It’s the children who are wrong

Originally published on 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.


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