The Assault on the American Mind

The assaulting of the American mind, from trigger warnings to transcendence.

Posted Nov 15, 2015

From Pixabay
Source: From Pixabay

November 15, 2015

Campus unrest at Mizzou, Yale and elsewhere prompts close reading of several articles that recently questioned student activism, sensitivity, trigger warnings, and free speech.  While these articles shed some light, they also miss a crucial point.  We can’t get to empathic inclusion by essentially saying “you’re too sensitive – get over it”.  We have to come to terms with the significant threats to student safety, mental health and well-being that provoke these sensitivities, and earnestly work towards a culture of belonging.  We must also realize that with belonging come certain boundaries and rules that must be accepted if we are to make the transition successfully.  Unfortunately, I believe that social media has often widened the divide and entrained reflexive rather than reflective responses to injury.

The September 2015 Atlantic cover story (“The Coddling of the American Mind”) and Conor Friedersdorf’s recent “The New Intolerance of Student Activism (at Yale)” painted a picture of college students easily “triggered” by words, images and ideas that offended them or made them feel unsafe, offenses which the authors seem to think are unworthy of protest, particularly in the ways protest has emerged of late.  Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt highlighted examples of teachers of being “called out” by students after they presented material or acted in ways that raised questions of misogyny, racism or sexual assault.  The authors argued that the current climate forced teachers to fear offending the most sensitive student they could imagine.  Such offense has led to administrative reprisal and even job loss.  Free speech and rational discourse are thus sacrificed in the hopes of creating “safe spaces” for students.  Furthermore, they argue, the students “triggered” by offensive materials are actually suffering from cognitive distortions, such as catastrophization, black-and-white thinking and emotional reasoning.  Their anxieties are not dispelled by avoidance and suppression, the authors say.  They instead recommend exposure to stimuli combined with desensitization along with deconstruction of cognitive distortions in order to help students master the emotional and intellectual challenges of living in a world that is nowhere nearly free of possible offense, and rather requires engagement with the offensive and difficult.

In recalling Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), their namesake, they subtly seek a 21st century stronghold in the ongoing “culture wars.”  They seek to show that the ideology of safe spaces and emotional injuries requiring trigger warnings or outright suppression of “triggering” material is harmful to both learning and healing.  Their article is useful in highlighting the danger of stifling free speech and describing and utilizing core principles of cognitive behavioral therapy.  However, their argument rests on both a limited understanding of human psychology and cherry-picked egregious examples of offense taken out of context, while paying scant attention to the perceived and real threats students do face.  It’s only slightly unfair to re-title their article “You’re too sensitive – lighten up and get over it!”  The “coddling” they point to does not mark the “land of the easily offended” as much as it is a creative attempt to introduce empathy at a time of increasing diversity, continued conflicts and near-cataclysmic sensitization through social media.

When Worlds Collide

Worlds and worldviews have been colliding on college campuses for decades.  However, we are living in an era of dramatically increased polarization and dramatically decreased empathy.  This sets the stage for increased conflicts, misunderstandings and threats, online and off.  Students who feel targeted and marginalized naturally protest in ways that some will find objectionable.  A few decades ago, conservatives began lamenting so-called “political correctness.”  Those arguments are being recycled in screeds against ‘sensitivity’.

Judith Shulevitz (“In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas”, NYT March 21, 2015) similarly failed to fully appreciate the need for empathy.  I don’t believe students are “hiding from scary ideas” as much as they are regularly assaulted by real threats to physical, mental and emotional safety.  They thus need spaces to reconnect to their own healing powers and advocate for empathic inclusion.  The safe space is one mode of protest.  In my college days, we rallied on the campus green to generate solidarity and voice dissent.  These days, students rally, but importantly recognize the need for emotional healing as well.  I personally think this is a step forward.  There are a lot of students traumatized by both incidents on campus as well as the inner conflicts raised by protest and social turbulence.  Student leaders and administrators are wise to make room for their needs.

The Assaulting of the American Mind

What is the American Mind?  There is no one answer, of course, but as I outlined earlier (see 1,2 and 3 below) there is an important emerging conflict between defensive and paranoid self-centeredness and empathic inclusion.  It’s the amygdala vs. the cerebral cortex, fear vs. love and long-term planning, on individual and collective levels.  Those who favor inclusion and understanding, particularly for women and minorities, are under regular attack by those fearful of what that inclusion would mean for them and the nation (choice, gay rights, immigration and economic change, for example).  Some on the left don’t help matters when they polarize these issues and don’t see that, for example, there are many white people (even white males, especially in the younger cohort) who favor inclusion as well.  Each side can be guilty of painting with a broad brush and becoming intolerant of the routine mixups that happen as we try to get to understanding.  When the majority culture paints with a broad and defensive brush, though, it looks, walks and quacks like systemic oppression, which is both part and parcel of the American experience, and also our original sin.

The assault comes online as well.  We are more aware of racist, sexist, and homophobic acts and attitudes because of social media.  Trolling and bullying are persistent problems. Anger is the most viral emotion on the internet, and we entrain ourselves in anger by resorting to rants, diatribes and shaming those we disagree with online (see my free ebook on anger (4) including the essay “The Social Network is an IndigNation”).  Social media is an attempt at connection, but it falls short.  Social media surfaces the problem of belonging without solving it.  Online anger and righteous rage are understandable, and it’s good to see issues previously hidden now in plain view, but we can only get to resolution through deeper relationship.

Belonging:  From Triggers to Transcendence

What portion of the assault comes from ignorance vs. malice?  It’s hard to sort out, and people rarely admit publicly to malice.  We don’t want either trait “in charge”, individually or collectively, yet we have to admit that they play a role within all of us.  No one of us has all the answers; we all carry some level of ignorance, and under stress, are prone to malice.  Our only solutions are in conversation, relationship and the cultivation of, yes, love and compassion.  We have to learn how to give one another the “feeling of society” (as I call it in my ebook on anger). The “beloved community” that Martin Luther King, jr. described is a worthy goal requiring all of our effort in small and large ways, from developing emotional intelligence to being involved in political and social changes.

We each have an individual responsibility to create the conditions for community in our interactions with others, especially those with whom we disagree.  The world is divided into those who are right, as the saying goes.  You can either be right or related, right or happy.  We have to broaden our definition of “right” to include “has the capacity to appreciate and empathize with other points of view”.  We can’t lose our ability to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

There is a powerful dialectic at play on campuses and in our public life.  Only empathic inclusion can allow us to transcend the dialectic into a state of true belonging.

Much has been written about the situation at Yale, with outside observers such as Friedersdorf taking sides in a very polarized situation.  While Erika and Nicholas Christakis sound very reasonable at first blush in email and video-capture, and make a case for both free speech and college students being grown ups not needing to be “policed” re Halloween garb, etc, from what I’ve seen so far, they miss the point:  the administration stepped up (in their email about inappropriate Halloween costumes) in support of students because of longstanding issues of exclusion and ignorant or malicious actions creating a climate of not only misunderstanding but also fear.  Why should it fall to minority students to continually educate their peers?  It’s tiresome.  Halloween costumes become not simply a means of play, but a means of exerting power and control.  (See “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume’ Campaign”, initiated by Ohio University students in 2011).  I’m not sure why Professor Christakis felt the need to send an email about her objections, when speaking with one of her students or fellow administrators could have clarified the situation and perhaps broadened her perspective.

It’s another case of e-communication (email, social media and Youtube) adding more heat than light to the situation.  Sensitivities are inflamed, we become polarized based on our own experiences, and it becomes a question of “who’s right?” rather than dialogue leading to inclusion and understanding.  Already, petitions are circulating calling for the Christakis’s ouster as house masters.  It seems a harsh penalty to this outside observer.  We have to have some room for mistakes and disagreements, especially around difficult discussions.  But that’s really up to the Yale community.

At Mizzou it became clear that threats of physical violence were not far behind the slow-to-emerge empathy for Blacks on campus.  Of course, Black students knew this all along, and despite all the media attention of the last few years, there is still denial of the scope of the problem in some (ignorant or malicious) quarters and a broad need for building trust and alliance and working towards solutions for the issues raised.  Black Lives Matter, indeed.

Can anyone be “too sensitive”?

Since experience is subjective, we must recognize that each individual’s sensitivity is their inner truth, for better or worse.  As a psychiatrist, I treat individuals who are enormously sensitive to slight.  The most powerful sensitivities are rooted in traumatic experiences.  The answer is not in interrogating and dismissing “sensitivity” but in responding to it skillfully and compassionately.  Certainly, cognitive distortions are often at work, but Lukianoff and Haidt oversimplify the challenge in their Atlantic article.  The victim of trauma develops a narrative about threat, which can translate into knee-jerk reflexes and over-identification with thoughts and emotions.  In trying to make sense of the world and keep themselves safe, the traumatized person can attach to a worldview that sees threat in every interaction.  At worst, this can become an extreme loss of trust, paranoia, and creation of a victim identity that makes connection and belonging extremely difficult.  Even a therapist can become a feared and hated oppressor to such individuals.  And the victim, through their defenses of blame, shame, anger and hostility, can trigger harsh treatment (or perceived harsh treatment) from others, including their therapist. 

This splitting, the enactment of the victim-oppressor dyad (in therapy as well as life) must be transformed into a partnership of mutuality and respect.  Emotional regulation is vital.  Mindfulness, cognitive behavioral and dialectical behavioral therapies are important, as the authors suggest.  Mentalization therapy, helping the person understand the inner world of others, is also helpful.  Psychodynamic and relational approaches based on the transference are absolutely essential, as these individuals often form powerful and reactive transferences and attachments reflective of their inner worlds.  In any therapy, or human interaction, skillfulness, compassion and wisdom in managing and understanding the relationship takes center stage above any particular technique or methodology.  Relationships take us from our individual story to a bigger picture.

And of course, it takes two to tango.  There’s a limit to expecting others to change to satisfy one’s own sensitivity.  There’s a limit to expecting others to be responsible for our emotions.  We are, of course, responsible for each other’s emotions to a significant extent (we have open limbic loops, after all, and we live in community) but we must ultimately take as much responsibility for our own emotions and reactions as we possibly can.  Sometimes and for some people this is quite a reach, though.  We can help each other do the best we can.  We can recognize that we can all have agency in our relationships and in the inner and outer worlds, and it’s up to us to determine how to use it.  We can also realize that the people we regard as “oppressing” us in fact have feelings too, and are as worthy of respect as we are.

Are there limits to belonging?

Belonging is the opposite of suffering.  But are there limits to belonging?

If there are, we haven’t found them yet.  But within any group, there’s both a need for commonality as well as needs for individuality.  If we are to be a group, we must find ways to respect individuality as well, and recognize that group dynamics can lead to intolerance of individual difference.  In fact, we can’t create inclusion without friction.  We all have to give up something in order to gain the benefits of community.  But it would be a shame to lose our ability to laugh at ourselves or poke fun at the absurdity of life or the human condition.  If we’re always afraid of saying the wrong thing, or if we’re quick to punish others for saying things we disagree with, we’ll be unable to have a dialectic, and thus unable to transcend the dialectic.  We’ll just become another kind of ideologue, attached to our own opinion.

Perhaps the attacks in Paris and Beirut this week remind us that the ideologies most needed in the world today are empathic inclusion, compassion and nonviolence.  Would that the world were a safe space.  May it be so.

In the legend of the Buddha, his father shielded him from suffering during his childhood, effectively creating a truly safe space.  But when he viewed the traumas of old age, sickness and death, he was compelled to find the cause of human misery.  I think there are many college students looking for answers as well.  Their safe spaces are refuges for their spirits under siege.  As the Buddha said, “be a lamp unto yourselves.”  I think they will find it’s not that certain people are at fault and to be blamed and shamed, but rather that self-centered ways of thinking promote greed, hatred, ignorance, jealousy, and a whole host of ideologies that cause harm.  I hope we can learn to “call in” with compassion, rather than “calling out” with righteous rage.

But I wait to hear what the young people have to say.  After all, no one of us has all the answers.  Collectively, we have a shot.  Thich Nhat Hanh predicted the next Buddha would be the Sangha, or community.  I hope he’s right.

Update:  I was interviewed on 12/9/15 by BYU Radio's Matt Townsend, link here.

For further reading: 

Deactivate Facebook and Become Human Again (The New York Daily News)

Do Shame and Exclusion mediate dissatisfaction with Facebook?  

What you don’t know about the protests at Yale, by Yale student Aaron Lewis (HuffPo) 

When Minorities Demand Equal Respect, by Sally Kohn (The Atlantic) 

Racism on Campus:  Stories from NYT Readers

Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice 

The Profound Emptiness of Resilience (NYT)

Is there any evidence trigger warnings are a big deal? (NYMag)

  1. “Is Donald Trump a Walking Subreddit?” 
  2. “No, Self-Centerdness is Killing America” 
  3. “Fighting Back Against Bias in ‘Intellectualism’ or ‘Reason’ 
  4. Free e-book on anger, including a chapter on social media anger, The Social Network is an IndigNation (also includes essays on domestic violence and the anger of Asian American men and women).  I welcome your comments and shares. 

(c) 2015, Ravi Chandra, M.D. F.A.P.A.

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