Does a Broader Concept of Harm Make Us Weaker?

New research tests if broader concepts of harm increase our fragility.

Posted Aug 28, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

A new paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences considers the implications of the ever-broadening meanings of concepts like abuse, bullying, prejudice, and trauma. The research recognizes that the broadening of these concepts in recent years could have positive as well as negative implications. “Broadened concepts might problematize harmful behavior that was previously tolerated but might also make people over-sensitive and fragile.”

The paper's first study found that, as expected, people with broader concepts of harm showed more “liberal political attitudes, and high empathic concern.” The researchers were surprised to find that young people in the study didn't show broader concepts about harm than older participants. However, their second study found that “people holding broader concepts were younger and tended to feel more vulnerable and entitled.”

This is the latest research to explore how shifting views about what constitutes harm and injustice can, in addition to potentially helping to address harms, create further problems. Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have documented many cases of what they call “vindictive protectiveness” on college campuses. They believe that, in the name of protecting the vulnerable, students often assume the worst about people they disagree with—including that they’re deliberately out to harm innocent victims—and then respond with attacks of their own. Even without physical aggression and when claiming to promote compassion, this dynamic can make campus conflicts bitter and entrenched.

Lukianoff and Haidt argue that there’s also a real danger of teaching students that challenges to their views should be perceived as threats, rather than as a healthy part of a well-functioning university. This can even establish a climate of censorship or “an environment in which students rarely encounter diverse viewpoints.”

Openness to change is a significant challenge for anyone, and people who care most about justice may particularly struggle with it, because they can feel so certain that they’re fighting for the right cause or are on “the right side of history.” This is one finding supported by research into what’s been called the “dark side of moral conviction.” Caring deeply about the morality of a cause can actually bring out the worst in people. In addition to giving a license to break rules and behave unethically in service of what’s imagined as a higher good, a sense of being on the right side can severely limit readiness to engage “the other side” with tenderness and curiosity. Happening on a big enough scale, these dynamics might contribute to societal polarization.

A powerful case study in the extremes this can go to is offered by Trent Eady, who was the target of homophobia while growing up and, understandably, upon arriving at McGill University became deeply involved in seeking to make the world more just through activism. Eady developed increasingly critical thoughts and ever broader concepts of oppression and its causes, becoming more and more certain and quick to verbally attack anyone who didn’t share this same analysis.

Eady joined social justice groups that carefully watched, and then aggressively shamed, their members for any perceived infractions. This created groupthink and made questioning the groups’ beliefs rare, as saying the wrong thing met with such harsh judgments and stigma. The lack of openness to any alternative viewpoints reinforced the groups’ perception of their own activism as a pure and moral crusade. This certainty was dogmatically maintained by considering it morally wrong and even violent for anyone to question it.

Eady writes, “I can’t convey to you how bleak my worldview was. An activist friend once said to me, with complete sincerity, ‘Everything is problematic.’ That was the general consensus.” Caring so much about justice, and seeking to address oppression, had led them to greatly heightened personal fragility and had a detrimental mental health impact. Eady eventually came to recognize these problems and made significant lifestyle changes. Stories like this seem to frequently involve some common features:

  • Being vague or inconsistent in defining and applying concepts about harms and injustices.
  • Assuming that a preferred theory about harms is correct without formulating it in a way that allows it to be tested or revised if needed.
  • Demanding conformity through heavy policing of language and ideas.
  • Assuming that anyone perceived to not be in agreement has bad intentions, is immoral, and deserves to be shamed and otherwise attacked.
  • Distancing from the perceived enemy rather than seeking a sense of shared humanity or common ground.

These approaches make it challenging and uncomfortable to question them, because any attempt to do so can itself be cast as harmful and oppressive. Individuals and policy makers can benefit from further research into these issues. Research has also identified many evidence-based ways that more constructive conflict dynamics can be encouraged.