In America’s political upheavals of the last several years, higher education has been a major battleground. On the left, college activists are leading the fight for a radical vision of social justice. Meanwhile, campus tales of politically correct hypersensitivity and intolerance have become a regular diet of red meat for the right.
Now, two authors best described as centrist liberals — Greg Lukianoff, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jonathan Haidt, a renowned psychologist who teaches at New York University’s Stern School of Business — have entered the fray with a book which argues that political correctness in the academy is a real problem with serious repercussions for the larger culture.
Lukianoff’s and Haidt’s book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” offers some refreshing insights that avoid both right-wing and left-wing clichés.
One of the book’s major themes is what the authors call “safetyism”: the tendency of campus activists to claim that words or ideas that violate progressive beliefs about race, gender and other identities are not merely offensive or even bigoted, but actually make affronted students “unsafe.” In part, this framing comes from far-left ideology; but the book argues that its growing appeal is also rooted in the “security” fixation that followed the 9/11 attacks and in overprotective parenting linked to paranoia about child abductions.
The authors offer a fascinating if disturbing survey of the past few years’ campus conflicts. Some stories are well known, such as the troubles at Washington’s Evergreen State College, where biology Professor Bret Weinstein was mobbed and threatened after criticizing an anti-racism initiative that involved white people leaving campus for a day. Others are obscure, such as the forced resignation of Mary Spellman, a dean at Claremont McKenna College in California who became a target of protests for supposedly insensitive language in an email to a student. Her offense? Mentioning her interest in helping students “who don’t fit our CMC mold.”
The book acknowledges that left-wing critiques of oppression and privilege in American society have addressed very real injustices. But the authors argue that the social justice rhetoric prevalent in the universities today is polarizing and counterproductive. It reduces people to labels, often treating those with “privileged” identities — particularly white males — as the bad guys. The rhetoric also directs far more energy to attacking perceived missteps by professors, staffers and students in progressive campus communities than tackling such problems as police brutality or racial bias in housing.
Worse yet, when social justice ideology declares that words that might perpetuate “oppressive” beliefs are a form of violence, this becomes a dangerous rationale for censorship and stifling of debate. Yet Lukianoff and Haidt also recognize that in today’s volatile climate, speech is also in danger from usually far-right extremists who “threaten and harass students and professors” with opinions they dislike. The authors strongly urge schools to reject “safetyism” in the sense of protecting students from conversation that makes them uncomfortable, but also stress the need for an effective response to actual safety threats.
Concern with freedom of ideas on campus need not be a conservative issue: Lukianoff and Haidt point out that it is shared by progressives like Van Jones, an African-American author, activist and former Obama administration adviser. And yet, predictably, Harvard scholar Moira Weigel has slammed the book in a review for The Guardian that accuses the authors of being too privileged and of agreeing with white nationalists and Donald Trump.
It seems that reclaiming common sense in academics will be an uphill battle.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.