Greg Lukianoff was preoccupied with political polarization—not just the divisiveness he observed, but the fallout—and specifically the effects of tribalism on college campuses. The year was 2015.
“It is a very serious problem for any democracy,” he and his co-author Jonathan Haidt wrote in a cover story for The Atlantic that year. “As each side increasingly demonizes the other, compromise becomes more difficult … So it’s not hard to imagine why students arriving on campus today might be more desirous of protection and more hostile toward ideological opponents than in generations past.”
In that story, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Lukianoff, a First Amendment lawyer and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, observed that “in the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like,” and argued that capitulating to requests to banish certain ideas from classrooms and campus events would likely increase student anxiety and depression, rather than ameliorate it.
Three years later, political polarization has only increased, as has anxiety among young people. And unrest on college campuses continues. “Everything’s speeding up,” Lukianoff says. Haidt and Lukianoff recently published a book, also titled The Coddling of the American Mind, where they go into more detail about the three “Great Untruths” they believe are behind free-speech controversies at America’s universities:
- “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” or the idea that exposure to offensive or difficult ideas is traumatic
- “Always trust your feelings,” or the notion that feeling upset by an idea is a reason to discount it
- “Us versus them,” or homogenous tribal thinking that leads people to shame those whose views fall outside that of their group
I spoke to Lukianoff about what’s changed since the publication of his Atlantic cover story, how parenting contributes to students’ expectations for their education, and the increasingly blurred lines between engaging with ideas and endorsing them. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Julie Beck: When you first published “The Coddling of the American Mind” as a magazine piece, did you get different reactions from students, from professors, and from the lay public not currently enrolled or working at universities?
Greg Lukianoff: Definitely. Since we were talking about topics that are very dearly held by some students, trigger warnings in particular. Trigger warnings produced the strongest reaction in the entire article. We were kind of expecting a reaction more like what I’ve seen on campus, some amount of “very interesting,” and a very large backlash.
Instead what we got, to our surprise and delight, was mostly a really good conversation. There were definitely people who disagreed with us, there’s always name-calling, but overall it was actually a really good discussion. We only really noticed the discussion starting to change around the protests in late 2015, which began after the article came out.
The protests were usually on racial-justice issues. One of the ones that got the most attention was at the University of Missouri. The first we noticed at FIRE was at Wesleyan. That was a case in which a student wrote an article that was critical of some of the tactics and positions of Black Lives Matter. And that led to demands that the newspaper, the Wesleyan Argus, stop receiving funding. Those protests, for those of us who defend free speech for a living, were a mixed bag. On the one hand we were like, this is great, students are overcoming their reputation for apathy, they’re getting out there and protesting for ideas they believe in. But at the same time, a lot of times they were calling for administrators and professors to be fired for what they said, in some cases for very clearly protected speech. That puts the free-speech defender in a little bit of a difficult situation.
Beck: In the three years since the article, how have you seen free-speech issues on campus evolve?
Lukianoff: I’d say everything’s speeding up. I usually describe my career as a bunch of trends. The first trend is, from about 2001 to 2011, the main thing we were fighting and trying to push back against was administrative censorship. I say over and over again, the students were always the best constituency for free speech. After 2011, and reaching a peak around 2013, the Department of Education started giving guidance that was really vague and broad. They stated that harassment happens any time you experience unwelcome speech of a sexual nature. In the case of that 2013 blueprint, they took out the requirement that it be something that a reasonable person would find offensive. Phase three was when we started noticing the trends that led me to talk to Jon Haidt—a sudden, seemingly overnight rise in what I call student illiberalism. And that was a real shock to us at FIRE. We like defending students. But if what you’re trying to do is shout down a speaker or prevent someone you disagree with from even coming to your campus, that’s not compatible with what higher education is supposed to be like. We wrote the article in 2015 partially in response to that.
In the second half of 2015, you started seeing the big campus protests. Then you have two additional phases after that. One is the first time I’ve ever seen violence on a campus in response to a speaker, at least in my career. That was the riots a couple weeks after the inauguration in Berkeley, where Milo Yiannopoulos had been scheduled to speak. That was unlike anything I’d seen.
The most recent phase we’ve seen on campus is more liberal professors getting in trouble for what they say, sometimes in class, sometimes online. It’s not as if we’d never seen cases like this; it’s just that it sped up a lot in the past year or two. One of the big cases that is still unresolved is Lisa Durden. She was a professor at a school in New Jersey; she went on Fox News to defend a decision by a club to have a Black Lives Matter party that was African American–only. She went on Tucker Carlson [Tonight] to argue with him about whether they should be allowed to have it. And in response the school fired Lisa Durden. Professors being disciplined is one thing. But a professor getting fired is a case that should get everybody paying attention. The echo chamber on one side of the spectrum is crashing into the echo chamber on the other side. And what it’s producing is pretty ugly.
Beck: In the book, you list several different cultural forces that have moved university culture in this more cautious direction. One of those, as you write in the intro to the book, is that this shift is really more a result of adults’ attitudes and behaviors than that of students. How do you think changes in parenting culture play into students’ eventual attitudes toward their education?
Lukianoff: The first and most important change to me is one that few people have a great deal of control over. That’s simply where we all decided to move. I was very affected by some of the insight in the book The Big Sort, about how we’re increasingly moving to like-minded counties. We’re actually literally grouping together in tight communities that are more politically homogeneous. Add to that social media, which pats you on the back for creating a particularly efficient echo chamber. So some of these trends are much bigger than the parents themselves.
Part of the problem is the unforeseen result of helicopter parenting. If you schedule your children from 6 a.m. to when they go to bed, yes, it can make a perfect heat-seeking missile directed right at Harvard or Stanford, but it can undermine students’ sense of autonomy. It can undermine their sense of competence. And that's unfortunately a really effective formula for anxious and depressed kids. And the more anxious campuses become, the harder it is to actually sustain tolerance for outsiders and dialogue.
Beck: In both the magazine article and the book, you write that the sorts of thinking getting promoted on campuses would lead to anxiety and depression, and I feel like I sometimes see anxiety used as a reason to request some accommodations in the classroom, whether that’s content warnings or kids requesting not to do in-class presentations for anxiety reasons. I’m interested to know what accommodations, if any, you think are reasonable in the classroom for someone with clinical anxiety.
Lukianoff: It’s kind of funny because contrary to the stereotypes people have of the argument we were making, I actually think we’re not taking the mental-health issues seriously enough. If you really mean someone’s going to have a medical event in a classroom due to PTSD, you’re not doing enough for them if you’re going to have a content warning. You need to take your mental-health situation much more seriously than that. The one study that's been done about content warnings is not conclusive, but it showed that they increased anxiety. In the name of mental health, we’ve done a number of things that make mental-health outcomes actually worse.
Beck: Another cultural force you wrote about was the fact that higher education is a very big business in America—the sticker price at several universities has surpassed $70,000. When students are paying that much for their education, do you think that empowers them to feel they should have a hand in shaping the content of what they’re paying for?
Lukianoff: In my experience, the thing that really motivates a lot of the behavior you see by administrations on campus is concern about lawsuits, and concern about federal regulation, and a lot less of “the customer is always right.” Market power only really becomes strong if the institution that you’re paying $60,000 a year to attend cannot just find another person to pay $60,000. You don’t actually have all that much market power at these highly exclusive universities. What they are afraid of is lawsuits, of getting bad reputations that really chill the big donors.
Beck: How is this business mind-set changing the role of professors and administrators at schools?
Lukianoff: I think that most of them think they’re totally fine and they can’t imagine ever getting in trouble for what they say. A sad thing is that I’ve heard this from professors, and two years later I’m working with them on a case. There are students from both the right and left who think you can and should be fired for opinions expressed, either in class, online, or in your academic papers. Professors have to be worried about not just outrage mobs, but also that when it comes to deciding between the professor’s future at the university and the outrage mob, that the university president or the administration might not have your back.
Beck: You write that disinvitations for speakers on college campuses have been on the rise since around 2009, and FIRE actually keeps a database of those incidents. What have you learned from tracking that over the years?
Lukianoff: A couple things. One, it does seem as though disinvitation efforts have increased over the years. Another is that while it has tended to be evenly split between conservative objectors coming from off campus, and students and professors on campus, it’s now leaning a lot more, unfortunately, toward liberal forces on campus wanting people to be disinvited. But probably the most interesting thing about the disinvitation database is a little more meta. Some cases absolutely do look exactly like the sort of archetypical situation of a fight of political correctness versus a professor, or student. And others look like the stereotype from the other side where it’s essentially a more liberal-leaning professor or student getting in trouble because more conservative forces want that person be in trouble. But there’s a big middle in there that gets very, very little attention because it doesn’t fit a culture-war narrative. The pattern is generally just that someone in the administration doesn’t like what you have to say, doesn’t like the student newspaper. This is as old as power itself.
Beck: So most of the cases coming into FIRE are not students advocating against a professor, or a university, to get someone fired, but more often the power structures in the university working against student speech?
Lukianoff: It depends on the year, but I’m pretty sure it’s a safe bet to say a lot of the cases we get don’t conform to most people’s stereotypes of what cases actually look like.
Beck: I feel like the “to invite or not to invite” question has been more in the news in the past couple of years than ever. There was a recent dustup over Steve Bannon being invited to the New Yorker festival and another festival put on by The Economist—The New Yorker disinvited him and The Economist didn’t. Do you think this invitation-backlash-disinvitation controversy loop is something that has leaked off of campus and into other realms of public discourse, or has this always been a broader issue outside of colleges?
Lukianoff: I’m sure festivals have always gotten cold feet about inviting speakers for one reason or another. But the blurred distinction between endorsing what someone has to say and having them come and do an interview, I think that’s something I saw mostly on campuses first, and now I’m also seeing it outside of campuses. My fellow First Amendment lawyers, of course, the first thing they said was, of course The New Yorker can invite whomever the hell they want and disinvite whomever the hell they want. They’re not bound by the First Amendment. They’re not a university. They don’t have any special obligation. While that’s legally true, I do think it shows a kind of misunderstanding of what the point of interviews are, what the point of journalism is.
The argument was, this is a man with marginal beliefs and we shouldn’t give him a platform, and that makes sense, if you’re talking about someone who’s a truly marginal figure. But I think that people were kind of in denial that they were talking about someone who was, for a while, arguably the second-most-powerful person in the White House. I think sometimes we think too much in terms of the battle for truth—the old kind of idea that free speech is all about figuring out what the objective, Platonic form of the truth is. And if you frame it that way, you’re bound to be disappointed. But if you frame it in a much humbler and simpler way, as an ongoing effort to understand the world in which you actually live, that changes the answer to the question of, should you listen to someone who’s highly influential in a movement that you may really, really dislike? Of course, if you want to know what the world actually looks like.