This article is more than 8 years old

It’s the children who are wrong

Jim Dickinson responds to Jonathan Haidt who argued at the weekend that “young people are demanding a censorship on campus that shuts down argument in a dangerous way”. Is he right?
This article is more than 8 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Another day, another commentator in the press bemoaning students for their weak, vulnerable millennial minds. From the old Revolutionary Communist Party to Peter Tatchell, it seems that everyone agrees that those of us that believe in making campuses less oppressive are the real oppressors.

The latest comes from international airport-book-psychologist Jonathan Haidt, arguing in The Observer that “young people are demanding a censorship on campus that shuts down argument in a dangerous way”. Is he right?

Unlike much of the safe space clickbait (designed of course to gleam hits from weak, vulnerable millennial minds) Haidt, at least, uses some academic theory to justify his arguments, but it ends like all the others do. Misrepresenting and taking out of context a demo about Donald Trump graffiti at a US university, he opines “too much safety is, ultimately, more dangerous than anything written in chalk”. Safe spaces mollycoddle. And students treated to them will never cope in the “real world”.

It matters not, of course, that the articles’ evidence base is always wafer thin (a shoebox collection of sombreros at UEA, Rhodes must fall, Halloween costumes, and that time Tatchell was “no platformed” when he still got to speak). It matters not that we can barely find a students’ union that has banned a speaker this year. What matters is that Haidt and his generation invented oppression and bullying and victimhood, and then cured it all – today’s students through “concept creep” don’t know they’re born, have never had it so good and are just taking it too far.

They all do it. Article after article does it. They infantilise BME students, belittle LGBT students, and mock victims of abuse, dismissing all of their complaints as “hypersensitivity.” For “moral psychologists” like Haidt, there’s no real debate to be had about trigger warnings or microaggressions. It’s all mollycoddling. But then they go further, downplaying the desire of student activists and university officials to accommodate students of backgrounds by making campuses less unpleasant. For people that tend to be so moralistic, their lack of empathy is extraordinary.

Don’t be a victim. In universities “there are two main sources of social prestige: being a victim or standing up for victims”. He goes on. “But victimhood cultures emerge in institutions that are already highly egalitarian … and in which there are authorities … that can be entreated to step in on the side of the victims”. See? “Lad culture” is life. “Date rape” is daft. The “BME attainment gap” is mythical, homophobia nonexistent, YikYak is just toilet jokes and universities always step in to protect.

An old, white, straight man doesn’t understand identity politics. Simpsons fans call this Skinner Syndrome. It’s the children who are wrong.

But the worst bit is his and others’ argument that it’s this “obsession” with “emotional reasoning” (as opposed to critical thinking) that has led to more and more students misdiagnosing their feelings as stress or mental illness. “Diluting concepts of harm,” he says “swells the ranks of people who are encouraged to see themselves as harmed, vulnerable and in need of protection,” sounding like everyone else that has ever looked at someone with anxiety or depression, scratched their head and called them “bonkers”.

When students stand up to low level sexism, want changes to overwhelmingly white curricula, want dressing up as black people banned and want games of “gay chicken” banned off busses, they’re not being overprotective of students – and given the abuse they get for it, they’re not being protective of themselves either. When NUS calls for relentless online bullying to be tackled or mental health to be taken seriously or trans students to be able to use a toilet or sexual assaulters to be cleared off campus, they’re not trying to protect students from the world; they’re trying to change it. What they try on campus might sometimes go too far, and might sometimes not go far enough, but as they do these things they’re prepping up for the real world – looking at how it treats those that are less privileged and preparing to fix it.

And that’s what hurts them the most, the Haidts of this world. Their generation hoards property and wealth. And while the world, the country, the politics, and the campuses they’ve bequeathed to students are much much better than they were, they’re still riddled with oppression and nastiness and privilege and inequality and debt. For people who don’t really believe in “creeping concepts” of victimhood, Haidt, and his ilk would do well to own up to the fact their ire stems from feeling sorry for themselves – because students have pointed out that it’s probably all their fault.

16 responses to “It’s the children who are wrong

  1. Identity issues are never straightforward and by their nature, there needs to be a proper debate to ensure that universities are doing their best for all their staff and students. Humans are inherently subjective creatures. Unless we listen to others (and consider their views), we can never be sure whether we’re doing what’s best for us as individuals, for our ‘in-group’, or for the university community as a whole.

    Despite agreeing with several of your points, I can’t help being deeply unsettled by anyone discussing identity seemingly without recognising that every human being has a right to a voice. You say that ‘old, straight white men’ don’t understand identity politics but, as an identity politician myself I should point out that one of the people I learnt most from on these issues was a (relatively) old, white straight man.

    What hope for the future if you believe that anyone with a traditionally ‘powerful’ identity can’t understand the needs of other people? And why would anyone from those groups seek to engage in an understanding of the issues, if the responses they get when they try to engage is along the lines of, ‘You have no right to speak for us and you’ll never understand us because you’re an oppressor’? You note that instances of banning speakers from SU events is rare but in my experience, increasing numbers of students are afraid to speak about what they believe in in the first place, or to invite people they want to hear from, for fear of drawing fire from those who would see those views as unwelcome.

    It is surely hypocritical to argue that people’s views should not be belittled, infantalised or mocked, and then go on to attack someone on the grounds of aspects of their identity which they were born with and cannot change. Criticising Haidt because of the perceived actions of his ‘generation’ is surely age discrimination, and is that more acceptable than racial discrimination or homophobia?

    And finally, I don’t even know where to start with my views on arguing against someone by attacking them on what you THINK they are thinking, rather than engaging with what they have actually said: “Haidt, and his ilk would do well to own up to the fact their ire stems from feeling sorry for themselves – because students have pointed out that it’s probably all their fault.” When I fight against oppression, I am fighting against the idea that just because the majority think something, the inherent dignity and rights of the minority are somehow brought into question. I don’t understand how you can write an article like this whilst simultaneously arguing that if lots of students believe someone ‘is at fault’, then that person’s expressed views can be understood only in terms of being a self-pitying defence of themselves.

  2. The argument that universities should determine whether a claim of sexual assault is true is disturbing. Unless someone has been found guilty by a court of law universities should take no action against them.

    1. Except of course the “no action” that universities take in relation to others involved in an incident of sexual assault (the victim, and other people who may be at risk) might be to penalise them for failing to attend class and engage with the person who assaulted them. Getting a charge of assault to court and settled is not a swift process – far slower than the process most universities have for monitoring attendance and participation.

      Nobody is calling for universities to act as judge and jury, or to decide the guilt of anybody. But obviously universities must have policy and procedures in place to protect students whilst legal processes are carried out.

  3. Be careful for what you wish for, as you will one day soon be labelled “An old, white, straight man doesn’t understand identity politics.” and accused of being the “…generation hoards property and wealth.” Because you will grow older, obtain some wealth and loose touch with the next generation. It just happens and can’t be stopped.

    Nothing wrong with being an old white man straight or not. It is profiling to say they don’t understand identity politics or that they hoard, even if that was necessarily a bad thing, is profiling (thought that was bad).

    Your piece is full of micro-aggressions and definitely triggered me without the warnings. Wonkhe needs to be a safe place for us older white hetero males as HE is our safe space. Let other victim groups find their only spaces. There is no room here for open debate or views that challenge us, we need protecting.

    Being serious, it is important that challenge to ideas and that free speech remains central to Universities, as it is to our democratic free society, even when that causes offence. If ideas, causes or concepts are valid they will flourish, if not it will die. Creating sanitized echo chambers and expecting others to not challenge you is regressive. It is a system that signifies dictators, fascists, theocracy and totalitarian states. Well they’ve been successful and not resulted in millions of deaths.

    Lets keep free speech and challenge.

    1. You, along with most other critics of the current student movement have conflated the ideas of ‘banning free speech’ and the idea that perhaps, somehow, it would be a human thing to do to make students who are going through some of the most important formative years of their lives, which are already filled with pressures (not just the coursework but widespread student poverty) a bit more comfortable.

    2. “If ideas, causes or concepts are valid they will flourish, if not it will die.” Not a student of actual history, are you then?

      1. Idea’s in a free environment do, as history teaches us those enforced on other through violence or censorship in the short term succeed at the expense of life and liberty. History bears this out as well as the deaths of millions caught up in it. BTW history is a great way of understanding where we came from and the mistakes we’ll make again in the future, as we don’t learn them very well.

  4. Formative years which should be open to experience. They don’t need protecting. You go to University to get life experience and expose you to world and its ideas. Otherwise stay in your bedroom back at home. The world and University owes you nothing but you have everything to gain from engaging with it.

    Student have always faced the pressure of courses work, exams and limited funds. I did – I valued the challenge. I think you are one conflating free speech with wealth as did the author “Their [older] generation hoards property and wealth.”. University need to be uncomfortable at points to help shape, challenge and demand from students otherwise what is the point.

    If anything we need to challenge our students and make it less comfortable when it comes to ideas, concepts and academic standards. Trust me, the modern accommodation is now miles more comfortable than back in the day.

    No safe spaces – only learning spaces.

    1. Where did the author says University shouldn’t face the pressure of courses, exams, and limited funds?

        1. The author raised the older white men hording wealth and property which I agree has nothing to do with the pressure of courses, exam and limited funds. See the irony of conflation of argument, which was my point.

  5. Oh lord, I can already see the pattern in the comments shaping up here:

    “Back in my day, when nobody ever protested for any sort of social change at University — this is a total new thing, student protest, I’m SHOCKED actually — serious instructors taught real critical thinking, not “emotional thinking,” because back in my day people were just nasty assholes and that was fine. Also I had to study a lot and things were hard. Not like today! Me not having taken an undergrad course in 30 years means I am an expert! Also I went for a walk on my local campus once, and didn’t all like the new buildings that ruined my nostalgia. Therefore, I am qualified to report that [hasty generalization, uncaused causation, post-hoc, burying the lede, unfounded assumption, unrelated conclusion.]

    In conclusion, if only kids learned real critical thinking skills like I demonstrated above, they won’t be exercising free speech by protesting against things I actually agree with or trying to change a status quo I’m comfortable with. It is unfair that they’re reminding me that I’m out of touch, and they should all want to pay $150 to see Seinfeld at the campus club because surely he’s still hilarious.

    1. Not sure you’ve demonstrated anything but a lack of grip on reality, but I defend you right to say it.

  6. Lots of things get conflated with ‘no-platform for fascists’ as against Marine Le Penn at Oxford Union while at the other end there is what I call ‘opinionism’ that is just laziness – ‘you can’t say anything against what I say cos you’ll offend my opinion’! (As Clint Eastwood says in ‘Everywhichway but loose’: ‘Opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one!’)

  7. Reading this article in hindsight is kind of amusing, because it has never been more clear that Haidt was right and you were wrong. There is something VERY wrong with a generation of students who would rather burn down their school than give a platform to a conservative speaker.

    These children have no idea how to function in a normal society.

Leave a Reply