Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Negativity on Campus

Don't confuse anger with intelligence

"If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”That bumper sticker controlled the first 50 years of my life. I learned in college to see outrage as a virtue, and I didn't really leave college until I retired at age 50 from being a professor. I saw a world of victims and oppressors like those around me did. I thought my outrage was based on "the data," and overlooked the way I picked and chose the data that others picked. The emotion behind our intellectual abstractions was never acknowledged. I stayed safe in the time-honored way of gazelle and wildebeest.

After ten years away from academia, I ran into a friend who's retiring this week. I was eager to hear her perspective on emotional contagion at her university as she embarks on the free-thinking life. Her examples were striking.

1. Hating Israel is the current craze.
Public raging at Israel is widespread among ostensible proponents of peace and tolerance. Only a small minority on campus holds this view, my friend said, but few dare refute it in public. its consistent with the pattern of every course - that blaming the white man is the safe position. Israel is a safe target to vent at - perhaps the only socially approved place to vent frustrations inflamed by a culture of constant critique and hypersensitivity.

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2. Students reflect their professors' opinions to sound "educated."
My friend had a unique vantage point as a Professor of  English. Students went to her for writing help, and some expressed fear of sounding uneducated if they disagreed with accepted views on campus. Students knew their academic sucess depended on reproducing a certain communication style. Grammar and tone were hard to separate since the two always came together from professors and their vocal peers. Students felt their essays needed to condemn "the system" whether they shared that view or not.

3. Dissenting views are not tolerated in college discourse.
With a rhetoric background, my friend is attuned to the way correct views define you as a good person in a social environment. If you disagree with the normative view on campus, you are condemned, ridiculed and shunned. People learn to present evidence in a way that reinforces the correct conclusion in order to avoid social ostracism and career suicide. Life is easier when you cite the "facts" that are already accepted to reach the conclusions that have already been decided.

As I heard my friend’s comments, I struggled to remind myself that this is not new. Herd behavior has been around for millions of years. Humans have always sought the comfort of like-minded thinkers.

Being outraged is a way to fit in. Outrage is understandably attractive to adolescents and teachers appealing to adolescents. But automatic outrage doesn’t lead to the mature discourse essential to problem-solving. Awareness of of emotional contagion is the first step to transcending it. 

More on this in my new book Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity, and in my earlier book I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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