Are Professors Being the Oversensitive Ones?

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

Atlantic reader Adam Needelman agrees with the sentiment of the previous reader who called Lukianoff and Haidt “grumpy old men”; he calls their essay “a lazy rehash of the same cyclical generation bashing we get every ten years.” He also sees a double standard:

The section of the essay hyperventilating about trigger warnings complains of a “chilling effect” on “teaching and pedagogy.” It fails to mention that chilling effects are incumbent on the cowardice of those being chilled. Why is it that when professors so fear criticism that they choose to compromise on their principles and job performances, it’s not discussed as being too thin-skinned, but when students fear offense, it is?

Furthermore, why is it when Jerry Seinfeld essentially says “I am a grown man and professional comedian, but I will not perform at colleges because I am worried the kids may be mean to me,” we call the kids thin-skinned, but not the man deathly afraid of criticism? Could it be because we have emotional attachment to the idea of younger people being more thin-skinned?

Haidt responds first:

Mr. Needelman asserts that what the faculty fears is being criticized. It is not. It is being brought up on charges before the university’s Equal Opportunity Commission, or some other internal body that is charged with investigating all student complaints.

Under the 2013 Department of Education revised guidelines that we describe in the article, any student who deems what a professor says to be “unwelcome” can file harassment charges. These charges must be adjudicated by some body created by the university. This adjudication forces the professor to spend dozens of hours to write defenses, sit through testimony, and respond to official emails. It is a nightmare and a time drain dropped into a busy semester.

See what happened to Laura Kipnis. This happened to me too, in a more abbreviated form. I am now gun-shy; I am afraid of offending the most sensitive student that I can imagine, and so I am now a more cautious, less spontaneous, and less interesting teacher.

Lukianoff responds at even greater length:

Being concerned about some negative trends resulting from decisions made by educators and parents over the past couple decades doesn’t sound like to me like “generation bashing,” as the reader put it. Jon and I are concerned that society is telling students that they are far more fragile than they actually are, and we believe that is not only harming their mental health, but also selling them short.

As for our “hyperventilating about trigger warnings,” our argument is that trigger warnings do not necessarily help the people they claim to help, people who suffer from PTSD, and might put professors in a position where they have to fear for their jobs if they cannot live up to the impossible task of predicting everything a student might claim is offensive and warrants a trigger warning.

He goes on to cite many examples of professors facing much more than just hurt feelings:

In the article we cite a letter written by seven humanities professors who said their colleagues were being called on by administrators investigating student complaints that they had included “triggering” material in their courses, with or without trigger warnings. The professors’ main concern was that professors couldn’t possibly anticipate everything that might upset students, no matter how many warnings they administered or how they adjusted their course materials.

If Mr. Needelman is saying that professors should be able to handle criticism, I absolutely agree. But it’s not mere criticism these professors fear. They aren’t worried about getting their feelings hurt; they fear for their jobs.

This is not an irrational, hypothetical fear. In hundreds of cases I have seen in my work, dozens of which are recounted in my book Unlearning Liberty, I’ve seen professors get in trouble for clearly protected speech related to the content of their courses. They’re not being paranoid to be concerned about the consequences of offending.

In 2011, University of Denver professor Arthur Gilbert was suspended and found guilty of sexual harassment after two anonymous students filed complaints about the sexualized nature of his course on the history of America’s drug wars, a course that quite explicitly included several sections on taboo sexual themes.

And just last week, Alice Dreger resigned her professorship at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, citing continuing censorship by the University, specifically its ongoing censorship of the faculty-produced medical journal Atrium, of which Dreger is an editor. These are just a couple of the cases I’ve seen where professors had to worry about their job security after engaging in clearly protected speech.

As for Mr. Needelman’s recharacterization of what Jerry Seinfeld said about performing on campuses, I think he’s missing the crux of the argument Seinfeld and his fellow comedians are making. I am an executive producer of an upcoming documentary called Can We Take Joke?, in which we interview a half-dozen major comedians about the problems comedy faces on campus and in general. The comedians who say they don’t want to play campuses are not saying that they’re afraid of going on campus— they’re saying it’s a pretty lame experience because students are so quick to claim offense.

As Chris Rock said in a 2014 interview, “This is not as much fun as it used to be.” I don’t think Chris Rock is afraid of anyone, but if you’re getting the impression that some students will intentionally misinterpret your jokes and not even allow you to be, as Rock says, “offensive on your way to being inoffensive,” we should consider what kind of environment we’ve created.

Can you imagine Chris Rock doing a comedy bit like the following one on a college campus today? (NSFW, because Chris Rock):

Want the last word here? Email and I’ll update the post with your best counterpoints. And to keep track of the whole ongoing debate on the new campus P.C., head here.