself in the crowd. And zoom classes during Covid won’t have helped. I suspect that when it comes to the ambitions of the young speech-sanitizers, things are going to get worse for University managers before they get better. Luckily for me, it’s not remotely my problem anymore.
Image credit: DanielVilleneuve
I broke down and paid for a subscription just so I could thank you for sharing these carefully articulated thoughts about the world! You have convinced me that today's "speech sanitizers" could indeed be guided by a moral compulsion to prevent harm to others.
Thanks for the article. I loved The Coddling of the American Mind but i thought it did not answer for the weird religious fervor you see in these young people.
I think you are right, they do look like they are trying to expiate something. That does not invalidate Lukianoff and Haidt´s analysis of the root causes but it does show how dangerous they can become. Humans have burned the world to get rid of the filth they failed to see was inside of them all along. We are heading toward a very not fun society with those kids in charge of all our major institutions…