The Atlantic on trigger warnings; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the war on reason

I mentioned a while back the cover story on The Atlantic magazine’s September issue, The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. (Haidt is the author of the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.) The essay is about the increased pervasiveness of “trigger warnings” on college campuses – advance notices to students about subjects to be discussed, e.g. incidents in novels involving sexual misconduct or racism, so that students can steel themselves as necessary, or at worst case, excuse themselves to avoid any possibility of being offended.

The editorial blurbs for this article characterize it as being a new kind of “political correctness”, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate. PC is most often cited by those who are annoyed they would get flack for offending or denigrating others, as if ordinary civility toward others, and polite nonaggression toward other points of view, amounted to a kind of socially imposed proper way to think, in Orwellian or Soviet terms. (Ironically, of course, those who resist “political correctness” are those most apt to claim exemption from criticism on the grounds of “sincerely held religious beliefs”.)

The issue at hand is something different. Yes, there are cases of women (or men) who have in fact been sexually assaulted, who find any allusion to such topics upsetting. But more often the demand for these “trigger warnings” seems to me a kind of “conservative resistance” to any ideas that might challenge the orthodoxies of these students, who are presumably in university to learn, but who wish to be shielded from anything that be contrary to their faithful worldview. At the extreme, it’s about the faithful who think it a crime for them to be offended – e.g. incidents by Muslims against Salman Rushdie or Charlie Hebdo.

But the article makes many interesting points, a few of which I’ll sample here.

The co-authors acknowledge:

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

And then they discuss changes in recent culture: how childhood has changed; how schools have become more conscious of safety; how culture has become more politically polarized.

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. This hostility, and the self-righteousness fueled by strong partisan emotions, can be expected to add force to any moral crusade. 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.

They discuss the “thinking cure”.

The goal is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately. You start by learning the names of the dozen or so most common cognitive distortions (such as overgeneralizing, discounting positives, and emotional reasoning; see the list at the bottom of this article). … The parallel to formal education is clear: cognitive behavioral therapy teaches good critical-thinking skills, the sort that educators have striven for so long to impart. 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.

This is a very long article from which I will quote only a couple more key points and conclusions.

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?

And they recommend:

Universities should also officially and strongly discourage trigger warnings. They should endorse the American Association of University Professors’ report on these warnings, which notes, “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” Professors should be free to use trigger warnings if they choose to do so, but by explicitly discouraging the practice, universities would help fortify the faculty against student requests for such warnings.

Not mentioned in the article, but obvious to me, is that the ultimate example of universities who shield their students from upsetting ideas are the religious colleges.


On a related note, the October 5th issue of Time Magazine has a “viewpoint” essay about the “war on reason” by none of than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Ignorance Vs. Reason in the War on Education. (The title in print is “American Students — and politicians — need to stop waging war on reason”.)

The ideas are familiar enough, but are notable coming from someone you wouldn’t think especially aligned with political debate or ideological issues. But his comments are spot on, and dovetail with the Atlantic essay detailed above.

The attack on education isn’t on training our youth for whatever careers they choose, it’s on teaching them to think logically in order to form opinions based on facts rather than on familial and social influences. This part of one’s education is about finding out who you are. It’s about becoming a happier person. It’s about being a responsible citizen. If you end up with all the same opinions you had before, then at least you can be confident that they are good ones because you’ve fairly examined all the options, not because you were too lazy or scared to question them. But you—all of us—need the process. Otherwise, you’re basically a zombie who wants to eat brains because you don’t want anyone else to think either.


That means this is a war on reason. And the generals leading the attack are mostly conservative politicians and pundits who have characterized our greatest thinkers as “elitists” who look down on everyone else. Uber-conservative William F. Buckley once said that he’d rather entrust the government to the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than to the faculty of Harvard University (he graduated from Yale). That’s a great sound bite that many would applaud as the triumph of street-level common sense over the egghead experts who are often viewed as impractical and removed, as if they didn’t share experiences in love and grief and raising children and paying mortgages.

And he identifies the biological and cultural culprits.

We seem hardwired to discard information that contradicts our beliefs. We have the Internet, the single most powerful information source and educational tool ever invented, but many of us use it only to confirm conclusions we didn’t arrive at through examining evidence. We go only to sites that agree with our position in order to arm ourselves with snippets that we can use as ammunition against those who disagree with us.

“The joy of college is arguing with others who are equally passionate and informed but disagree. It develops empathy for others and humility in yourself because you now will look upon your opponents not as evil idiots but as good people who want the same thing as you: a safe, loving, moral community.”

If you don’t want to read the books and develop the skills, don’t take the class. Don’t attend the college. Spend the rest of your life huddled among those who agree with you. But know that that is not thinking—it’s sleeping.

Of course this “war on reason” is fought by the ideological and religious because they know that if reason were accounted for and evidence acknowledged, their ideologies, beliefs, and faiths would be undermined.

This entry was posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Morality, Provisional Conclusions, Psychology, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.