When did we all get so sensitive?

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt recently wrote a stirring article in The Atlantic about the alleged culture of oversensitivity and emotional coddling at American universities. They write:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [political correctness], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

The authors conclude that this environment could be contributing to higher rates of depression and other emotional disorders in young people. That seemed too big a leap for me to take at face value — really, I need someone with a psychiatry degree to weigh in on that one — but Lukianoff and Haidt’s other points are believable and powerful. The most frightening implication for me is that this cultural movement is at odds with what institutions of higher education are supposed to be: forums for free expression and the open search for truth in whatever form.

I’ll admit, though it’s been more than a decade since I graduated from college (gulp), I’ve noticed this phenomenon in many other aspects of life in recent years. The most glaring example is social media; my Facebook newsfeed, it seems, is peppered by a steady stream of outrage over which politician said which insensitive thing, which policy constitutes a “war” on which demographic group, or simply which random stranger someone bumped into earlier in the day did something reprehensible. There is clearly an element of group-level validation here, something I’ve long felt but could never quite explain or articulate, but the authors capture it well:

A principle of moral psychology is that “morality binds and blinds.” Part of what we do when we make moral judgments is express allegiance to a team. But that can interfere with our ability to think critically. Acknowledging that the other side’s viewpoint has any merit is risky—your teammates may see you as a traitor.

What Lukianoff and Haidt are getting at is really at the heart of how the concept of truth is changing. Too often we enter conversations with others with a pre-determined allegiance, and let this steer how we see and describe what is true. The growing culture of hypersensitivity and outrage are part and parcel of this. The power to claim the other side as the aggressor and the moral offender — even when such claims are based on nothing — is a devastating weapon. It was perfected long ago by the politicians and the partisan radio and cable news hosts, who learned that publicly expressing outrage over even the most innocuous statements by one’s rivals can rally supporters and perpetuate the expedient illusion of “us versus them”. Now, that strategy seems fair game for the rest of us.

As a Baha’i I had somewhat conflicting thoughts as I read the authors’ description of the modern university environment. The first was that avoiding offending others — seemingly the underlying motivation for much of the burgeoning academic culture of sensitivity and intellectual caution — is very much part of being a Baha’i. Many Baha’is are familiar with the passage from Baha’u’llah: “A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding…” As I touched upon recently in another post, the obsession of some individuals with intentionally provocative speech as a demonstration of freedom and justice is antithetical to the spirit of our faith, as I see it.

Yet, even as the Baha’i teachings implore us to speak kindly to one another, they are equally strong in advocating the free expression of ideas in the search for truth. “The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions,” as Abdu’l-Baha put it.

Taken at face value, this presents us with a dilemma: If we are committed to the open exchange of ideas in the search for truth, isn’t it true that a natural consequence of that commitment is some ruffled feathers and hurt feelings? But in reality there is no conflict; honest and free discourse does not have to be adversarial, as is so often assumed. That’s because disagreements do not need to be personal. Human beings can and should consciously control their egos and tame their emotional reactions even during fierce debates.

The following is a passage from Abdul-Baha which makes this point, referencing his firsthand experience with Western democracy during his travels in Europe during the early 20th century.

In France I was present at a session of the senate, but the experience was not impressive. Parliamentary procedure should have for its object the attainment of the light of truth upon questions presented and not furnish a battleground for opposition and self-opinion. Antagonism and contradiction are unfortunate and always destructive to truth. In the parliamentary meeting mentioned, altercation and useless quibbling were frequent; the result, mostly confusion and turmoil; even in one instance a physical encounter took place between two members. It was not consultation but comedy.

The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion; for the light of reality becomes apparent when two opinions coincide. A spark is produced when flint and steel come together. Man should weigh his opinions with the utmost serenity, calmness and composure. Before expressing his own views he should carefully consider the views already advanced by others. If he finds that a previously expressed opinion is more true and worthy, he should accept it immediately and not willfully hold to an opinion of his own. By this excellent method he endeavors to arrive at unity and truth. Opposition and division are deplorable… Therefore, true consultation is spiritual conference in the attitude and atmosphere of love. Members must love each other in the spirit of fellowship in order that good results may be forthcoming. Love and fellowship are the foundation.

The contrast between the Baha’i vision of selfless, ego-effacing consultation and the university intellectual environment described by Lukianoff and Haidt is stark. Yet, the Baha’i approach is not too far from what the authors themselves propose. In advocating cognitive behavioral therapy as a way to break this pattern, they write:

By almost any definition, critical thinking requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis….

But, of course, subjective feelings are not always trustworthy guides; unrestrained, they can cause people to lash out at others who have done nothing wrong. Therapy often involves talking yourself down from the idea that each of your emotional responses represents something true or important.

This is, I think, the whole point of what is called “Baha’i consultation”. Debate ruled by emotional attachment to one’s own viewpoint is pointless. It not only fails the group in its mission to arrive at the truth, it creates an unnecessarily adversarial spirit and achieves nothing but disunity and hurt feelings. When we are hell-bent on getting our intellectual way, an honest conversation becomes nothing more than a tug of war determined only by intellectual brute force.

How we get to a more selfless, ego-free style of consultation as a society — one driven by genuine respect for the truth rather than personal agendas — can take many forms. Lukianoff and Haidt’s method is based on self-reflection and therapy, while the Baha’i one is grounded in prayer, meditation, and spirituality. Yet, their aims are very much the same, and even the methods have clear similarities. Regardless of how we get there, we all have a responsibility: not only to respect the views of others, but to remain cool and calm even when we feel our own views have been rejected. It’s in that environment where we’re most likely to see the spark of truth emerge.

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2 thoughts on “When did we all get so sensitive?

  1. Like you, I’m somewhat skeptical of some of the authors’ conclusions, especially the depression thing. This could be true, but I really don’t know.

    What I think is indisputable is that claiming offense has become a competition and, as you call it, “a weapon”. That not only dulls our conversations, it also clouds us from discerning where a genuine offense has happened.

  2. Here’s the core problem right here:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/arts/people-argue-just-to-win-scholars-assert.html?_r=0

    Consultation requires a _commitment to find the truth_. By _all parties involved_. And unfortunately, that is not the natural tendency.

    I honestly confess that as a Baha’i, I use consultation outside of the faith quite sparingly – with my wife, sometimes with the kids (always informally), and at work where _technical_ issues are involved. I certainly wouldn’t use it in the public sphere; thankfully, a vow to avoid political controversies have saved me from the temptations of plunging into the tarpit of online discourse in Facebook and Twitter.

    As far as “political correctness,” and people claiming to be victimized by it… it just so happens that occasionally the way you say something in fact tips your hand as to whether you enter a dialog seeking truth or just to score points against people you don’t like. It was well known that both Baha’ullah and Abdu’l-Baha were capable of patiently listening to men spout the most nonsensical hateful drivel, but I personally must avoid those dialogs until I get that sort of patience.

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