What’s old is new again: Digital tar and feathers


Two young school children in a school in Shanghai perform a skit denouncing Madam Mao, Jiang Qing, after the arrest of the Gang of Four, 1977.

The religion professor began his Introduction to the New Testament section by holding up and describing the textbook the class would use. He declared it a thoroughly researched, well-regarded scholarly work, a leading textbook in the field, etc., etc. He himself was one of the authors. After extolling his work’s virtues, he held up a copy of the Bible, saying, “And this?” Then he ceremoniously dropped it into the waste basket.

I did not witness this bit of academic theater, but a close friend did over 40 years ago. It was at a Baptist university, too. If the professor shocked freshman naifs straight from First Baptist Church, Anytown, USA, that was the point. This wasn’t Sunday school. Students would be learning things from scholars that would challenge the comfortable theology they had brought with them from home. In the university, they would be asked to “put away childish things,” as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13. There was no “trigger warning.” Students survived without fleeing to the security of the nearest campus “safe space.” If they wanted that, Bob Jones University was right down the road.

In September’s Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt examine how the embrace of “emotional reasoning” in higher education today “presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.” Instead of challenging them and preparing them to fend for themselves intellectually and emotionally, the notion that “words can be forms of violence” may, the authors argue, be “teaching students to think pathologically.”

This is the opposite of how cognitive behavioral therapy works to minimize distorted thinking that leads to depression and anxiety. The object is to teach coping mechanisms, to desensitize patients to what today are called “triggers”:

Therapy often involves talking yourself down from the idea that each of your emotional responses represents something true or important.

Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.

Sorry, Socrates. Your methods are upsetting the students. Lukianoff and Haidt beat me to it:

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.

This seems like the cognitive corollary to the notion that raising children in an environment that is overly hygienic can actually be harmful to health. Playing in dirt builds immunity. But as mankind moved from the farm to an urban environment, less exposure at an early age to microbes and microflora has weakened our immune systems. Now universities seem intent on fostering a sanitized, “bubble boy” intellectual environment free of “microaggressions,” and one that reinforces hypersensitivity and hypervigilance.

Lukianoff and Haidt continue:

Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on “blaming the victim,” it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity. The thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to what Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor at this magazine, calls the “offendedness sweepstakes,” in which opposing parties use claims of offense as cudgels. In the process, the bar for what we consider unacceptable speech is lowered further and further.


Surely people make subtle or thinly veiled racist or sexist remarks on college campuses, and it is right for students to raise questions and initiate discussions about such cases. But the increased focus on microaggressions coupled with the endorsement of emotional reasoning is a formula for a constant state of outrage, even toward well-meaning speakers trying to engage in genuine discussion.

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?

It took years of decades of the Southern Strategy and years of conservative talk radio and Fox News to inculcate a constant state of outrage on the right. On campus, academia has accomplished that seemingly overnight.

These fashions come and go like “Satanic ritual abuse” panics and suction-cupped “Baby on Board” signs in car windows. The corporate world has seen its share: team-building sessions, personality profiling, mission statement workshops, etc. In education, it’s the same. I asked a relation who retired after years in public schools how she had coped with educational fads. “We just tried to ignore them and eventually they would go away.” Yet Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that cognitive distortions (they list several) are not so fleeting.

But the creepier part of this trend Lukianoff and Haidt only hint at is the digital tarring and feathering of alleged offenders you can see any day on social media by online mobs. Faculty must worry that their careers can be ruined over some real or imagined offense for which there is no response except to make public obeisance. Callout culture works like that, or #BowDownBernie.

My last semester as an undergraduate, I took a course in Chinese history. Mao had just died. The Cultural Revolution had just ended. I bought a subscription to China Pictorial, one of their propaganda magazines. It was filled with scenes of happy, smiling, air-brushed faces of cadre members merrily harvesting crops, performing in stadium-sized flag routines, and sitting around the commune sternly engaging in daily self-criticism and ritually denouncing counter-revolutionaries Madam Mao, Lin Biao, and the Gang of Four for crimes against the people’s revolution.

It was creepy to me then. It’s creepy now.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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