Go Trigger Yourself: A Few Brief Thoughts on “The Coddling of the American Mind”

Trigger warning: I’m going to discuss the September 2015 The Atlantic article on “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. If you’re narcissistic and self-righteous, this may wound you.

To begin with, the article asserts that political correctness in the ’80s and ’90s was rooted in a demand for diversity; today’s is more about coddling and protecting people from harsh truths. It’s also borne out of technology and unsafe groupthink, and Lukianoff and Haidt waste no time pointing out the way in which Facebook and other always-connected apps have damaged our personal growth. Gone is the sort of introspection that we used to find in meditation or therapy: “Therapy often involves talking yourself down from the idea that each of your emotional responses represents something true or important.”

Instead, we use the ease of online devices to talk ourselves up; we associate only with those who agree with us, and treat feeble thumbs-up icons as if they’re meaningful, instead of just another form of weighted bias. If anecdotal support led to idea superiority, then a Republican Facebook feed would long ago have disproved climate change. As the article points out, it’s also absurd to use your own sense of outrage or offense as a trump card in silencing others; after all, you can *both* be offended, and if you truly both believe that matters, then this should create a never-ending spiral of apologies. (That this doesn’t occur signifies that what we actually believe is that our own sense of offense takes precedent over everybody else’s.)

There’s also the great rebuttal to trigger warnings: namely, that you don’t help someone get over their traumatic symptoms by enabling them to avoid that thing for the rest of their life. When you translate these cues to common phobias, it becomes obvious that exposure therapy–in which a person gradually, and in small doses, becomes able to do something that irrationally terrifies them–is key. And that’s what we’re taking away; presumably because the other side argues that their fears are *not* irrational. To that, I can say only: is there anything more irrational than the fear of an idea?

Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps this terrible trend extends beyond colleges, once a safe place for ideas and now only a sure place for repression, and we all shuffle about our daily lives afraid to really communicate with anyone with whom we’re not 100% convinced is on our side. Perhaps we all run about playing life’s equivalent of T-ball, getting a trophy for simply showing up and never striving to do any more than that. Perhaps, as befits our intellectual laziness, we invent technological devices that will literally help us to hold our own tongues so that we don’t have to. It should haunt you that the group most benefiting from trigger warnings right now is the Republican party, which has used its clout to get the AP US History Exam to pull back from its harsh critiques of early American colonialism–after all, who are we to trigger those of us who need to believe that we’re exceptional?

What I find most ironic is that there’s no pleasing people. If you speak calmly and hold your peace while speaking your piece, you’re accused of tone policing. In another context, those accusers are themselves accused of microaggresion. On pretty much every level of this real-world Inferno, someone is harassing someone else: you’re a misogynist if you’re a man who dares to disagree with a woman. As the article puts it, we’re getting to a point where we’re negatively filtering the world, looking for offense–and we can’t help but find it in that light. What that means, however, is that we’re missing all the positive things happening, and rather than discussing or coming together over the things that unite and elevate us, we’re ensuring that we all remain mired in the swamp made from the sweat of the small stuff.

Let’s really teach our students then–actually teach them–how to think. For themselves, that is, and not within the narrow boxes of pre-diagnosed disorders that need to be catered to. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t all stop working on ourselves–there’s no need for us to be antagonistic, or to victim-blame, or to assume that we bear no personal responsibility to another’s mental well-being–but that implies that we *all* need to work on ourselves, and that includes the person being offended, too.

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