How Americans Became So Sensitive to Harm, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday I published an article on “concept creep” in the field of psychology, arguing that concepts like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice “now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before,” and that these expanded meanings reflect “an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm.” Drawing on a paper by Professor Nick Haslam, I echoed his assessment that the phenomena is sometimes a force for good and other times a source of major harms.

The article generated lots of discussion online and via email. A reader writes:

I found your discussion of “concept creep” fascinating. I wonder if there is a distinction to be drawn between “concept creep” and “remedy creep.”

For example, you discuss the mother who chews out her teenager and exclaims “I’m ashamed to be your mother.”  If our notions of parents and abuse expand or “creep” to include such an act as something we would condemn, then this would seem to be a good thing for society, as I’m sure you would agree.  If, however, it lands her in jail, then I think we’re talking about a different “creep”—i.e. one that prescribes a legal or administrative outcome as a solution to the new "harms" we are identifying as our notions of abuse expand. This concept—that legal and administrative actions can settle or solve our harms—seems to be intertwined with your discussion.

Pure concept creep might be a good thing—as you fully acknowledge and for which you provide examples in your article. Keeping with the above example, it is good for parents and children to understand that verbal abuse is as equally damaging as physical abuse. This shift in our collective understanding is positive—but it doesn't necessarily mean there is a legal or administrative change that needs to occur.

So when is a legal or administrative remedy appropriate to address concept creep?  In your driving example, it was certainly a good thing that the laws changed to require seat-belts. Taking the Bill Maher example, what if instead of being fired, he was just unfairly brow-beaten on Twitter and his audiences stopped watching him until his show was canceled. Are you ok with this result?  

In other words, is “concept creep” that leads to an unjust social punishment—though not a legal punishment—a bad thing?  Isn’t it just a reflection of public discourse on a particular subject?  Would you be ok with a sort of Darwinism in public discourse—as long as it stayed just that, discourse? This certainly has applications in the world of higher education.  

Another reader applies “concept creep” to race relations:

As Americans sort themselves into more and more ideological similar spaces in places of work, leisure, and worship, it seems likely that their concepts will continue to shift along with them, expanding to take in perceived harms of both the far left and the far right instead of consigning the perceptions of these groups to the margins. This can lead to concept-stretching to such a degree as to render words worse than meaningless, i.e. the word “racist” is used to encompass so many different possible thoughts, actions, and structural realities in different communities as to lead to deep confusion, misunderstanding, and often offense when discussing issues of race across communities. This is part of the reason—but only part—for why it is so difficult to discuss race in the U.S.

Another looks to semantics:

What’s being called concept creep is really a manifestation of something fundamental in how people use language. A concept typically includes a core and periphery of sorts—a core of what everyone agrees on and a periphery of fuzzy gray-area that usually expands slowly over time. It expands because people naturally connect the concept with more and more things that bear some kind of resemblance to the concept. Over time, if a concept becomes too broad it will cease to denote something specific enough and may get divided into sub-concepts.

My point? So many arguments (especially on the internet) go nowhere because people are just disagreeing about whether something should be “in” or “out” of the boundaries of a concept denoted by a word (like trauma, racism, etc.) often without even realizing they’re literally arguing semantics.

This reader invokes the downside of social media:

The danger of today’s informational environment is that what, in the times past, would have been heard by a mere handful of people and forgotten within minutes can be seen and heard by thousands or even millions, even months or years after the event. People have been denied promotion, subject to other forms of disadvantages, or even fired from jobs for stray remarks by themselves or others on social media about some relatively insignificant event. Various public entities who punish even trivial misbehavior by their employees harshly, in turn, do so because they are liable to suffer serious reputational losses with monetary consequences even for trivial events that might be taken out of context.

We can’t just ignore stray remarks as we did before. Bullets and fists can only break our bones, but words can do real harm, so to speak.

From reader Rebecca Trotter:

I suspect that the real driving force behind the pushback and alarm is that those who are abusive and/or sociopathic resent and are threatened by being asked to actually think about and make space for those who are subject to mistreatment. These people have made our culture their playground and are found across the political spectrum. They are often found in positions of power, simply because they have no qualms about stepping on others in order to obtain power. We, as a society, are very, very, very bad about recognizing and pushing back against these bad actors, leaving us very vulnerable to being manipulated by them.

Thus, for example, a professor who is abusive will respond to a request for trigger warnings by declaring that the request has made it impossible to teach a wide range of material for fear of offending someone … when in reality, that’s not what is happening at all.

A school administrator who is abusive/sociopathic will respond to a hunger strike by a graduate student protesting a well-documented and completely unaddressed atmosphere of racial hostility by claiming that the hunger striker is acting like a two-year-old who holds their breath in order to manipulate their parents.

Abusive/sociopathic people who are told that they are not welcome in a “safe place” will argue that their rights are being infringed upon and claim those who use safe spaces are nothing more than infantile, emotionally-deranged control freaks … when in reality, we are all excluded from various places for various reason all the time and those who use safe spaces are doing so for very valid, beneficial reasons.

An abuser/sociopath who is called out on their mistreatment of those who are not part of the dominant culture will of course declare that they are innocent, owing solely to their own internal experience of innocence, and use that as a weapon against those who dare to confront them over their poor/callous treatment of others.

This theory does not persuade me. The coalition pushing back against trigger warnings, “safe spaces,” and the microaggressions framework is mostly composed of outsiders, not professors and administrators who’ve personally run afoul of the concepts, or who are preemptively opposing them to preserve an ability to abuse. What’s more, most of the professors I’ve encountered who’ve pushed back against these concepts have long prior records of excellent relations with students. Finally, this would seem to presume an unreasonable number of abusers in academia.

From another reader, MW:

There is a much simpler approach understanding and reacting to the “dilemma” of “micro aggressions.” It starts with the fact that people generally no longer agree on what was once called “manners”—and people generally no longer agree on what are still called “morals”—except at the extremes, and even these extremes (rape) are not to be taken for granted. Manners once provided the means to avoid giving offence inadvertently.

Morals once defined a standard for harm. Without manners and morals, we are back to a state of nature when we are beyond the scope of law—and this is a state in which each affront is apt to end in conflict, to paraphrase Locke.

A psychologist weighs in:

I’ve observed this issue and struggled to walk the line you describe between an increased awareness of harmful circumstances (lead paint) and unwarranted fear resulting in a net loss (bike-riding to a friend’s house).

I would add that one contributor to these issues (which you touch on with the story about the “support turtle”) is the presence of bureaucracies that set policy and thereby make decisions for large numbers of people. The nature of a bureaucracy is that the policy must be written and largely inflexible. If I have a therapy client who needs help, our health care and insurance systems require specific findings related that individual’s psychological state and the need for services. This results in many people (who genuinely need help) being given a diagnosis that may not be quite appropriate. But over time, the definition may change (if not in writing, then in the minds of those providing and overseeing treatment).

Another reader brings up homophobia and how far we’ve come fighting it:

When I grew up, it was just fine to call gay people “faggots,” and the bullying of gay people was socially sanctioned. Thank god that’s not ok anymore. We as a culture are finally starting to recognize that LGBTQ people deserve the same respect and rights that non-LGBTQ people enjoy, and I could list so many other examples like this. I think we are on the right track as a culture with increased sensitivity—and that it will work itself out. I think the older people who grew up in a much less sensitive world have a lot to learn from the younger people trying to create a more just and equitable culture.

Another reader posted this comment on Reddit:

As a Liberal, this is particularly interesting to me, because what it functionally represents is the social pendulum reaching its turning point. We are about to swing back towards a more conservative understanding of social issues, and quite frankly, I think that’s a good thing—even as a Liberal.

Every social movement and/or political group is a poor policeman of itself. That is to say, we all have blind spots, prejudices, and yet even as we academically acknowledge the fact that virtually none of us are able to spot them without outside help, we all basically operate as though we have none. Liberals have been winning the culture war in America now for over 50 years—it is not entirely surprising to me that we may have finally gone too far. We have become paranoid about emotional harm to the point where we are now raising generations of people who are unable to cope with even the most basic of adverse conditions.

I myself am a victim of this, and I’ve explored it in depth in various ways. It is ugly. I am not happy with how sensitive I am regarding various issues, and I can trace it all back to how my parents worried and fretted over every little obstacle I encountered, to the point where they prevented me from ever learning to deal with negative feelings in a practical manner (i.e. do something about it).

We now have an entire generation of people who think that society ought to adapt to suit them, and who give virtually no thought to how impossible it is for society to suit everyone equally. We have taught them buzzwords for moral codes—which are genuinely good ideas—without asking them to think critically and pragmatically about them. Millennials (again, of which I am one) are definitely a generation of idealists—people who think society can be perfect, and more importantly, who feel betrayed that it isn’t. This is because of the expectations we were raised with, and the sheltered environments that protected us from realizing how much of a lie that was.

Why do we have so many college students making unrealistic demands of their teachers these days? Because they are used to having those demands met or at the very least validated and apologized for.

One of the hardest realizations of my life (one I still grapple with, quite honestly) was that my parents sold me a false version of reality, and that because I bought it, my expectations left me inevitably disappointed with what I encountered in adulthood. This is not my fault, nor is it entirely their fault; it simply is, and what it is is a very shitty situation.

Speaking of which, a final reader complains:

Both my support turtle and I are offended by this article and am seeking a lawyer to represent us for the emotional harm and suffering as a result. I used the printed version as a cage liner for my support turtle and he was so offended and hurt by this article that he withheld voiding for days until he finally centered in on the photo of Dick Cheney.