The more Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talk about denying Syrian refugees and undocumented immigrants entry into the United States, the more their poll numbers rise. On Monday, Trump went so far as to call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Meanwhile, protests have erupted on college campuses over discrimination as students feel isolated and unwelcome. The politics of exclusion have taken center stage in a national conversation—unfortunately, the pain of rejection may be all too real.
“Emotional pain can be as excruciating as physical pain,” wrote University of Toronto psychology professor Geoff MacDonald, in a chapter of the 2009 Cambridge Handbook of Personality Psychology titled “Social Pain and Hurt Feelings.” MacDonald is one of a growing number of researchers who believe the pain of hurt feelings may be as real and as serious as physical injury. That concept isn’t conventional wisdom or established scientific fact. Nevertheless, it is striking at a time when debate over free speech, political correctness, and who belongs in American society—and who doesn’t—has dominated the campaign trail and college campuses around the country.
Rejection plays a central role in that debate. Some conservatives have cheered Republican candidates for speaking their minds regardless of who takes offense. On college campuses, liberals and conservatives alike have protested the idea that universities should attach warning labels to subject matter that inflicts emotional pain. For many across the political spectrum, the underlying assumption is that hurt feelings are fairly trivial.