Notes
First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
Debating the New Campus PC
Show Description +

Readers tackle the Atlantic cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, who then respond to their critics at length. (Update: Here’s a related debate in Notes over the numerous campus protests sparked by students at Yale and Mizzou.)

Case Western Reserve

Earlier this week I noted a small dispatch from the campus PC wars that is very close to home: The Atlantic’s “Coddling of the American Mind” essay became part of the story itself when a professor at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) was investigated by his school’s Bias Report Team after using the essay to discuss the treatment of opposing viewpoints in the classroom. (I since discovered another meta anecdote: The Washington Post last month ran a photo-laden feature on “The New Language of Protest,” and the six terms addressed were: cultural appropriation, microaggression, safe space, trigger warning, starting the conversation, and … “responding to the charge that they are coddled.”)

Many readers have responded to the UNC incident by highlighting similar Bias Reporting Systems at their own colleges. Here’s Steve:

I’m an undergrad studying physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, and at my glorious institution we have our own “Bias Reporting System.” I have not heard much about its use, meaning that either it is seldom evoked or that the administration wily tries to keep incidents quiet.

But I almost had a brush with it when I published a letter to the editor of our student newspaper responding to an opinion piece entitled “Please Stop Talking.” I got on the bad sides of a few social activists by publishing my response.

Read On +

In our cover story last summer on the strengthening PC movements on college campuses, Haidt and Lukianoff noted an attempt by one student group to bureaucratize and punish certain kinds of speech:

In March [2015], the student government at Ithaca College, in upstate New York, went so far as to propose the creation of an anonymous microaggression-reporting system. Student sponsors envisioned some form of disciplinary action against “oppressors” engaged in belittling speech.

A post on Monday from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported that a microaggression-reporting system is actually now in place—at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), which calls it a “Bias Response” system. Then things got really meta for us at The Atlantic:

According to UNC documents obtained by Heat Street under Colorado’s Open Records Act, a professor asked his students to read The Atlantic’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” (co-authored by FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff).

Read On +
South Park Studios

If you’ve been following the latest—and best yet—season of South Park and its signature character, here’s a hilarious moment of life imitating art, flagged by a reader:

A professor at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), is at the center of an epic meltdown over an upcoming visit by conservative author Ben Shapiro. It all started when CSULA’s branch of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative youth organization, announced that Shapiro would be appearing Feb. 25 for a lecture title “When Diversity Becomes a Problem.” [...]

[The professor] became enmeshed in a long-running, extremely bitter argument with supporters of the event, both on-campus and off. In the process, he repeatedly accused his opponents of white supremacy, and at one point suggested they show up at CSULA’s campus gym for a fight. But they had best be careful before accepting the challenge, he warned, saying “I lift bro:”

The latest here.

One of the more unsympathetic responses to eating disorders is that the diseases’ sufferers are too sensitive, too self-absorbed. You’re creating problems where they don’t exist. Get over it.

In fact, that’s been the general tone of critics’ reactions to much of the campus trigger discussion, race, rape, and all.

A few of the responses from our readers to Monday’s post echoed that sentiment, but not all. Here’s one:

Read On +

The latest news in the ongoing saga of campus protests is yesterday’s resignation of Erika Christakis, the Yale lecturer whose Halloween email set in motion the major media narrative that merged with the Mizzou protests. This news provides a good excuse to take stock of the many unaired emails from Atlantic readers over the past few weeks. Here’s one quoting Sally Kohn’s recent piece:

“Indeed, what students from Yale to the University of Missouri and beyond are protesting is a pervasively one-sided definition of offensive behavior that these colleges and society in general still propagate.”

No. The students at Yale are protesting because a member of the staff [Christakis] had the poor judgment to suggest that students might be able to make more meaningful change, and grow more as human beings, by trying to resolve cultural differences through personal interaction rather than through top-down administrative action. Whether or not this belief is naive, it certainly doesn’t warrant physical threats, the loss of a job, or attempts to censor speech. The only one-sided standard being propagated is by the protesters.

Students at Missouri were protesting the unwillingness of the administration to treat claims of people saying mean/racial things as seriously as they might treat allegations of violent crimes like rape and assault. Their proposed remedies (the president should apologize for being a white man and resign, the school should hire disproportionately high numbers of black administrators, school should subsidize an expansion of “safe spaces” that allow minority students to nurse grievances unopposed, school should force indoctrination in “sensitivity” training designed exclusively by non whites, etc) are not the demands of some one seeking to tear down a double standard. They are the demands of those who desperately want a one-sided standard with which to bludgeon others.

Speaking of Missouri, here’s a reader addressing a recent piece from Adrienne on whether historically black colleges provide the “safe spaces” many students seek:

... but they appear less moved to ensure they serve as spaces that are inclusive for the students they work so hard to attract.

Exactly how was Mizzou not inclusive? No one ever provides any concrete examples. Heck, the student body president is a black gay man. The student body executive council is primarily black. The university has 600 different student organizations, including 27 that are categorized as “Minority.” I counted 14 different student groups that are for the direct benefit of black students only. And if a black student doesn’t see something he/she likes, they can start their own group. On the Mizzou website, there is a whole list of services and support information for black students only.

It seems that when people say “inclusive,” what they really mean is “a majority of people like me.”

Another reader gets literary:

There is historical (or rather, fictional) precedent to these current protests: Dostoevsky’s novel Demons. One glaring similarity is how the son of Stepan Verkhovensky, Pyotr, is far more radical than he is—much like how students today are seemingly more “progressive” than their professors (as evident at Yale). Stepan considers himself a good, liberal, enlightened man while Pyotr mocks him throughout the book for holding old views. Students are shouting down professors, spitting on those they disagree with, and demanding the resignations of those who do not fit their ideology. [Update: A reader provides solid pushback at the bottom of this note.]

This reader makes an appeal for perspective:

One thing that strikes me more than anything about these protests is the word “privilege.”

Read On +

In all our discussion of trigger warnings in college classrooms, I haven’t yet seen much mention of eating disorders or similarly contagious self-destructive behaviors. Frankly, these disorders are what I first think of when I see the much-maligned hashtags used to signal triggers. I recognize this is because of my background—as a white, upper middle-class young woman who hasn’t been personally affected by violence due to my family’s skin color and who instead has wrestled with an assortment of self-harm proclivities.

Though I’ve been stewing about this omission since the conversation started this summer, Katy Waldman’s piece out today on Slate gave me the nudge to address it. Waldman looks specifically at themes and examples of anorexia in classical literature, the stuff of many an English department syllabus:

Read On +

In the midst of the controversy at Wesleyan, the student newspaper at Middlebury College has published a heartening editorial inspired by last month’s cover story on college students seeking protection from words and ideas they don’t like.

Read On +
Christopher Ingraham / Washington Post

A reader flags this report from Christopher Ingraham, “apropos of your recent discussion on campus PC.” Here’s Ingraham on the latest flashpoint:

Students and staff members at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University are boycotting the school’s 147-year-old student newspaper and threatening to remove copies of the paper from campus after the paper published a student op-ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The op-ed, which appeared in the Wesleyan Argus last week, argued that the Black Lives Matter movement bears some responsibility for recent police killings and unrest in response to police shootings of unarmed black men. After some students objected to the op-ed, the paper published a front-page apology in the following issue, affirming its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, criticizing the op-ed’s “inaccurate statistics,” encouraging minority students to contribute to the paper, and resolving to publish “an issue of The Argus written entirely by students of color” in the near future.

But for the paper’s detractors, this wasn’t enough.

Read On +
Demonstrators attempt to enter the Oxford Union debating society on Feb. 5, 2015. Marine Le Pen was surrounded by security. (Alastair Grant / AP)

Another reader broadens the scope of our wide-ranging debate even further:

Campus PC is not a uniquely American problem. I am a 21-year-old American student currently attending one of the most “prestigious” universities in the UK. While trigger warnings are indeed prevalent in the UK (maybe not so much in the classroom, but rather online), the fight against provocative and inflammatory ideas and speech has taken the form of more direct censorship.  

A few examples spring to mind.

Read On +

In case you missed the season premiere of South Park on Wednesday, overshadowed by the three-hour GOP debate, it’s here—and it tackled the revived debate over political correctness, fueled by President Obama’s comments on Monday. My colleague Conor is also covering the topic with intensity. Meanwhile, your emails keep coming regarding our debate over Haidt and Lukianoff’s cover story from last month. Here’s the first of a few readers:

In my mind I see this as two parts. One is the airing of a grievance and the other is trying change the behavior and thinking of a privileged person. As one of those privileged people, I think “victimhood culture” is a lousy way of going about the second part. When you see someone like yourself being shamed publicly completely out of proportion to their offense, rather than politely (or even not so politely) corrected one on one, you have an negative reaction. And many of those privileged people become less inclined to engage on issues like race or gender at all.

Read On +
(Kristian Hammerstad / The Atlantic)

You might be getting tired of this long, rich discussion by now, but reader emails keep pouring in. Below is a final big roundup of email—which has been, on the whole, supportive of the story from Haidt and Lukianoff:

When citizens in a democratic republic like ours are more concerned about whether their speech will cause offense than they are about expressing ideas, they become incapable of fulfilling their obligations as citizens.  They refuse to hear, much less repeat and promote, important ideas for fear that a listener may take offense. Yet, it is precisely these types of ideas—ideas that are outrageous and upsetting when first expressed—that help to keep the Republic alive and free through continuous change.

Let’s be clear. The goal of speech code has nothing to do with feelings.  The goal is power—power to silence dissent and to force conformity and compliance.

Another reader is at his wit’s end:

I am in a graduate program of social work at a fairly “prestigious” university and this PC stuff is killing our education.

Read On +

Our reader Becky Liddle, the Toronto psychologist we quoted previously, also made this excellent point in her email:

Haidt and Lukianoff mention the rise in percentage of students on campus with mental health problems, but they do not mention that much of that rise is not necessarily from an increase in society but rather is largely due to the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act and other protections for students with disabilities has allowed more students with mental health issues to stay and succeed in college.

For example, professors are now required to make allowances (reasonable accommodations) for a student with Bipolar II Disorder who could not complete an assignment on time due to a depressive episode. In prior generations, that bipolar student likely would have flunked out. Nowadays he or she gets accommodation and remains on campus, boosting the percentage of students with mental health problems, but also boosting the chances of a good and productive life.

This rise is actually a good thing: It means we are educating, instead of discarding, students with mental health challenges

Another reader talks about her own personal trauma and her ability to overcome it with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the method championed by Haidt and Lukianoff:

I’ve read the original article (and discussed it at length with all my close friends) and I’ve read all of the Notes. The one titled “Trigger Warning: Another Post About Trigger Warnings” hit home. I am a 62-year-old survivor of domestic violence by my spouse.

Read On +
Contribute to Notes: hello@theatlantic.com
Most Popular On The Atlantic