NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues we are witnessing an internal war over what in fact is a university’s core sacred value: is it truth? Or social justice? If it is the search for truth, free speech is essential. If it’s social justice, then the rising campus yen for censorship and silencing one’s opponents can be rationalized. So the academy is rapidly becoming the most dangerous place to speak in America.
Consider for example just one new phenomenon: the decision by college administrators to punish sports teams for the lewd speech of some individual members. Progressive elites once fought and destroyed sanctions on obscenity in the wider culture, re-defining naked dancing, along with visual and written pornography, as protected speech.
Yet Harvard’s entire men’s soccer team season was canceled last November because the men wrote a “scouting report” containing racy comments about the female soccer members, evaluating their sexual attractiveness. Men who did not speak were punished along with those who did, in order to create a new culture of peer pressure to punish those who spoke lewdly about women. At least at Harvard, there was some semblance that the “report” was an unofficial team tradition.
Just a week or so later, Columbia University suspended an entire male wrestling team because some members sent lewd and racist offensive group message texts to one another. It suspended the team, not after an investigation of the team’s involvement but before, banning them from participating in at least one meet, before ultimately deciding only to discipline those who had actually participated in the group messaging. (It does appear those merely receiving the message may also have been punished).
Whether complaining in crude language Columbia women are too unwilling to sleep with athletes subjects one to the same disciplinary procedures as speaking of some African-Americans as “nigs” was unfortunately not made clear by the university, at least according to media reports. Racist comments are clearly more serious than off-color ones, many of which are merely examples of randy young males being themselves.
Columbia’s wrestling coach, Zach Tanelli, said in a statement: “Not only do we demand that the harmful and offensive language end; we want Columbia wrestling to be a part of the solution toward cultural competency and systemic change.”
In a context in which women are encouraged to explore their sexuality loudly and openly and to accept no judgment, the current message colleges are sending students is not so much that civilization requires self-discipline with regard to sex as that male sexuality is uniquely deserving of punishment because it grosses out young women.
The persistent ethically incoherent attacks on masculinity, and the sense of unfairness in the application of freedom of sexual expression, are bound to continue to alienate young men from a culture of achievement—one of the academy’s and the culture’s biggest diversity problem–men who don’t work.
Punishing private communications as if they were public acts (including hacked private conversations) and punishing whole teams rather than the individuals, refusing to name exactly what expressions of sexual interest are now forbidden, punishing sexual expressions heard by almost every teenager on television and over the internet every day, –all these are extraordinary violations of norms of due process, creating a sexual culture that does not so much point male to female in a culture of civilized courtship as uniquely disparage male sexuality for not being female.
And here’s the really strange thing: students are demanding it, applauding it protesting for adult regulation of their student lives on the grounds that exposure to ideas that disturb them is a mental health hazard.
Harvard’s women athletes after initially brushing it off eventually signed a joint letter reported they are “appalled that female athletes who are told to feel empowered and proud of their abilities are so regularly reduced to a physical appearance.”
“We are going to punish people who make lewd comments about women,” Mariel Klein, president of Harvard Crimson approvingly told ESPN.
Even the team suspension did not satisfy the lust for punishing such terrible offenders: “Certainly possible…it’s very possible that…this practice would fall under sexual harassment so the Title IX office will be investigating that and that would include individual player,” Klein told ESPN.
Once legitimate concerns about sexual harassment or rape are now being channeled into disciplining private expressions of sexual interest (or concerns about women’s lack of interest) from male students—and with enough intensity that it overrides ordinary concerns about the due process rights. Social justice trumps individual justice.
This is an extraordinary regression by elites. Group punishment is the hallmark of traditional societies because it is quite effective. (Families were once punished for the transgression of any individual member in order to force the group to discipline its own members). It took a profound commitment that justice requires punishing the wrongdoer, not related friends and relatives, to override the obvious utility of group punishment.
Amherst College recently punished sports team members both as a group and as individuals too for online comments. The whole cross-country team was forced to forego two meets, with individuals separately punished by the loss of three meets or more—up to the total loss of eligibility for the rest of their enrollment in the school.
Why this regression to ancient means of social control? Are students so much more fragile today than they were 5 years ago 10 years, 15 years ago?
Some believe that is true. One real possibility is that rates of mental illness are rising. A wave of new data indicate that college mental health centers are receiving a new influx of requests for help from students. At Boston University for example, “Behavioral Medicine clinicians report that the number of students in crisis coming in for help has increased sharply—from 647 in the 2014–2015 academic year to 906 last year.”
A 2014 Penn State study found anxiety has surpassed depression as the leading mental health issue college students report. The American College Health Association’s 2015 National College Health Assessment survey reported that almost 16 % of college students had been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety. Almost 22 percent said anxiety in the last 12 months and almost 22 percent said anxiety had cost them a grade on an exam or project, or lead them to receive an incomplete or drop a course, up from about 18 percent in 2008.
Some blame helicopter parenting. Others look to social media.
“We have all become less able to tolerate ambiguity and the unknown due to the incredible technological advances we have seen,” says Carrie Landa, director of Behavioral Medicine at Student Health Services. “Immediacy is sometimes the antidote to anxiety: having to wait for anything—a text, an exam grade, ‘How am I going to do?’—all create anticipatory anxiety. Unfortunately, there are many things in life that aren’t quickly resolved and waiting is necessary.”
Technology is clearly playing a role in blurring the line between public and private, and in making students feel vulnerable to criticism. Rates of young people’s mental health generally are not showing sharp increases. A review of mental health among adolescents and young adults between 2000 and 2012 published in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded, “Mental health indicators changed little, except for a decrease in unhealthy methods of weight loss.”
If general increases in mental illness were responsible for the flooding increase in request for counseling services, we should see some increase at least in students entering college with mental health issues. Instead, a 2015 study of college students found that while the growth in the number of students seeking services at counseling centers (plus 30 percent) was more than five times the rate of increase in enrollment, “prevalence rates for prior mental health treatment have remained quite stable over the past five years,” albeit at high levels. “Although these rates are high and should be of concern, the stability of these indices suggest that the rates of prior treatment are not changing and therefore unlikely to be the cause of the increased demand for services.”
Instability in family life, economic problems, a sexual culture where young people experience frequent romantic loss (a risk factor for depression especially for women), reduced religious participation and a declining sense of a common culture may all contribute to relatively high rates of mental illness among young culture.
But something specific is happening on college campuses that is driving a huge increase of request by students for mental health services.
Haidt has pointed to a paper by scholars Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning describing how a culture of dignity is “now giving way to a new culture of victimhood, in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized.” The existence of the increasingly varied administrative bodies designed to resolve interpersonal conflicts is part of what creates this culture.
Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent, UK, also identifies a massive cultural shift on campus as the culprit. But unlike Haidt he sees the academy adopting a broader elite parental cultural value of “safety” as one of its highest moral ideals. “During recent decades, the parenting culture dominant in Western societies has found it increasingly difficult to encourage young people to take risks and develop the practices associated with independence and freedom. ….[T]he reversion to a paternalistic regime of higher education is underpinned by the prevailing mood in which safety has been transformed into a moral value.”
“We have all become less able to tolerate ambiguity and the unknown due to the incredible technological advances we have seen,” says Carrie Landa, director of Boston University’s Behavioral Medicine at Student Health Services. “Immediacy is sometimes the antidote to anxiety: having to wait for anything—a text, an exam grade, ‘How am I going to do?’—all create anticipatory anxiety. Unfortunately, there are many things in life that aren’t quickly resolved and waiting is necessary.”
Technology is clearly playing a role in blurring the line between public and private, and in making students feel vulnerable to criticism (if you take away porn and mean comments, the internet would shrink in sheer volume).
Rates of young people’s mental health generally are not showing sharp increases. A review of mental health among adolescents and young adults between 2000 and 2012 published in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded, “Mental health indicators changed little, except for a decrease in unhealthy methods of weight loss.” A study of self-reported health among adolescents in 32 Western countries found that youngsters. in the United States (like most other countries) were no more likely to report problems in 2010 than 2002.
Thus the helicopter parenting of minor children has led to the infantilization of young adults who are presumed to be able neither to endure nor to resolve disagreements prompted by emotional conflicts. It is a strange and potent combination of a culture of learned helplessness, where students are persistently directed both to experience troubling speech and other interpersonal interactions as intensely, painfully disabling, and therefore to seek the assistance of authority figures from counselors to administrators to protect themselves from emotional pain they cannot handle on their own.
So powerful does being offended by offensive speech make students feel that they (or occasionally their professor) manufacture offensive speech hoaxes in order to trigger a satisfying response to their concerns from those in power. (This College Fix list from 2014 predates the latest wave from anti-Trump hoaxers purporting to represent his followers’ views, for example, here.)
Campus life is producing and reinforcing students who feel exceptionally helpless, easily hurt, who rely on angry accusations and tearful breakdowns to motivate adult authorities to help them, without whom they are helpless to achieve. Surely many or most of these students will recover their capacity to cope when they enter a world where authority figures do not so richly encourage their learned emotional helplessness.