Reporter's Notebook

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. (Here’s a subsequent debate in Notes over the numerous campus protests sparked by students at Yale and Mizzou.)

Show None Newer Notes

Laughing the Demons Out

Atlantic reader Bert Clere remembers one of the edgiest comedians of the early aughts:

When reading “The Coddling of the American Mind” and “That’s Not Funny!,” I kept thinking back to Borat and my experience at a small liberal arts college in NC, beginning in 2004.  Like many undergrads at the time, my friends and I used to watch Borat segments from The Ali G Show and quote them regularly.  When the Borat movie came out in 2006 it was an event; the only comedy film in my lifetime that had a genuine blockbuster aura.  Almost everyone I knew went to see it.  

We told ourselves, as did most of the media, that the appeal of Borat was the way in which he “showed up” the rotten underbelly of Bush’s Red State America.  But looking back, I think this misrepresented some of Borat’s core appeal.  

Greg Lukianoff sat down with our editor-in-chief to discuss the response he got from readers on the cover story he wrote with Jonathan Haidt:

Many references to your emails are strewn throughout. For example, at about the two-minute mark, Greg gets a tad emotional recalling the email we posted from Paula, who read a poem in class about a suicide from a tall building—the same method her sister used to kill herself. At about the 3-minute mark, Greg makes a point similar to one I remember last year from Jill Filipovic, a long-time editor of the left-liberal blog Feministe:

The world can be a desperately ugly place, especially for women. That feminist blogs try to carve out a little section of the world that is a teeny bit safer for their readers is a credit to many of those spaces.

Colleges, though, are not intellectual or emotional safe zones. Nor should they be. Trauma survivors need tools to manage their triggers and cope with every day life. Universities absolutely should prioritize their needs – by making sure that mental health care is adequately funded, widely available and destigmatized. But they do students no favors by pretending that every piece of potentially upsetting, triggering or even emotionally devastating content comes with a warning sign.

Amen. But back to our reader discussion with another dissenter, Zak Bickel, who runs through some previous critiques from readers:

Here’s some of my thoughts on the argument’s progression, and particularly on the most recent responses by Haidt.

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.

(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.

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).

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.