Jon Haidt on the origin of the offense culture

December 1, 2015 • 9:00 am

I want to call your attention to a piece by social psychologist Jon Haidt on the Heterodox Academy site: “The Yale problem begins in high school.” It recounts a lecture that Haidt gave to an elite high school (the kind that feeds students to Yale), as well some discussions Haidt had with students at other elite schools. What he encountered was a conundrum:  many of the students are in principle in favor of free speech, but fear to express their own views for fear of social opprobrium. In other words, what we see at places like Yale, Columbia, Wesleyan, and Stanford are problems that are already evident among high school students.

Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have suggested that the root cause of the student “offense culture” is a childhood upbringing of “vindictive protectiveness,” and have suggested solutions ranging from abandoning college speech codes and trigger warnings through teaching cognitive behavioral therapy to incoming students to help them deal with offensive speech and ideas. Now, however, Haidt has another solution: promote not just ethnic diversity, but viewpoint diversity:

What do you suppose a conversation about race or gender will look like in any Yale classroom ten years from now? Who will dare to challenge the orthodox narrative imposed by victimhood culture? The “Next Yale” that activists are demanding will make today’s Centerville High look like Plato’s Academy by comparison.

The only hope for Centerville High — and for Yale — is to disrupt their repressively uniform moral matrices to make room for dissenting views. High schools and colleges that lack viewpoint diversity should make it their top priority. Race and gender diversity matter too, but if those goals are pursued in the ways that student activists are currently demanding, then political orthodoxy is likely to intensify. Schools that value freedom of thought should therefore actively seek out non-leftist faculty, and they should explicitly include viewpoint diversity and political diversity in all statements about diversity and discrimination.** Parents and students who value freedom of thought should take viewpoint diversity into account when applying to colleges. Alumni should take it into account before writing any more checks.

The Yale problem refers to an unfortunate feedback loop: Once you allow victimhood culture to spread on your campus, you can expect ever more anger from students representing victim groups, coupled with demands for a deeper institutional commitment to victimhood culture, which leads inexorably to more anger, more demands, and more commitment. But the Yale problem didn’t start at Yale. It started in high school.

I’m not sure about the practicality of getting “viewpoint diversity” among faculty given that most academics are leftists, but I agree that political and ideological diversity are largely lacking on many campuses, and that it would be good for students to encounter, say, a conservative professor,say a Ross Doubthat type—only smart. And while we’re promoting diversity, why not, among students, try to get income diversity, so that there’s a dollop of freshman who come from deprived backgrounds. While these may often coincide with ethnic minorities, they won’t always, and poor students of any group have faced challenges unknown to the “privileged” ones. Many schools have need blind admissions, so students are admitted on the basis of merit, along with consideration of their ethnicity, without anyone looking at their financial means. But why not consider those means as a source of diversity as well? I see considerable benefit in this.

There’s a lot more in Haidt’s long article, and it’s well worth reading, containing many links to instances of student offense and demands. And there’s some decent discussion in the comments.

Apropos, here’s a new Bloom County strip displaying the problem (click both strips to enlarge):


And a Prickly City strip relevant to the Offense Culture:


h/t:  Bob, Gregory


89 thoughts on “Jon Haidt on the origin of the offense culture

  1. Well, let me be the first to stir this up. Me thinks this diversity of views might also carry over to some of us at this site. Shame on that Thomas Jefferson. Actually, this is more a diversity of generations…

    1. I don’t know if this is what you mean by generations, but I have noticed that most of us here are pretty old. Maybe young people don’t mention their age like old people do and that has given me a biased assessment, but the people whose ages here I know are all in the late 40’s and beyond.

      Also, my subjective feeling is that the comments here have become more homogenized since I first started visiting this site. That could be an illusion too, but that is my impression. I presume that if it is true it is due to self-selection, that people who agree tend to stay and people who disagree tend to find some other place to be. That is unfortunate because the best and most informative discussions are with the intelligent and articulate (big caveats) person who disagrees with you.

      1. One thing I like about the pseudo-anonymity is that we have set up a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” where the identities and life circumstances of individuals are obscured from others, meaning we can focus on ideas rather than on personalities. Whether people are young or old, male or female, have doctorates or no relevant qualifications is stripped out. Making assumptions (such as age) about the audience as a whole is more projection than inference. Just as when I assumed that most the audience would be youngish geeks such as myself.

  2. The Yale problem refers to an unfortunate feedback loop: Once you allow victimhood culture to spread on your campus, you can expect ever more anger from students representing victim groups, coupled with demands for a deeper institutional commitment to victimhood culture …

    And we’ve seen exactly this play out on what used to be the central blog in the atheist world — a place where, in the past, one could discuss any issues relating to atheism.

    Then it got taken over by “victimhood culture”. Increasingly, anyone not agreeing with a particular narrow view just got yelled at and/or banned.

    This led to the clique becoming ever more extreme, and the orthodoxy requirements ever more demanding, and it became an utterly toxic place for anyone who disagreed — even a little — with that stringent orthodoxy.

    Like all extremist movements, it then started turning on its own, and accusing even central figures in its own in-group of not having a pure enough ideology.

    1. I suspect the cause is the same in both cases – inept, or malicious, management. Blogs and universities become what their administrators tolerate.

      I think the time has long passed that university administrations should be answering some hard questions. In order to gain any influence, people who believe in a liberal view of free speech will have to become a bigger problem for administrations than the regressive students currently are.

      Which actually goes to one of the factors that is always in play in any such circumstance: the assholes aren’t afraid to be assholes to get their way, normal people are.

      1. I don’t think the cause is inept management. But I do think that there is an element of sameness here. IMO the cause is ‘similar populations’. On the one hand you have students of (or very recent graduates of) high-ranking left-leaning universities. OTOH you have activist atheists. Those groups are going to have significant overlap. All the negativity in the atheist community is ‘the chickens coming home to roost’ so to speak – this is the sort of post-Univerisity NGO culture you’re going to get from individuals who were ‘raised’ in a left-but-not-liberal university culture. You want to fix post-University social movement culture, the long-term fix is to change pre-Uni and Uni culture.

      2. It depends on how you define “inept”. I’d think that university administrators tolerate the victimhood culture because they need the tuition, not because they don’t know what tolerating that culture will result in.

        1. From my perspective as a recently-retired professor at a fairly selective liberal-arts college, if what our administration wasn’t ‘inept,’ it certainly lacked in foresight. About 10-15 years ago they developed a strategic plan that actually used the phrase ‘student-centered university.’ And they didn’t mean that in an academic sense: rather, it was ‘co-curriculars’ they had in mind, and the bread and the circuses (especially athletics) and, as it developed to their dismay, the coddling and rampant grade inflation on the part of a faculty who didn’t believe the administration would support rigorous grading when students (and parents) began to complain. Almost overnight, it seemed, a ‘C’ turned into a failing grade. . . .

      3. “Which actually goes to one of the factors that is always in play in any such circumstance: the assholes aren’t afraid to be assholes to get their way, normal people are.”

        True enough. Also true that not a few of them don’t view themselves as being that way, or won’t admit it. But they can sure recognize it in someone else, eh?

      4. On the apparent dominance of politically liberal university professors, there was an interesting piece in Science back in 2007 (though not a credentialed scientist, I do maintain a AAAS membership and I am a huge Zotero fan so I just happened to have the citation ready to hand) that seemed to show that conservative types seem to be more focused on leaving academia to rake in the “big bucks,” whereas the more creative, and (therefore?) politically and socially liberal, types are the ones that go on to pursue the Ph. D.s that lead to university professorships.

        I am not aware of any follow-up research on this topic, but it is an interesting hypothesis nonetheless. It is pure speculation on my part, but it does make a kind of intuitive sense to me that the desire to make a substantial intellectual contribution to some field of human enquiry requires a degree of altruism or selflessness that, in my anecdotal experience, is indeed lacking in conservatives.

        ‘Left on Campus.’ Science. 318, p.1839b–; (2007). doi:10.1126/science.318.5858.1839b at

    2. When that stuff on that blog started flaring up, I had just read Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality, and all the discussion of groupthink in the book helped me see the ways in which that was going on in a group I thought myself a big part of.

      The final nail for me was seeing people complain that the atheist philosopher Massimo Pigliucci called for people to be rational on the topic of the existence of God. If atheists can’t do that, then there’s no point to being an atheist.

        1. One point – it’s not believing in God. And to that effect, it’s only justified to the extent that one can give a rational account.

          Beyond that, anything goes.

      1. Is the blog everyone tries not to name (do we have some kind Voldemort rule here?) the one that starts with a P and ends with …yngula?

        Just want to make sure, I used to read it a lot and now haven’t for years.

        1. I personally have no problems naming it (though if you say Pharyngula 3 times into a mirror, you can summon the ghost of PZ Myers), though I didn’t think it was needed for the context.

        2. I suspect you’re right, and like you, I used to enjoy it, but haven’t been there for years. I met PZ once at a Sceptics in the Pub meeting in Glasgow some years ago, and found him an interesting and indeed charming speaker, capable of handling heckling from creationists politely and firmly. I just don’t know what went wrong at Ph*****ula.

          1. I still contend his heart health issues made him cranky. It was around the time of his surgery that, to me, he seemed to go off the SJW deep end. My cardiologist dad says heart attacks and procedures can change personalities, usually in the crankier direction. (See Dick Cheney.)

            1. There’s also the Book That Never Was. At some time, he even took a sabbatical to work on it. But whatever it was he was thinking of, The Happy Atheist is probably not it.

              In short, he wanted to be the Fifth Horseman, but something went wrong.

  3. In other words we should start valuing actual diversity, rather than just diversity as a euphemism for ethnic (or gender etc) differences.

    No arguments here, this misuse of the word “diversity” has annoyed me for years.

    Diversity1: everyone is different, everyone is allowed to be different

    Diversity2: differences in ethnicity, gender and sexual preference

    Unfortunately some people often talk almost entirely about diversity2, while seemingly pretending to be talking about diversity1. Its almost a Motte and Bailey argument sometimes.

    Of course diversity2 is an important component of diversity1, but its not remotely all of it.

  4. “hould explicitly include viewpoint diversity”

    Does this mean that they should actively recruit white supremacists, for instance?

    Viewpoint diversity sounds like something that most of us could support in the abstract, but becomes problematic when it comes down to particulars.

    A great deal of racial animosity is suppressed because it’s no longer socially acceptable in most circles to make racist statements. Wouldn’t most of us regard this social suppression a step in the right direction?

    1. I don’t think we can view the “suppression” of viewpoints as a victory. Suppression doesn’t make them go away, and they fester in places where we aren’t looking. Racism may be suppressed at Yale, but I know a man who went to work in Beaumont, Texas, and was invited to a klan meeting his second week. Repression only breeds frustration, and reinforces the underlying prejudice. That’s one of the reasons Trump is making such hay right now with the unwashed Right.

      1. “Suppression doesn’t make them go away”

        Well, yes, it does, sometimes. For two reasons, at least:

        1) Ideas that aren’t expressed don’t get propagated, and

        2) Expressed views can be reflected and amplified by others that share your views, leading to more extreme views.

        A great deal of anti-racism effort of the past 40 years has been directed towards making racism socially unacceptable and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that each generation is less racist.

        Controlling the way people talk goes a long way to controlling how they think.

        1. But they haven’t really gone away, have they? We just don’t hear them in staff meetings or at cocktail parties.

          1. Absolutely true. And things are more poisonous when hidden. Indeed suspect that someof these policies have increased racial issues. A very large number of people will quietly suspect the qualifications of people who appear to have ridden the wave of ‘diversity based’ affirmative action.

            1. Not absolutely true.

              There may still be racists out there but you can’t seriously think the percent of the overall population that is truly racist is anywhere near the percent it was 75 years ago.

          2. Not totally, but quite a lot. There are still some subcultures where such talk is acceptable, and other subcultures where code words can be used.

        2. Comparing Europe to the US regarding Nazism, I’d say you’re completely wrong. European heavy-handed repression of Nazi ideas has resulted in those ideas continuing to have a significant place in culture and politics, while in the US, toleration and ‘shining a light on it’ has had a more successful disinfectant effect.

          I agree with your penultimate paragraph that making some ideas socially unacceptable has gone a long way to reducing the number of people who hold them. But there is a big difference between showing social opprobrium in response to someone speaking in support of an idea, vs. not letting them voice their support in the first place.

          1. You state as if it’s true that European suppression of Nazism has led to its persistence. How do you know? Might it have been far worse than now had it not been suppressed? There are way too many differences between Europe and the US for the US to serve as an adequate control group. This might be an example of the “Narrative Fallacy”.

            Regardless, none of the “safe space” discussion has been about government suppression of ideas, but rather certain social settings not giving a platform to particular ideas.

    2. It’s quite funny that every time there’s complaints to the extent to which suppression happens, bigots are inevitably held up as the standard for which relaxation of the restrictions needs to justify. And that’s not to say anything of the often subjective nature of what constitutes bigotry (is Saudi Arabia justified in silencing atheists – a group declared as terrorists?) or the power of counter-speech to combat bigotry.

    3. There is a great line from Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate that is germane here in how the better angels of our nature (do I get geek points for that dual Pinker reference?) can increase their influence in a society over time:

      “Whatever converts standards of responsibility into changes in the likelihood of behavior — such as the rule “If the community would think you’re a boorish cad for doing X, don’t do X” — can be programmed into an algorithm and implemented in neural hardware.”

      This is why children soon find out that picking your nose in public has consequences–which may or may not alter their behavior in private. This is also why, in efforts to improve public health in Africa, in establishments that serve food, the washbasins were placed outside the restrooms, so that if you did not wash your hands after using the bathroom, everybody saw that. I work for my state’s workforce agency (i.e. Job Service) so I work with folks from all sorts of backgrounds and life circumstances, and I really wish we had that there.

      Also, I would like to propose that there is a distinction between “suppressing” a particular viewpoint and making a particular viewpoint really hard to defend intellectually. The fact that the advance of science has made defending a belief in the God of monotheism intellectually untenable is a case in point, but no atheist or anti-theist has, to my knowledge, advocated using the organs of the “state” to “suppress” those that insist on proclaiming their devotion to baby Jebus–if I were to hear an “atheist” advocate such a thing, I would publicly rebuke them.

      (Pinker, S., The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. p. 177. (Penguin Books (pbk.)): New York, New York, 2002).)

      1. “there is a distinction between “suppressing” a particular viewpoint and making a particular viewpoint really hard to defend intellectually.”

        There is, but large swathes of people aren’t interested in defending their viewpoints intellectually and will not surrender their opinions to superior arguments. Any movement that relies on this is a doomed one.

        1. Sadly, I must agree completely that many people are not interested in defending their wining intellectually. However, there is a name the tactic that such petulant whiners use–“emotional blackmail.”

          I have successfully (from time-to-time, at least) shut up (at least some) whiners by pointing that out and telling them that such “emotional blackmail” is unfitting for anyone that wishes to be taken seriously as an intellectually competent adult.

  5. I recall at Stanford, over twenty years ago, that a group of girls told me all of our problems come from dead white European males (they were partly being facetious). I believed them, though. I felt like crap; white men suck. Then I thought, I am not a bad guy, I do not think or do the ratty things that my dead father’s father’s father did.

    There is no one solution to this. The best we can do is be kind to one another and explore the world so that the satire of our existence makes sense. Otherwise you just end of with dumb mean people.

    1. I think what the girls were telling you was a snow job and a perfect example of people distorting history because they don’t know how to study it or look at it. They put their values and understanding on people who lived in another time and another culture. It’s almost like the kid who would blame all of today’s problems on his parents.

      This is really a different problem than the kids who are running to safe places and being offended by everything that their group tells them to be offended by. Other view points must be tolerated or you do not have an open society. But real racism is kind of like pornography – hard to define but you should know it when you see it.

      1. Setting up a good people/bad people view of the world is itself a snow job. Who was “good”, Cortez or Montezuma? Neither, of course. You will find no one in the past, of any gender, race, or tribe, who we would consider a role model today because our morality has changed. Were the Aztecs oppressed by the Spanish? Yes. Does anyone miss the Aztec culture? No, because they were barbaric by modern standards. Does anyone miss the culture of Cortez either? No, for the same reason.

      2. The Offense Culture Landscape.

        Knowing the boundaries is easy, knowing when to push them is harder. One day I can hear a sexist joke and I laugh out loud. Another day I can hear the same joke and feel like it was wholly inappropriate. I never get offended but how I feel is largely related to experiences not at all contained within the satire of the joke, i.e., we all manufacture the meanings. This makes for a very broad landscape, not just person to person, but day to day within the same person.

    2. Until we actively and vociferously reject this ‘original sin’ guilt trip this craziness will continue.

      It comes down to this:
      I am NOT responsible, I will not apologize, for any actions done by my ancestors (most of which weren’t even here). My ONLY obligation to you is to treat you as a human being. If you do the same, all is fine. But if you behave like a jerk, you will be treated as one.

      1. ‘My ONLY obligation to you is to treat you as a human being.’

        Agreed. But what are our and our institutions of learning’s obligations to the truth, to history, to still-surviving peoples whose ancestors were treated brutally if not genocidally in the settlement of the U. S.? Would you claim that we as citizens owe nothing to the past?

        The sins of the fathers are not passed down to their sons and daughters; but the sins of nations and institutions are. That’s why it would be an act of reparation to, say, banish Woodrow Wilson’s zombie from Princeton.

        1. This is the general move behind the Democrats’ and others frantic dumping of Thomas Jefferson …. much to the joy of he fundies who always hated him.

  6. While viewpoint diversity sounds good in the abstract, its practical implementation is quite problematical. Suppose a political science department wants to hire a new instructor (probably an underpaid, near starving adjunct). As part of his/her duties, the instructor will teach a class on George W. Bush and the Iraq War. Now, an applicant, properly credentialed with a Ph.D. from a respectable university, makes it clear that he/she thinks that the Bush-Cheney handling of the war was near perfection. The rest of the faculty considers such a viewpoint ludicrous. But, should the applicant be hired for the sake of viewpoint diversity, which could be called ideological affirmative action? If this applicant shouldn’t be hired, is it proper to hire one who believes that the war was largely justified, although “mistakes were made,” to use an obnoxious expression?

    All this adds up to demonstrating the extreme difficulty in determined who should or should not be hired based on ideological viewpoint. Who will establish the criteria for determining what viewpoint is within academic respectability? So, I think the question of viewpoint diversity is one that never will answered, characterized by perennial debate that is never resolved.

    1. For the person doing the job interview or making the hiring decision I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of difference what the new instructor’s personal position is, if he or she is a proper teacher. The important questions to ask would be, does he really know the subject and can he teach it objectively and require the students to come to their own conclusions. That is the difficult job of the teacher.

      I don’t recall a good history teacher ever forcing his views on the people he was teaching, and if he did, it would not go down very well.

      1. Apparently you had a very different set of history teachers than I did. Good history teaching is more than reciting the facts; it is interpreting what the facts mean. And presenting an interpretation means presenting a viewpoint. The viewpoint, i.e., political bias, of many of the teachers I had, particularly on the graduate level, was quite obvious. It is the job of the serious student to determine if such viewpoints have merit.

        1. Just as example, lets say I am a very left leaning liberal and anti-racist about everything. So while teaching American History about the mid 1800s and explaining slavery, anti-slavery and abolitionist, would I say the abolitionist continued to be racist because they were mostly against fully assimilating the freed slaves into society?

          No I would not because we can say that by my views today, yes they would be racist, but in 1850 this would not be considered racist because the general view among abolitionist did not include full citizenship and voting. And, even Harriet Beecher Stowe was in favor of shipping the people back to Africa.

          That is the view point to give the students, not my personal view. I would say that if you cannot keep most of your bias out of the class then you should be doing something else.

      2. History cannot be an objective inquiry, for at least two reasons:

        1) the quantum of study is the ‘event,’ which in the case of history is over before it is known, cannot be replicated, cannot be used for prediction, and is therefore unknowable.

        2) and even if historians could come to consensus on a body of ‘agreed-upon facts’ (Gore Vidal’s phrase), which rarely happens (cf ‘did Jesus exist?), these are useless without a narrative sequencing and weighing. But all such narratives are necessarily inferential.

        We can fairly judge that some historical narratives are ‘better’ than others, based on their closeness to the ‘agreed-upon facts.’ Yet IMHO all such narratives are at their hearts stories rather than scientific representations of the past.

        1. I’d agree that our knowledge of history is limited, certainly, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t scientific. We can’t replicate the Cambrian Explosion either, but that doesn’t mean that studying it can’t be done scientifically – we can look at evidence from the era, formulate hypotheses regarding what happened (creating, in a sense, a “historical narrative”), and then test those hypotheses against new evidence as we find it.

          The claim that Julius Caesar existed is in many ways no different from the claim that the Cambrian Explosion happened. Instead of fossil evidence, we have texts, coins, statues, etc. Examination and evaluation of them may not be as clear cut as dating a fossil, but the general principle is the same. Science, broadly construed, this would seem to be. That we can’t reach the same level of certainty in historical matters as we can in, say, Newtonian physics, just means we have a bigger margin of error to work with – it doesn’t mean we scrap the whole enterprise.

  7. I’m not sure about the practicality of getting “viewpoint diversity” among faculty given that most academics are leftists,

    Even so, I’d like to think that a teacher/professor of history, literature, or social studies could play a decent devil’s advocate when necessary. Seeing events from other social perspectives is part and parcel of their disciplines. So I think the suggestion is good, in that even if there is no sincere diversity amongst the teaching staff, left-leaning teachers should still be challenging their students to respond substantively to right-leaning criticisms of topical social policies. Moreover such teachers should not pull from the bottom of the barrel (i.e., bringing up the conservative equivalent of ‘why are there still monkeys’ types of arguments), but honestly try to represent the opposing side as best they can. You want to play the anti-big-government role, you draw on the likes of Patrick Henry, not Donald Trump.

    And while we’re promoting diversity, why not, among students, try to get income diversity, so that there’s a dollop of freshman who come from deprived backgrounds.

    The cynic in me says: income (and social status) diversity is what private academies like this were set up to avoid. These schools are ‘rich flight’ analogs to the ‘white flight’ phenomenon.

  8. Thanks for this, Jerry. I read the whole Haidt piece, and it was very interesting. I am encouraged to hear him argue for more viewpoint diversity, but struggle with how that could be achieved practically. I think we’ve all been trained not to ask those questions in interviews, or to offer opinions when being interviewed.

    There was a link on Arts & Letters Daily over the weekend to a review in the London Review of Books of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. The reviewer makes this observation:

    It was also during this period [from the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in 2008 to the death of Eric Garner in 2014] that the liberal papers that have championed Coates’s work began to drop the term ‘racism’ in favour of ‘white supremacy’, which is seen to refer not merely to individual acts or prejudices but to a presumed superstructure that keeps blacks and other ethnic groups permanently subordinate to whites, a shift in terminology that mirrors feminism’s move towards ‘patriarchy’ from ‘sexism’.

    This is troubling. What this means is that there is no longer room for a non-racist white person, or a non-sexist male. If the problem is the white supremacy and the patriarchy, there are no innocents under those umbrellas. (While this has been true for some for at least fifty years, the adoption of this language by mainstream media outlets is new.) Just like an aristocrat during the Terror in France, or a kulak in Russia after the revolution, you would be damned for what you are, not what you say or do.

    For people who think that way, or buy into that discourse, there would be no issue in suppressing the speech of the “dominant” group.

  9. Regarding your comment, I think that income diversity is a far more valid basis to receive help than ethnic diversity. People without access to resources have a far more legitimate claim to assistance than individuals whose only claim for help is based on race.

    Even for the economic ones, however, it should NOT be a matter of lowering qualification standards or creating fictitious ‘community involvement’ credits–rather it should take the form of educational resources to bring them up to speed before college so they can compete on an intellectual, not ideologically assisted level.

    1. Some state schools have this. In Texas, for example, the state schools accept anyone who is in the top 10% of their high school class regardless of test scores and other criteria (or they did, it may have changed since I was last involved). A large fraction of TX high schools are rural. Being the top 10% of your class in a town of 4000 is not the same thing as being in the top 10% of your class in a Dallas suburb. Many such students are the first in their family to go to college. As a result, these universities have significant chunks of students who are totally unprepared for college. To their credit, at least the two biggest universities there have programs specifically for these students to help them get through their first year or two, including extra tutoring, mentoring, help navigating the system, and so on.

    2. Socioeconomic diversity is taken into consideration for many medical school admissions decisions in the US. In addition to the obvious household income and # of siblings, numerous factors are considered: education level of parents, whether the applicant will be the first in the family to achieve a graduate degree, location of the household (rural, suburban, inner city – can determine access to various prep programs and other educational resources), language(s) spoken in the home, having responsibilities to care for younger siblings or contribute income to the family, etc. This type of system can often place a white male student who grew up on a hardscrabble, isolated ranch in West Texas in the same socioeconomic “bin of (un)privilege” as an Asian-American female student who grew up in a rough inner city neighborhood in Houston, for example. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it does generate a certain amount of genuine diversity in our student population.

      In my pessimistic mode, however, I think there are some inequalities that can’t be compensated for later in life. I’m convinced that so many of our experiences in infancy and early childhood shape the ways in which we learn and approach our environment, and I’m not sure this can be altered significantly with training at the high school and college level. For example, all else being equal, I think the child who was read to frequently from infancy, and who engaged in creative activities with non-determined toys and materials, has an advantage over the child who was plopped in front of a TV and who played with toys more limited in scope for creativity. Not that child A is smarter than child B, but rather that child A has an advantage. I’d be a happier person if I didn’t believe this, so please, give me some good arguments to the contrary.

  10. I agree that the problem of hypersensitivity begins long before university. However, it appears to me that this problem manifests itself very forcefully on campus is because tuition cost is now so high that the role of student has shifted toward something more like a customer. The mindset of a customer (always right!) is very different from one of a student who views simply attending the school as a privilege. This is why the interactions with administration are so angry (like an old man trying to return soup in a deli) and the offending students suffer little repercussions. The administrators are now managers trying to appease angry, entitled customers. For the steep price the students are paying they are demanding that everything about the experience be exactly they way they want it to be.

    So how do we recalibrate expectations?

  11. It starts in High School? I’d set it way before that. The last couple of generations of college students started in institutional day care where “You don’t hurt Johnny’s feelings”. While the intention is noble, one of the unintended effects is that Johnny can use the expected teacher’s response to aggressively manipulate others in the ongoing power struggle.

    1. Kids have always used that instinctively, since they started walking and even before. In past generations they haven’t been allowed to get away with it. These days, since it is not acceptable to slap them, the easiest way to stop them making a fuss is to give them what they want.

      At some point they have to be taught that threatening to throw tantrums is not going to work any more.


  12. The call for greater viewpoint diversity can mean that the pendulum swings far — too far — in the other direction so that every truth claim and morality claim is given equal weight and all such claims must be given an equal hearing. This can be just as confining to resolving problems as restrictions on free speech.

    1. The viewpoint diversity call was for hiring of teachers and professors. I’m not concerned about the potential of some massively underrepresented population of qualified pomo academics needing jobs. Nor do I think its an issue of a pomo academic gets hired in a discipline where they typically reside (i.e. English lit, social studies, etc.). By all means, let the call for more diversity include them.

      The issue comes in disciplines where we would expect a more population-like split between conservatives and liberals, and yet only the liberals seem to get the teaching jobs. That is a problem. Though even in this case, I think there may be some self-selection at work rather than/in addition to hiring bias. Academic jobs are relatively low pay, longish hours, helping young people. What sort of person self-selects for a job like that? Most commonly, a liberal ideologue sort of person.

      1. Excellent point about the self-selection.

        I’d even take it a step further and say that most right-leaning individuals who may be drawn to something like this would probably wind up supporting a church-based organization (like a youth fellowship group) as opposed to swimming with the liberal sharks at the university.

        We all like our own “safe spaces”, after all.

  13. My daughter attends that school. 48% of the student body is made up of ethnic minorities.

    JH started the Q&A with the statement “There is no such thing as Racism or Sexism”.

    His recollection of the number of boys who responded to that Q&A is off. Not one but many. A ninth grade Korean boy asked “how, as a 52 year old privileged white male, can you say such a thing without the experiences of a person of color or different gender”?

    Reading JH’s blog, it is sad to see that he felt “attacked” and obviously was not in his “safe space”. Oh the irony.

    1. That’s my take on Haidt, too. Much of his work seems to be aimed at validating conservatives and building safe spaces for them to express their sexist, racist, homophobic views.

      Then, there’s his contradictory position on religion. He defends its importance for social cohesion and claims that groups held together by religion have been favored by group selection. And yet he himself is not religious. If he sees religion as a social good, it seems strange he would not participate in it.

      1. Maybe I missed something in Haidt’s essay and bl*gs, but I don’t see anywhere that said he wanted to build safe spaces for people to express their sexist, racist homophobic views. He did say that students shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells, afraid to express themselves. Claiming views you don’t share are sexist, racist or homophobic is precisely the reason essays like his need to be written. Views, all views need to be expressed, especially in a setting where you are compelled to participate, like high school.
        Also, why would seeing religion as a social good mean he should participate? Do you participate in every activity you see as a social good? I certainly don’t and I’ve never met anyone who does. It would either be exhausting or a very limited view of social good.

  14. I heard an interesting piece November 30 on the CBC’s “Midnight Edition” – it was a collection of voices (all women) talking about “trigger warnings” in colleges . . . and one of the commenters said that she thought that, with the cost of tuition, students are regarded as “clients” and it occurred to me that the old canard, “the customer is always right” is coming into play . . . might explain some of the toadying.

  15. All that talk about including more non-leftist faculty makes me uneasy — it sounds a lot like a different version of the “include more women/blacks/non-cis/whatever among faculty for the sole reason that there aren’t many of them right now”.

    The goal should be for everyone to be able to say whatever they have to say without fear about the consequences.

    That is a different goal from achieving “diversity”, of ethnicity/gender/sexual orientation/politics/whatever.

    They’re falling in the same trap.

    Academia should be ANTI-politicial (as in recognizing the stupidity of all ideologies and exposing and ridiculing them at any opportunity), not diverse politically. The obsession with politics is one of the biggest tragedies of our species and it has to end (the real world is physical, not political, and the more we focus on politics, the more we forget that)

    1. “The goal should be for everyone to be able to say whatever they have to say without fear about the consequences.”

      Why? Lack of consequences leads to bullying and harassment. Consequences are an essential part of it, but they should be proportional to the statement (and college students especially should be given some leeway occasionally when they say something dumb).

  16. All that talk about including more non-leftist faculty makes me uneasy — it sounds a lot like a different version of the “include more women/blacks/non-cis/whatever among faculty for the sole reason that there aren’t many of them right now”.

    The goal should be for everyone to be able to say whatever they have to say without fear about the consequences.

    That is a different goal from achieving “diversity”, of ethnicity/gender/sexual orientation/politics/whatever.

    They’re falling in the same trap.

    Academia should be ANTI-politicial (as in recognizing the stupidity of all ideologies and exposing and ridiculing them at any opportunity), not “diverse politically” (as in a bunch of ideologues duking it off with each other). The obsession with politics is one of the biggest tragedies of our species and it has to end (the real world is physical, not political, and the more we focus on politics, the more we forget that)

  17. I’m something of a Jon Haidt fan, and I know that he’s been pushing for this idea (viewpoint diversity) for the past few years (especially since the release of his book, The Righteous Mind). I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but he has convinced me that having a diversity of opinions is, on the whole, a good thing. And it is in that spirit of promoting diversity that I make the following statements:

    I actually sympathize with many of the college students. They (correctly) perceive institutonal racism and sexism as problems that the previous generations couldn’t overcome, and believe in their own ability to transcend these problems (as most “next” generations do). So, they want to greatly increase the diversity on campus, something that I think is most-likely a net good. I also sympathize with their desires to have places where they can feel safe among kindred spirits, and think that it’s a direct result of the hyper-connectedness of the rising generation(s): to them, “safe spaces” are like moderated blogs and closed social-media sites (like Facebook) which are usually filled with people who are socio-politically similar to each other (echo chambers), and “unsafe spaces” are mostly unmoderated public social-media sites (like Twitter and Reddit), where women and minorities tend to be subject to harassment and bullying.

    All that having been said, I also believe that universities still need debate and still need areas where students can go and be challenged (because there’s no point to having all that diversity if you don’t allow yourself to be exposed to it and to the ideas it represents). So, I recommend a compromise – create the safe spaces that these students want, but also create “debate spaces”, locations where freedom of speech is still paramount, where anyone can say (virtually) anything, but where they have to own that speech and deal with the consequences of what they say (within the relative safety of a college campus). By tying these two ideas together (the freedom to speak without fear of bullying or harassment, but still having ownership of and consequences for that speech), colleges may be able to find ways to challenge their students without making them feel victimized (and without allowing the cloak of anonymity to give people licenses to be jerks).

    1. You put that most thoughtfully, Eric, to the extent that I took another, more sympathetic look at the situation(s). I identify with what you say about sexism (though I’m part of the generation who thought we fixed things back when) and sympathize with those who experience racism. There are certainly plenty of areas that could use some “consciousness raising” at the very least.

      Your solutions make sense. I also think the grievance side sometimes goes way over the line, e.g., with the hyper-sensitivity to “micro-aggressions.” The solution to raising awareness should not involve hog-tying those who are trying to help. One problem with relying too much on “safe spaces” is that a culture of victimhood can arise so that self-segregation becomes an ever more vicious circle, polarizing things even further.

      Sadly but understandably, it’s the universities, which in many ways already offer some of the safer places for women & minorities, that are facing the brunt of the accusations. If only the students had some leverage over, say, Madison Avenue.

  18. I think the subconscious reasoning goes something like this:
    Diversity is good (by fiat)
    Our views are correct.

    Therefore, what we want is a wide diversity of people who agree with us.

    Anybody who thinks otherwise is narrow-minded, bigoted and not ‘diverse’ at all.


  19. Before victims were ridiculed as being weak and acting helpless.Now the opposite is happening. Now it is being used in an equally poor way as a means of defense. Over reactions damage its need. We can be victims, we shouldn’t want to stay one for long. We shouldn’t revel in it either as a crutch. Balance is Nature and so we must balance as well.

  20. I’m late to this particular party, but I just happened across an article I found very interesting:

    Specifically relevant here, Deeyah Khan is quoted as saying: “Rather than shutting down free speech, we need to broaden it, to make it possible for young people to say even the things we dislike so we can talk them down.”

    I think that’s a key point that the offense culture folks miss. If we’re afraid to express politically incorrect ideas (whether those that are justifiably considered vile or those that just don’t happen to align with a dominant ideology), when do we really have a chance to consider and–when they really should be rejected!–refute those ideas? Instead, people with such ideas will probably be silenced rather than convinced. They’ll still believe whatever we would rather they did not believe, they just won’t say so. If we really want to show that a particular idea -is- incorrect or repugnant, that idea must first be expressed and understood.

    When’s the last time people changed their minds because they weren’t allowed to speak?

Leave a Reply