• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Coddled kids: How 'safetyism' created an epidemic of anxiety and fragility

Photo/Getty Images

The new morality of a strident and vocal “Generation Z” minority who demand protection from words and ideas they do not like is spreading quickly in English-speaking countries.

The US has so many prestigious universities that smaller, provincial state campuses have to do something special to be noticed. And what Evergreen State College, in Washington in the country’s Pacific Northwest, did in 2017 was something very special indeed – though not in a good way. In a spectacular failure of leadership, administrators acquiesced to the demands of protesting students, including that a professor who had disagreed with them should be kicked off the campus.

Lawyer Greg Lukianoff describes the Evergreen case as “one of the worst examples” in the book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, which he has written with New York University professor Jonathan Haidt about the dangers of what they call “the new morality”. Lukianoff, who is president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire), tells the Listener that he once saw his role as defending students’ rights to free speech. But since 2014, he has primarily been defending university professors. The academics have been called out, sometimes but not always by their students, and often for matters that are seemingly trivial but could, if a complaint were to succeed, derail their careers.

RelatedArticlesModule - Coddling of the american mind

On the day that Haidt talked to the Listener, he had received an email from a maths professor at another university. The professor had told a graduate student to “toughen up” after she complained about something. As a result, she had lodged a formal complaint.

“Now he’s in big trouble,” Haidt says. “It’s possible the bureaucratic system … will dismiss the complaint, but it often takes weeks and weeks and you never know what will be brought against you in such investigations.” There is no longer any tolerance, he says, for an older generation. “Everyone has to conform to the norms of people in their teens and twenties. The first time I heard a student say she felt unsafe, I said, ‘What? What do you mean, unsafe?’ I couldn’t understand it because older people think that being unsafe means that you are in physical danger.”

Jonathan Haidt. Photo/Getty Images

Strangers to history

Haidt thinks there has never been a generation as cut off from the lessons learnt by previous generations as today’s so-called Generation Z, also called the iGen.

“All kinds of wild ideas that are untested and are demonstrably bad for them and demonstrably wrong – these ideas can spread like wildfire so long as they are emotionally appealing. Social media and other innovations have cut the lines that previously would have tethered the balloon to Earth, and the balloon has taken off.”

New Zealand has no shortage of people ready to take offence at any hint of racism or gender bias, or able to detect any trace of political correctness or the nanny state. Former National Party leader Don Brash was “disinvited” to speak at Massey University by Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas. She cited “security concerns” but an email trail showed that she didn’t like his anti-Treaty rhetoric.

But Haidt and Lukianoff say that in the US, the new morality has reached its apogee in prestigious universities, particularly in residential colleges.

In these institutions, they say, student demands have escalated for “safe spaces” where students can be protected from speakers, language or ideas that offend them – if they have been unsuccessful in getting invitations to such speakers withdrawn in the first place. Some students demand that lecturers give “trigger warnings” if a lecture might contain language or ideas that might upset them, and sometimes such language can be considered aggression, or even violence.

There are shame circles, denunciations and ritualised apologies as during the Cultural Revolution in Communist China. “We have data showing students are afraid, mostly of each other, and the professors are afraid, mostly of the students.”

The idea that some people are so fragile they need protection, or at least a warning, before being exposed to images or ideas that are neither violent nor offensive, is also not new to New Zealand; the ban on uniformed police marching in the Auckland Pride Parade is the latest high-profile example.

Haidt wrote in the Atlantic about once lecturing on the weakness of the will and using a painting depicting Ulysses having himself tied to a ship’s mast to resist the call of the Sirens who were trying to lure him and his men to their deaths. Because the Sirens were topless in the painting, a student complained that it was degrading to women and that Haidt had been insensitive to show it.

Haidt and Lukianoff first wrote about this “new morality” on campuses in an article in the Atlantic. They say that the support they received was surprising, though there was also a lot of reaction saying that “students are students and as soon as they enter the real world, this will stop”.

“Now we know that was wrong,” Haidt tells the Listener. “In various industries, especially those that hire primarily college graduates from our very top schools, these new norms are being imported and are spreading rapidly.”

Auckland’s Pride Parade was threatened by those who objected to police officers marching in uniform. Photo/Getty Images

Protection racket

Exactly what is spreading, the authors say, is a web of related trends including a rampant sense of fragility in which some students see themselves as needing protection. Sometimes, academics who come under siege – YouTube has plenty of videos of lecturers being surrounded and harassed during student protests – are not supported by colleagues. Moreover, university staff are increasingly left-wing, so the likelihood of balancing views or opposing arguments is reduced.

Pettiness is on the increase, too, in the constant calling-out of sometimes-casual language that was never intended to offend or harass, and even may have been written or uttered with well-meaning intent. That calling-out has the effect of making academics and others in authority constantly check themselves, or saying nothing, for fear of saying the wrong thing, which is hardly consistent with the idea of free speech. Says Haidt: “One student said, ‘My motto is “silence is safer”’, and that’s a reasonable way to deal with life in a call-out culture.”

As students from Generation Z (born after 1994) graduate, some bring to their workplaces the call-out habits and expectations developed in their university lives. Haidt cites the example of staff in an office who finished a conference call on which a man had spoken in a particularly animated manner. “He sounded like he was on Ritalin,” one woman said to her colleague. The colleague filed a complaint alleging the comment had been insensitive to people with mental illness.

Disciplinary action can now arise from people speaking normally, and encountering the usual frictions of everyday life, Haidt says. “Students who have always had a bureaucratic resource to go to when someone offended them are taking this expectation into the workplace and that makes having a diverse and complicated workplace very difficult.”

Moreover, the bar for what is deemed harassment or offensive is inexorably lowering. University of Auckland political science lecturer Paul Buchanan was sacked after sending an angry email to a student who had sought an extension, telling her she was “not suitable for a graduate degree” and “close to failing”. He was quietly reinstated after an Employment Relations Authority decision awarding him $66,000.

Haidt and Lukianoff cite a 2005 case of a student at the University of Central Florida charged with harassment for writing on Facebook that another student who was seeking election to a student body was “a jerk and a fool”. It might be offensive, the authors concede, but they doubt the wisdom of administrators standing by, ready to act, whenever someone feels offended. Lukianoff foresees a time when human resources departments will be overwhelmed by a generation of former students from elite colleges who are used to having their relationships mediated.

Greg Lukianoff. Photo/Supplied

The danger of safety

Haidt, who is professor of ethical leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business and whose PhD is in social psychology, says the risks of this new morality are not just to those who are called out, but to those who are taking offence in the first place. Most young people, he acknowledges, are not part of this culture.

“Most are fine. Most are not depressed or anxious. The great majority of students today want to learn and want to be exposed to different views. So I would never tell a story about a generation that has lost its mind; that has not happened. But what has happened is that we have a big increase in the small minority that embrace this call-out culture and their power to intimidate people has been multiplied at least tenfold by social media. At the same time, the dynamic has changed so that authorities are generally afraid to stand up to them lest they seem insensitive, or even in violation of the law. So academics don’t know when they are allowed to push back.”

Standing up to student demands may also be more difficult when they are paying US$60,000 a year in fees and are treated like paying customers.

Haidt and Lukianoff are certain that what they describe as a culture of “safetyism” and “the new morality” emerged in 2014 and spread across the US the next year. Students had been raised by parents who had two overwhelming concerns: their children’s physical safety, particularly from abduction, and their chances of getting into a top university. Combined, they spawned the phenomenon of “overparenting” and, Haidt argues, the demands of these children once they reach tertiary institutions are a natural result of not having to learn how to brush off criticism, and to sort out their own disputes.

The authors argue that protecting children from risk also prevents them from gaining important experience: walking or riding their bikes to school, using scissors or climbing trees. The book quotes former Stanford dean and author of How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims, saying she has met parents who would not allow their 17-year-old daughter to take the subway alone. “And I said to them, ‘What’s your long-term strategy for her?’ … I see it all around me. I see kids afraid to be alone on the sidewalk. They don’t like walking places alone. They don’t like biking places alone. And it’s probably because they’ve been basically made to feel that they can be abducted at any moment.”

Photo/Getty Images

Disproportionate fear

The overprotection of children, in response to a fear of crime which is out of all proportion to the actual risk, is found in many countries but it was not always this way. In 1979, an issue of the publication Chicago Now produced a checklist, asking “Is your child ready for first grade?” There were 12 items on the checklist, including “Can your child say, in a way that his speech is understood, where he lives? Can she tell her left hand from her right.” But the item that caught the attention of Haidt and Lukianoff was, “Can he travel alone in the neighbourhood (four to eight blocks) to the store, school playground, or to a friend’s home?”

Allowing a five- or six-year-old to walk several blocks alone could today get parents arrested, the authors point out. Their concern is real. In 2014, a Connecticut woman who dashed in to a shop and left her daughter in the car was taken to court even though the girl, aged 11, was not in distress and had told her mother she would prefer to wait in the car. Haidt points out that when he was 11, he was earning money babysitting.

The authors reject the contention that they are guilty of simple nostalgia.

“I do not want to live in an age before aspirin or penicillin,” says Lukianoff, “but if we could enjoy the fruits of our comparatively affluent society while at the same time gaining from the wisdom of people who lived through much harder times than we do, that would be the best of all possible worlds.”

The authors link overparenting and the decline of “free play”, along with the rise of social media, to the increasing levels of anxiety, depression and suicide among young people, particularly girls. If he could, Haidt would ban all social media for under 16-year-olds. But he concedes it is hard to know whether increases in self-harm, anxiety and mental illness among young people are attributable more to over-protection or to social media.

“I don’t think anybody knows now what the relative contributions are. In America, we started grossly overprotecting our children in the 1990s and that very generation got social media when they were too young for it so we really don’t know.”

If kids who went to less-protective schools turned out to be more resistant to the dangers of social media, that might show that toughening young people up and giving them more independence as children allows them to better handle small threats such as those on social media when they encounter them later, he says.

But many of those who end up at elite universities have been coddled and nurtured since the cradle to get that acceptance letter from their chosen college, Lukianoff says.

“I think of them as being like a perfectly designed heat-seeking missile that has had an enormous amount of work and money put into it but it only knows how to do one thing. That is why you have sad stories of wonderful students turning up in places like Stanford and being on the phone all the time to their parents to help them make very small decisions. That is disempowering, and being disempowered and not having a locus of control in your own life means there is a good chance you will feel highly anxious and depressed.”

That anxiety and depression, the authors believe, both encourages the “call-out culture” but, in a vicious circle, is also exacerbated by it and encourages young people to see themselves as victims.

In sociology, Haidt explains, the term “prestige economy” is used to describe rankings in social order. For example, in the prestige teen economy there is credit for being good looking, a good athlete, or popular.

The prestige of victimhood

But nowadays, he says, there is also prestige in suffering and being a victim. That mentality encourages students to feel vulnerable, to believe that they do not have any control and to see themselves as victims of a world that is hostile. In one sense it is a continuation of the sense of vulnerability that they might have picked up from parents who would not let them play outside, or who were afraid to let them walk alone to school.

Further, Haidt says, for those students who cannot claim to be victims of racism, homophobia or other forms of discrimination, their recourse is to stand up for those who they perceive could be victims.

“This gives us the worst of call-out culture – the many students who are desperate to find offence in order to gain prestige points themselves.” If you are politically motivated to see America as bad, he says, “then you’ll see disparity as evidence of white supremacy”.

If students accept the idea that all forms of oppression are linked in one giant matrix, it is disempowering for them, sets them against others and becomes very hard to make progress, Haidt says.

“Somebody has to stand up and say, ‘There are other stories and your story is not the best one for our institution.’”

Haidt believes the most invidious aspects of call-out culture are seen in residential colleges where there is no other moral matrix for hundreds of kilometres. New Zealand and Australian universities therefore may be less susceptible, although the same ideas are spreading quickly through English-speaking countries.

“That’s partly because we speak the same language but also because we modelled our top universities on Oxford and Cambridge so if you are a top student in the UK, US or Canada, you love home and live in a small, closed community of people of the same age.

“The big question we don’t know the answer to is whether New Zealand has characteristics that will render it less susceptible, or it just hasn’t got there yet. Trends are moving very fast in the US. This culture simply didn’t exist before 2013 but in the 2013/14 academic year, when the first members of Gen Z showed up on campus, we started to see it. Then it went national in 2015, began spreading to high schools in 2016 and was in the corporate world by 2017.

“So it has spread very fast here and it’s an open question whether in places such as New Zealand and Australia, distance will render this new morality less potent, or whether you are simply a year or two behind and in two years’ time you will have all this stuff, too, in the same intensity.”

THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff (Allen Lane, $55).

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.