Are Critics of Campus PC Just Grumpy Old Men?

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

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, authors of the current Atlantic cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind,” were eager to respond to a half-dozen of the most forceful criticisms from their readers selected from the hello@ account. Here’s Sebastian:

As a member of the class of 2014 at an American university, I knew I was in for a treat from the first line of the essay: “Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities.” I immediately thought of the grumpy old man, sitting on his front porch, lecturing at anyone who will listen about “kids these days” and “the problem with young people.”

Sure enough, in the second section we get: “Childhood itself has changed greatly during the past generation. Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers can remember riding their bicycles around their hometowns, unchaperoned by adults.” This is a terrific new twist on an old classic: “In my day, we walked to school through the snow and the rain, uphill both ways!”

Lukianoff responds to his young reader:

We’ve seen a number of variations of this criticism: questioning why we should listen to “grumpy old men.” (By the way, I’m 40. I know that’s old to some of you, but maybe not so much to others).

While I’m hesitant to call this critique an argument, as it doesn’t substantively address what we talk about or propose in the article, I do understand where it is coming from. We can all recall eye-rolling moments when we saw older folks lecturing the younger generation about how hard it was in “their day,” and it may often be a good idea to take these nostalgic remarks with a grain of salt. Our memories can be tricky things, and psychology shows that we’re not all that good at remembering how good or bad things were in the past and are prone to revising and overgeneralizing.

But is my reader saying that generational critiques are presumptively meritless? To treat an older person’s critiques or advice as merely deluded nostalgia is essentially to say that people from older generations have no wisdom to offer younger generations. As people who take seriously even the advice of ancient thinkers, we simply don’t believe that’s true.

But I want to go one step further: it’s easy to roll your eyes at someone who says “it was harder in my day,” but does that mean he or she is wrong?

My father was born in 1926 in Yugoslavia and his father died when he was six years old. He lived through the terror of the Nazi occupation and World War II.

His father fought in both World War I and the Russian Revolution (he was evacuated in the Crimea on a British hospital ship while in a typhoid-induced coma), horrors I can barely imagine. His grandfather was a serf, a piece of owned property living in what would today be considered the grossest poverty. And they did all of this without media to distract them, without antidepressants, and even without aspirin or penicillin.

My point is that it’s pretty likely that your grandmother and grandfather, like mine, did in fact have it a lot harder than you do, and they learned a lot from those challenges. They lived in the daily presence of disease, death, back-breaking labor, and violence, whereas we live in what scholars like Steven Pinker have called the most peaceful and nonviolent period in human history. As a result, your grandmother and grandfather would likely see colleges’ efforts to protect students from offensive or disturbing content as not only an unnecessary luxury, but also harmful, as they know full well that they and those who came before them learned from the challenges they faced.

Growing abundance and comfort are undoubtedly good things, but they do come with consequences. These consequences are what I call “problems of comfort,” an idea I elaborate on in my short book Freedom From Speech. For example, political polarization is a “problem of comfort,” as it is the product of societal improvements like increased mobility, which has allowed people to move to like-minded neighborhoods, and availability of media, which allows people to get their information from news sources tailored to fit their preexisting worldviews.

Similarly, political correctness and the new “vindictive protectiveness” we discuss in the article arose from a good thing: a desire to be more sensitive, particularly towards the vulnerable. What we are examining in the article is whether these well-intentioned efforts have created their own problems: increased anxiety, depression, and an inability to entertain opposing viewpoints.

To say that progress does not sometimes create new problems is to be blind to history. And examining history and where these new problems came from so we can remedy them is why it can be valuable to listen to the “grumpy old man.” Indeed, that’s a piece of wisdom your grandmother probably could’ve told you.

Sebastian then wrote, unrelated to Lukianoff’s reply:

If you try to think about the history of our species as whole, it does not take long to come to the realization that the overwhelming majority of human life is a cry for help that no one hears. It is war, slavery, and genocide. It is massive and entrenched and unending. It is a cry made by a voice that, yes, is very often emotional, irrational, overgeneralizing, and catastrophizing.

That is the Real Problem. We too often forget it. If young people are more tuned in to the unfathomable suffering going on each day, if we are quicker to remind each other of that suffering, if we have not yet become callous to that suffering, then that is a good thing, and I really hope no young people lose that instinct after reading “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Because, in case you can’t remember what it feels like to grow up in this world, it’s pretty painful and discouraging. It is the pain of growing up to learn about the patterns of oppression in the world and then experience them, experience young people like ourselves reincarnating the ancient hatreds. It was our collective heart breaking for the first time when we heard the Yale fraternity members walking through the streets chanting “No means Yes, Yes Means Anal!” It was the death of our dreams to realize that millions of Redskins fans gleefully chant a racial slur that invaders used to describe the victims of their genocide.

Mr. Lukianoff and Mr. Haidt, it is condescending, patronizing, and insulting to compare the collective suffering and anxieties of all young people to the irrational fear of elevators. To many, the fear is not misplaced. The suspicion is justified. The dangers in this world are very real, and I do not see how your article or the cause behind it will do anything to remedy that.

There’s quite of chasm between the “ancient hatreds” of “war, slavery, and genocide” and the reprehensible chanting of frat boys or the name of a sports team. There’s something really troubling about invoking them so tightly together.

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