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How protecting students from “offensive” ideas is building a monster

Rather suitably, following the link to a speech by Brendan O’Neill earlier on Samizdata, is this long, very troubling and hopefully widely-read item on the Atlantic Monthly. Excerpt:

The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness. That’s partly right, although there are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and ’90s. That movement sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.


There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

Remember: the students who are moulded by this process will, in a few years’ time and in some cases, become politicians, business leaders, civil servants and others of influence. The question I ask is whether there will be enough persons not infected by this nonsense to still have enough clout in the public life of the West to resist this. Because a generation that is terrified of giving offence is not going to be all that effective at, say, facing up to existential threats to the Western way or life, or even less intimidating concerns.

Final thought: the authors note that part of the problem begins when children are young and protected, arguably to a dangerous degree, by parents and not allowed to play outdoors and be unsupervised and learn, early on, about the risks and bugs of real life. I think this might be at the core of the broader problem. And the lessons here don’t just apply to the US.

38 comments to How protecting students from “offensive” ideas is building a monster

  • PapayaSF

    Of course, students are being taught this nonsense as a result of “the long march through the institutions.” Leftists have taken over the universities. It’s all race, gender, class, sexuality, as it says on this poster featuring a professor who has proclaimed that anyone who uses “hateful” terms such as “illegal alien,” “he,” or “she” will have their grades lowered.

  • Eric

    The question I ask is whether there will be enough persons not infected by this nonsense to still have enough clout in the public life of the West to resist this. Because a generation that is terrified of giving offence is not going to be all that effective at, say, facing up to existential threats to the Western way or life, or even less intimidating concerns.

    A bigger problem is you’re going to have a generation of people in power who think it’s perfectly reasonable to use the organs of the state to create a reality in which they’re never offended.

  • Thailover

    Not much “offends” me, but I have always found it, let’s say, troubling, that Huckleberry Finn was banned by the censoring angels that be because He and Tom were taught that black people were to be referred to as niggers.

    What’s was lost in that book burning movement that not only did Tom and Huck help Tom escape to the north at great physical risk to themselves, but Huck actually had an agonizing conversation with himself where was weighing the fate of not only his mortal fate, but the fate of his immortal soul.

    He was taught in church (and believed) that helping a slave escape would indeed damn his soul to hell. Huck did not take this lightly. He contemplated and weighted the options and finally decided, not with anger but with loyalty to Jim and his own conscience that he would rather be sent to hell than to betray his friend, the one the censors must keep us from knowing that an unkempt boy would refer to as a nigger.

    Perhaps it isn’t the naughty ‘N’ word that we’re being protected from, but rather the nature of the church in the south, much like we must be “protected” from the knowledge that it wasn’t the courageous people in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that helped slaves escape actually reflected “christian values” but rather it was that punching bag Tom, the ‘beat me on the other cheek too’, ‘give no thought for the morrow’, Tom. The ‘don’t toil, don’t spin, just wait around for divine providence’ Tom that largely wouldn’t even help himself that reflects the actual values espoused by bible Jesus. Yes, this being public knowledge just wouldn’t do at all. That doesn’t fit the values of Conservative Jesus…you know, the one that’s no where to be found in the bible but certainly does live in the deep south. I heerd he’s got dowg too. LOL.

  • Thailover

    Crap, typos. They helped “Jim” escape to the north, not Tom, lol

  • Edward Henning

    …is not going to be all that effective at, say, facing up to existential threats to the Western way or life

    Are we not already in just that situation?

  • Paul Marks

    I suspect, more than suspect, that the talk about the mental health of students – of protecting them and all that – is a diversion tactic.

    I agree with the comments above – this is standard leftism dressed up on mental health terms.

    Adorno was playing this game 60 years ago – with conservatives smeared as mentally disordered “the paranoid personality”.

    His American sidekick came out with the “Paranoid Style of American Politics”.

    “Paranoid” “Authoritarian Personality” – classic efforts to “medicalise dissent”.

    But now this sort of thinking (brainwashing – and cutting students off from all “reactionary” opinions) has become utterly dominant.

    “They will lower my grades if I ….”.

    Then you should not be there – you really should not.

    At least American parents have a choice – even if they insist on sending their children to university.

    A handful of American universities refuse to accept government funding (“student loans” and so on).

    If a place will not accept tax money this is a fairly reliable sign that it is not P.C. (or whatever).

    Send your children to places such as Hillsdale.

    Or have them learn practical skills – skills that may help them more in the grim days to come, than a university education will.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I cannot get my head around the idea that “children are allowed to play outside, unsupervised” is anything but a laugh-line in a comedy.

    That anyone would believe this is a thing to be discouraged, let alone punished, is — so WRONG, so effed-up, so downright evil — !!! (In general, that is.)

    Skipping the rant, the psychologizing, and the discussion of the feedback loops in the tetrad individual-psychology/social-norms/education/politics.

    (Thousands cheer.)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Paul: Indeed. And you remind me of the episode in the BBC TV show 1990 where her ever-so-sweet teacher attempts to bully the girl — I suppose 10-12 years old — (by threatening her with “losing her place” in the UK’s premier grade-school, or whatever you Brits call it) into denouncing her father to the Public Control Department.


    But I do see that your Gresham College states that it accepts no government funding. :>))

  • Chip

    As we contemplate a return to Vancouver from Singapore a story appeared announcing big changes to the school curriculum there. “Hard facts” will be downgraded while teachers focus on individualizing learning so that someone who wants to learn about hockey – rather than perhaps India – can do so. Children from K to grade 5 will take “ownership” of their education, and every subject will now be permeated with lessons on “our” history of aboriginal culture.

    Of course this won’t include the constant war, slave taking and compete absence of progress in technology, science, medicine and life expectancy among aboriginals as a cautionary tale, but as a cultural counterpoint to our modern society and classically liberal values.

    How does one take their children from school in Singapore, where they’re already years ahead of their peers in Canada and constantly challenged to overcome difficult problems, and submit them to this nonsense?

    A microcosmic example of the decline of the West.

  • staghounds

    “Elevates the goal of protecting SOME PARTICULAR KINDS OF students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where FAVOURED young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make THEM uncomfortable.

    When I hear about people who say “redneck” or “cracker” being silenced, I’ll believe the safe spaces stuff.

  • Thailover

    Julie, the “allowed to play unsupervised” cracks me up as well. To put this in context, I’m 50yrs old, grew up in middle Tennessee in a semi-rural area. My summers resembled those of Huck Finn I mentioned earlier. I had a stretch of woods behind my/my dad’s house that’s still there. We literally built log rafts out of felled and lashed trees and rode them down the Cumberland river, which was about a mile behind my house. We occupied “islands” in the river, built fortresses and tree houses, etc. That I’ve never been bit by a poisonous snake or spider is a minor miracle. However, unlike when I was a child, wildlife is increasingly encroaching on the old house, with deer, wild turkeys, raccoon and even bobcats. This, of course, is in the midst of the “our world is in crisis, we’re killing the planet” bullshit.

  • Thailover

    Staghounds, apparentlty being challenged to think causes psychological harm. LOL

  • Thailover

    “Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.”

    Well, you know what socratic critical thinking leads to, impiety and heracy. I’m deeply offended! Where’s my hemlock?!

  • Well… The “right” to not be offended is a curious one. It is an attempt at creating a consensus from the top down. It is the classic Marxist concept of reality not being what is real but what you want it to be. Anybody who “studies” the “liberal” arts has to believ in utter drivel. Ain’t the case in science. Esp. Chem. which is much more commercial.

  • AndrewZ

    We are experiencing a race condition. In computing this means a situation in which different processes are operating on the same data so the outcome depends on the order in which the processes complete. Since this depends on many factors in the internal state of the machine it is not practical for outside observers to predict what the outcome will be, so from their perspective it appears random. In the context of Western politics, several processes are racing to completion. There is the leftist project of political correctness, conservative and libertarian reactions to it, the latest fads in parenting and the reactions to them, and many others. The end result depends on the order in which they complete and that is virtually impossible to predict. Of course, the end result could be that the entire system crashes.

  • Nicholas (Rule Yourselves!) Gray

    The badness starts with Dora the Explorer. All that exploration, unsupervised! The show should be banned as a dangerous influence on impressionable young minds! I wonder how many other shows we could ban, if we gave it some thought (Like any news service, anywhere!). And Docudramas on modern economics should be banned- even if the kiddlings are asleep, the subconscious can still hear! All that talk about China crashing!
    We’ll only have complete fairness when the Olympics are dedicated to equal times for all! And may the most average win!

  • gongcult

    If you grew up in Chicago on the Southside in the 60’s or 70’s you walked to the park or bicycle there, swam in the pools, fished the lagoons, took the bus to see movies in the Loop or wandered downtown ; your folks gave you a couple of bucks for your outings and told you to have common sense, be careful and don’t do anything stupid. Which gave us 12 year olds a sense of responsibility and self-mastery not to be found amongst today’s kids.

  • Fraser Orr

    “…where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable”

    Isn’t the whole point of college to have young adults encounter words and ideas that make them uncomfortable?

  • bobby b

    I grew up in an extended family that loved hunting, fishing, camping, traipsing around in wild areas . . . the essential North Woods experiences. I inherited that love.

    All three of my kids shared that love, without prompting or pressure from me. They all grew up around firearms. They learned to consider them to be dangerous but useful tools. They learned to shoot them, to clean them, to repair them, and to respect them. They learned that if they weren’t going to eat something, they shouldn’t kill it. They never used them out of my presence until I felt they could do so safely – and most of my relatives thought that I was overprotective in thinking that fourteen or fifteen might be too early for that.

    We live in a fairly prosperous and quite “progressive” suburb in one the of more “progressive” states in the USA – the kind of place where you can easily gather several hundred otherwise useless people to demonstrate in front of some poor dentist’s house if he does something they think is icky – and our school district is overstaffed with nosy “progressive” professionals trained and inculcated to make sure our little darlings are protected from any concepts which they themselves find icky.

    As part of one year’s plan to root out barbarians and monsters, the kids all got individual videotaped counselor meetings where they were quizzed on their home life. Do mom or dad smoke, do they drink, do they say certain icky words (which could not be spoken by the counselors, of course, leading to some hilarious confusion), and did they ever see any actual (gasp!) weapons in their homes.

    Elder son was 13 at the time, and he innocently described to the counselor a shotgun, a pistol, and a small rifle. Counselor was apparently appalled, and, writing furiously in a small notebook, he asked if dad or mom had ever threatened him, or anyone else, with those weapons.

    Son looked puzzled for a moment, then he sighed and said “yeah.” There was a break in the video at that point, and it resumed with not one, not two, but three upper-level non-teaching staff now present. The counselor asked my son to elaborate. Son said “last time we went out for pheasants, i put my shotgun away without cleaning it, and dad found out and told me that, if I couldn’t take care of my stuff, maybe he should take them away until I was old enough to remember, even though I bought it with my own money!”

    All three guns he had described were his own.

    I found out about this when son figured out later what they had been thinking, and related it to me laughing. I went to the school board the next week and demanded (and got) a copy of that videotape, as did many other parents once I shared this story.

    After some extended acrimonious meetings, featuring quite a few parents telling the board quite forcefully to “butt out”, several members of the district staff failed to return the next year. It still tees me off to think that we were paying seven or eight such clowns in excess of $100k each per year to “protect” our kids this way.

  • Pete

    Being a victim is very fashionable these days and these students want some of the action.

    It’s regrettable that many college staff go along with it, but that’s only to be expected when university admin is now a large and important employer of otherwise useless middle class people.

  • steve

    I have little fear of this movement. The traditional University is a dinosaur. Too expensive, and too many of the degrees are worthless. Online is the way to go. This movement is just hastening their own demise. Americans LOVE to give offense, and this will not change. Just look at our comedy, not slapstick, not wordplay, its basically just giving offense. Just look at the popularity of Donald Trump. Easily the most offensive politician in my lifetime.

    Americans will toe the PC line in a workplace or a school. But, it hardly changes what they really think or what they say elsewhere.

  • George Atkisson

    I very much doubt that these Safe Places people will rise to become anything. Their inability to compromise, or understand a viewpoint other than their own, prevents them from functioning in real world situations. Couple that with extreme emotional and mental fragility, and you have a group that must seek their own self referential and non-interactive bubble to survive. They will have successfully marginalized their own existence.

  • lucklucky

    Once more – not surprisingly coming from The Atlantic since they are one of them – what is Political Correctness is not told.

    Political Correctness is tool for Power to shut, to stifle. It has a totalitarian propose. Like Sharia. The propose is to build a 1984 culture.

    We already an example:
    Like every Marxist inspired movement those the promote it can end up suddenly in the other side – after all millions of Communists were killed by other Communists.
    The Vagina Monologues author already came asking for forgiveness: “I Never Defined a Woman as a Person With a Vagina”


    The center of world Marxism power today is in Anglo Saxon countries and now The Atlantic are feeling the heat from their “compagnons de route”… i don’t feel any pity.

  • Niall Kilmartin

    The post of ‘bobby b’ above sounds unpleasantly like an aspect of the sinister ‘named person initiative’ that the Scottish government is bringing in. At least Bobby could force the school to hand over the video; I suspect things will be more kafka-esque here.

  • lucklady,
    I almost read your link as holypoke which would change things.

  • Thailover

    NickM. Even the zombie-brained stultified minded leftists know that defining YOUR “crime” by citing MY “offended state” (with no reflection on how justified or unjustified that knee-jerk reaction) is simply a means of controlling others, beating them into silence, because after all, everyone wants to be “tolerant”.

    Tolerance, it must be said, is a non-concept and self-contradictory. One cannot have a standard of universal tolerance since universal tolerance is to have no standard at all. It’s self contradictory because to have a “standard” of universal tolerance is to not tolerate intolerance.

    In truth, no one who possesses rational values can tolerate a Hitler or a Pol Pot. In truth, we most “tolerate” some things and not tolerate others, which means that we’re using judging criteria external to the “standard” of universal tolerance, which renders said “standard” moot to begin with.

  • Thailover

    Fraser asked,

    “Isn’t the whole point of college to have young adults encounter words and ideas that make them uncomfortable?”

    People seeking indoctrination find thinking uncomfortable.

  • Thailover

    Steve, I think you’re quite correct, but these would-be dictators seek out and attain “bully pulpit” positions, and positions where they can legislate as well as use the laws as a club. We’ve laughed at radical feminists and other professional victims groups for so long, while ignoring the fact that they’ve made divorce and child custody, (as an example), such a horror story that people (like myself) would rather cut off a thumb than seriously entertain the idea of marriage in “the west”, i.e. America, Canada, the UK, etc.

  • It’s nonsense like this that makes me both glad I’m not still at college, and sad that I can’t be there to challenge the system. (Yes, I was a student radical in the early 1970s, and I’ve never grown out of the “Aux barricades!” mindset.)

    Perhaps it’s my age, or my presence, but I found that when I was a student a couple-three years back, whenever I challenged some PC/liberal/post-modern bullshit, the professor invariably backed down. (E.g. Professor: “Is gender a social construct?” Kim: “Yes it is, provided that you willfully ignore every single bit of genetic research done since the 1970s.” Professor: [changers subject]) My in-class debates with one particular political science professor caused class attendance to increase, and ditto my tirades whenever some liberal history professor started with the tiresome “colonialism is to blame for all the Third World’s problems” meme.

    But I also found that my grades didn’t suffer because I made it quite plain that professors were more than welcome to penalize me for poor, disjointed or faulty arguments; but they were not going to penalize me just for having a contrary opinion to theirs, if I could support my argument with research and logic. More than that, I made it plain that any attempts at victimization would result in appeals to the university chancellor and/or action by my lawyers, Shark, Barracuda and Honeybadger, LLP.

    The problem is that all this stifling of dissent and such works really well with cowed 19-year-old students because they aren’t tough old sods like me. Which just makes me all the more desirous of enrolling at some liberal university to challenge this totalitarianism, even at my advanced age.

  • PapayaSF

    Even in the ’70s the “gender is a social construct” thing never made any sense to me. We know that 1) hormones influence thought and behavior, and 2) males and females have different hormones, therefore…. It’s especially amusing to hear feminists talk about the “social construct” and then insult men by referring to “testosterone poisoning.”

  • Thailover

    PapayaSF, what’s even more sad are the existence of the TURFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). It seems that “my brain was feminized via prenatal hormones” just doesn’t mesh with the “gender as a social construct” dogma and so the radical feminists who think nothing of being evil bigots towards men also feel free to be evil bigots towards the male to female transgendered, statistically the most harmless demographic in existence, short of probably 6yr old girls.

    Consider these few sentances from Janice Raymond’s 1979 work The Transsexual Empire

    “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artefact, appropriating this body for themselves. Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.”

    I halfway expected to see that followed by a hearty Heil Hitler and a clicking of fancy shiny heels on knee-boots.

  • Nicholas (Rule Yourselves!) Gray

    Here’s an idea sure to offend- ‘the Quran’ is older than Mohammed! Carbon dating suggests that Mohammed’s ideas weren’t original. Expect lots of people to be offended by this! Invest in fire-extinguishers!

  • Well Islamic thinking has always regarded the Qu’ran as eternal truth so… This doesn’t exactly change much.

  • And yes, the Qu’ran is regarded as perfect (which goes with it’s eternality – Allah don’t change his mind) even the bits that contradict each other are eternal, timeless and perfect. In an odd sense it is not entirely dissimilar to the rad-fem double-think that Thailover has a very justified poke at above.

  • PapayaSF

    I found Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins by Robert Spencer to be a fascinating survey of the scholarship. I highly recommend it, despite the flamebait-y title. Even granting Muhammad’s existence, much of the early history of Islam and of the Koran does not square with official Sunni or Shiite dogma.

    I’ve long thought that this was the best way to battle Islamic extremism: undermine the Koran. As long as it is believed to be the perfect word of Allah, it’s difficult or impossible to explain away the advocacy of discrimination, of violence, of a worldwide totalitarian theocracy. But if it’s a flawed product of humans who had some good ideas in with the bad, then we demolish (or at least weaken) the core literalness of Islam. True, it contradicts what even the moderates believe and would rightly be seen as “an attack on the entire religion,” but at the same time it would empower the moderates and disempower the fanatics.

    Christianity has much less of this problem, because the Bible was written in a variety of languages by dozens of different people over hundreds of years. Everyone was said to be “inspired” by God, but there’s an awful lot of room for interpretation and for ignoring specific bits. (E.g. the more peaceful New Testament largely superseding the Old.) The West pretty much stopped killing each other over Bible interpretation hundreds of years ago. But the Koran is still read in the original, and they’re still killing each other (and us) over it, because they believe it is the direct and literal word of Allah (who speaks archaic Arabic, don’t you know). Puncture that, and much of the energy is lost.

    Of course it’s hugely politically problematic in the Western world to single out a religion in this way. But this memetic attack doesn’t have to be officially implemented by governments. It can be done by individuals: “crowdsourced.” It might not work, but I think it’s worth a try.

  • Nicholas (Rule Yourselves!) Gray

    “Allah is not chained!” Means He can change His mind at any time. This ‘explains’ the abrogated messages (first, they can drink wine, then they can’t; firstly, they should treat Christians and Jews nicely, then they don’t have to, etc.)
    And you should never translate the Quran- you need to learn Mohammed’s Arabic.

  • DP

    Dear Mr Pearce

    The current situation at some colleges reminds me of a chronic low grade version of the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Dr Philip Zimbardo in 1971.

    The ‘guards’ are the offendederati, aided by college authorities, the ‘prisoners’ are the other students, with special treatment for those caught not complying with this week’s rules.

    The Stanford experiment was stopped after 6 days of a scheduled 14. This experiment is set to run and run, and to leak out into the wider world.

    The film reconstruction was aired on Sunday evening (30th – don’t recall the channel) – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0420293/.

    The official website for the experiment is http://www.prisonexp.org/

    Hope this helps.


  • NickM

    Nick (whatever he is today!) Gray raise the core point. It comes down to the verse about, “Allah’s hand not being fettered”. He is God. He can do what he wants. I know of know serious theologian of any major religion who believes that God/Allah/whatever can make 2+2=5 but Allah can. This goes way beyond a belief in miracles or similar. It is a fundamental belief that the very laws not just of nature are malleable but also the laws of logic and mathematics. No Catholic or Jew or Lutheran or Hindu could hold this view. Neither could an atheist. Nor can I. 2+2=4 not because Allah says so but because it is. Dear Sweet everything! Could I program a computer if some demiurge from 1500 years ago could swap the 1s and 0s at his will for the heck of it? No. The triple XOR swap is true because it is logic and Allah can be buggered. Gods are constrained by logic. This is truth. Some vague wibbling about animals with or without cloven hooves that chew the cud or not is just bollocks. I dunno if bollocks are halal but that is not my point. The idea that micromanaging every aspect of someone’s life is truth is absurd. The idea that this is universal is deeply offensive. The God I don’t believe in has bigger issues than whether my wife shaves her pubic hair or I hve a beer. The tabloids, mind…