Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Safetyism

"Is Safetyism Destroying a Generation?" asks a reviewer of Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s new book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Haidt recently told an interviewer that he dislikes the title of the book and that the subtitle more accurately describes what it is about.
Haidt and Lukianoff focus on the unintended consequences of safetyism – the idea that people are weak and should be protected, rather than exposed, to challenges. Safety culture has the best of intentions: protect kids from danger. It began with a focus on physical safety – removing sharp objects and choke hazards, requiring child seats, and not letting children walk home alone. Safety, however, has experienced substantial concept creep. It now includes emotional safety, that is, not being exposed ideas that could cause psychological distress. Taken together, the focus on physical and mental safety makes young people weaker.

Humans are what author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls ‘antifragile’. We ‘benefit from shocks; [humans] thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty’. ....

Antifragility applies to emotional health as well. When you guard children against every possible risk – do not let them outside to play or walk home alone – they exaggerate the fear of such situations and fail to develop resilience and coping skills. Stresses are necessary to learn, adapt and grow. Without movement, our muscles and joints grow weak. Without varied life experiences, our minds do not know how to cope with day-to-day stressors. Measures designed to protect children and students are backfiring. Fragility is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think certain ideas are dangerous, or are encouraged to do so by trigger warnings and safe spaces, you will be more anxious in the long run. Intellectual safety not only makes free and open debate impossible, it setting up a generation for more anxiety and depression.

Haidt and Lukianoff use an array of data that shows a shocking increase in American youth anxiety, depression, and suicide in the last five years, but particularly for young women. By 2016, one out of every five American girls met the criteria for having experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year – an increase of almost two-thirds over five years. There has also been an increase in male suicide by one-third, and female suicide has doubled since the early 2000s, reaching the highest recorded since 1981.....

Safety culture undermines the entire purpose of a higher education. Universities exist to challenge students, to expand their worldview and develop their critical thinking. This is done by hearing and responding to ideas that make us feel uncomfortable. Efforts to censor speakers because they make some people feel ‘unsafe’ prevents the necessary process of argument and counter-argument in the pursuit of finding the truth. .... [more]