Saturday, August 15, 2015

Candy A___s

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.

I'm reacting to a piece in the Atlantic The Coddling of The American Mind.  The authors, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, make some points I agree with, but I think they go too far and they don't give full context for their arguments.  As I've written about these matters before, first in a post called Boundaries Are Always Harder to Define and then in a different post called Don't romanticize the past regarding how students dealt with threats of violence and disagreeable speech, I will content myself here with providing brief summaries of those arguments and raise a series of other points that authors should consider.

1.  We had our own paranoid delusions.  When I was in grade school in the 1960s, we had fire drills, which made sense, and shelter drills where you crawled under your desk, which made no sense whatsoever.  The risk of a nuclear bomb going off certainly seemed real enough.  That you could do much if anything ahead of time to mitigate its consequences surely was a flight of fancy.

2.  Students blocked invited speakers when I was in college (mid 1970s).  This is nothing new.  My memory here is not great, but I believe William Colby was invited to Cornell to speak right after he stepped down as Director of the CIA and his visit was blocked by the students.

3.  The authors ignore the impact of a specific event on Campus behavior - the shootings at Virginia Tech.  This traumatized all of us in Higher Ed.  One reaction to those shootings that may be sensible - every campus now has an electronic emergency alert system.  But many other reactions were contemplated, such as being able to lock classroom doors from the inside, or educating the students on escape routes from the classroom, and some of these may have even tried.    Given this backdrop, I found the example the authors used in the piece one where I agreed fully with the student and the subsequent decision by the UCF administration. You don't joke about killing people.  You just don't.

It should be no surprise that students are exhibiting similar sensitivity. At the University of Central Florida in 2013, for example, Hyung-il Jung, an accounting instructor, was suspended after a student reported that Jung had made a threatening comment during a review session. Jung explained to the Orlando Sentinel that the material he was reviewing was difficult, and he’d noticed the pained look on students’ faces, so he made a joke. “It looks like you guys are being slowly suffocated by these questions,” he recalled saying. “Am I on a killing spree or what?”

After the student reported Jung’s comment, a group of nearly 20 others e-mailed the UCF administration explaining that the comment had clearly been made in jest. Nevertheless, UCF suspended Jung from all university duties and demanded that he obtain written certification from a mental-health professional that he was “not a threat to [himself] or to the university community” before he would be allowed to return to campus.

4. More generally, there is a lot of insularity and lack of sensitivity as to what might makes others uncomfortable.  This happens among certain students as well as faculty and staff.  There is then the matter of what to do about it.  The part where I agree most with the authors is that outright bans on speech don't educate these people to make them more aware of how others react to what they say and do.  Indeed, the bans might create resentment where before there was only cluelessness. In my Boundaries essay, I came down against mandatory training because we don't do that well at all, but considered possible other efforts that would be more effective.  There is an argument to be made that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.  But that doesn't mean the disease doesn't exist.  It means we need to search for a better cure.

5. The authors make an argument about how victims of trauma learn to de-traumatize.  I thought that argument was incomplete.  What was left out is that the victim needs to control the pace of this learning.  That pace should not be thrust on the person involuntarily.

Finally, let me make this point about risk assessment and risk mitigation.  Most of us don't do it well at all for risks that are outside our ordinary range of experience.  It is natural to want to minimize such risks even if we end up exacerbating them in the process.  But perhaps we learn from the experience in a constructive way and then do it better in the future.  So the authors need to ask whether they are encouraging that learning to happen or trying to block it because they find the idea of speech bans so intolerable. What, then, comes next?

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