‘No platforming’: the threat to free speech

Karl Faase and Luke Nottage on the ‘safetyism’ myth

A tendency for some students to shout down any idea or speaker that disturbs or offends them is becoming more frequent across universities in the US, but also now in other Western countries. Feminist author Germaine Greer and LGBTIQ activist Peter Tatchell have been “no-platformed” in several universities in the UK. Recently in Australia, author and sex therapist Bettina Arndt had her lectures disturbed by protestors uninterested in engaging with any of her ideas, but rather yelling slogans and banging on doors.

However, her lecture at the University of Sydney had been given the go-ahead after it declared that: “one of the fundamental roles of the University is to be a place where ideas can be freely discussed, including those that some may view as controversial.”

Tensions are not limited to Australian universities.

USyd is also still negotiating with the Ramsay Centre over its proposed donations to Australian universities to support programmes studying Western civilisation, despite Canberra’s Australian National University suspending negotiations earlier after some students, staff and unionists were disturbed that this would promote a radically conservative view about the superiority of Western culture.

USyd Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence defended academic freedom, arguing that the envisaged program is “not a kind of boot camp for preparing brainwashed neo-cons.”

Such tensions are not limited to Australian universities. There was earlier controversy over “Safe Schools,” and Greer was also recently “disinvited” from the Brisbane Writers’ Festival.

Many insights can be gained from a beautifully written and extensively researched new book, The Coddling of the American Mind. It develops critiques of an emergent “culture of safetyism,” affirming “emotional reasoning” and an “Us versus Them” attitude. The authors are Jonathan Haidt (a moral psychology professor now at New York University Business School) and Greg Lukianoff (a lawyer committed to protecting free speech).

The book’s provocative subtitle is “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.”

The new book on “coddling” or over-protection highlights two similar problems that are increasingly taking hold in US society. They call them “untruths” because they contradict ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures, as well as modern psychological research on well-being, and because these beliefs harm the individuals and communities now embracing them.

One is “the untruth of Us versus Them: life is a battle between good people and bad people.” They tie this view back to the human mind having evolved from living in tribes engaged in conflict, and criticise those nowadays (on the far left and far right) who exacerbate the tendency by engaging in “common-enemy identity politics.” Haidt and Lukianoff instead advocate “common-humanity identity politics,” epitomised by Martin Luther King Jr, who humanised opponents and appealed to common values.

The second problem identified, is “the untruth of emotional reasoning: always trust your feelings.” They see emotional reasoning as a very common cognitive distortion best addressed by insights from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, an empirically-grounded method that Lukianoff credits for having got him over suicidal depression.

Coddling adds also a third “untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” Lukianoff and Haidt argue that the human body (including the immune system) and psychological development need stimulus to grow properly. While lauding the great achievements of the late 20th century in making the US physically safer for children (and people generally), they object to “concept creep” resulting in “safety” now including more and more “emotional safety.” This generates a culture of “safetyism” – “a belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. ‘Safety’ trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger …”

Causes of the three untruths

Lukianoff and Haidt argue that this “safetyism” is most evident in the generation of students who began to enter American universities around 2013. They tie this to research by psychology professor Jean Twenge. She found sharp differences within the “iGen” – born from around 1995 – including the idea that “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault but from people who disagree from you.”

Lukianoff and Haidt also mention important research by two sociologists in the US, recently developed in a book entitled The Rise of Victimhood Culture. Focusing on universities but also making connections to wider society shifts, those authors see this culture as combining a tendency to take offence quickly but respond indirectly (via institutional or legal procedures). This contrasts with the “culture of dignity,” still dominant in the West, where people became slow to take offence while developing indirect response mechanisms. This notion, which we would add is closely linked to Jesus’ teaching about humbly turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), opposed the “culture of honour” in antiquity, where people were quick to take offence but responded directly (often violently).

… Political participation is more driven by hostility towards the other party than enthusiasm for one’s own.

Another driver behind the three untruths identified by Lukianoff and Haidt is the emergence of “negative partisanship” over the last two decades: political participation is more driven by hostility towards the other party than enthusiasm for one’s own.

Lukianoff and Haidt also observe that university students are responding with social justice activism to a series of dramatic and (media-)visible political events over 2012-18, such as the “Black Lives Matter” and “MeToo” movements. Yet their response to these emotionally charged issues is tending towards “equal-outcomes social justice,” including regarding issues on campus such as gender-based quotas. This collides with the “proportional-procedural social justice” still commonly found in wider US society, which combines perceptions that what people are getting is deserved (an equal ratio of outputs to inputs for each person) and that all should get equal opportunities.

Australia compared

Australia may be fortunate in retaining a more egalitarian sense of justice, so there is less tension regarding emergent “equal-outcomes social justice” among the iGen and their educational institutions. There also may still be less political homogeneity and inter-party hostility than in the US, despite all the shenanigans over recent years.

It is also not evident that there has been such a leftward shift across Australian universities, compared to the wider society, or such a strong sense of dread about terrorism or other threats.

Yet parallels exist. These help explain some of the incidents we mentioned at the outset, as well as burgeoning calls by students for “special consideration” in assessments or disability plans for the classroom, which increasingly are dealt with by university administrators rather than teachers. There are even stronger similarities in the rise of “paranoid parenting” highlighted by Lukianoff and Haidt, the decline of unstructured play time (somewhat offset, perhaps, by organised sport as Australia’s national religion), and the super-connected but emotionally fragile iGen.

How to respond?

Lukianoff and Haidt urge us first to raise “wider kids,” countering each of the three untruths. Against “safetyism,” they affirm the folk wisdom that we should “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” This includes allowing kids to take more risks and engage in “productive disagreement.” Countering emotional reasoning, they invoke Buddha: “your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded.” Undermining the Us versus Them fallacy, they recall the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” This implies learning, for example, to interpret others in the best possible light.

What would Jesus do?

The book has no index entry for “Jesus” or “Christianity” (only some for “Buddha,” “Jews” and “Islamist extremists”). But how could Australian Christians respond to those untruths? First, there is nothing in the Bible that says “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” That saying comes from atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and was later invoked by the Nazi regime. But the Bible often teaches about taking risks, not being afraid, learning from discipline, and persevering in adversity (think of James 1:2-4).

Secondly, rather than relying on one’s feelings, Jeremiah (17:9) warns that “the heart is deceitful above all things.” When Jesus taught that it is more important to re-orient one’s inner being by accepting his grace, rather than religiously focusing on, say, food laws to try to earn salvation, he said: “it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21-22). Jesus also told us to think about what we are doing: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). This was one reason why Christians became path-breakers in supporting education and developing the sciences.

Following Jesus cannot mean seeing “us” believers as superior to “them”

Thirdly, the apostle Paul wrote (like Solzhenitsyn, an atheist who converted to Christianity two millennia later) about everyone’s inner struggle between good and evil (Romans 7). However, Timothy Keller explains how Paul’s “war against the law of my mind” (7:23) changes from one that is impossible to win (as in The Strange Case of Dr Jekkyl and Mr Hyde, written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886) to a battle that is ongoing but cannot be lost, after accepting Jesus.  Still, following Jesus cannot mean seeing “us” believers as superior to “them,” as we all remain broken people, in a broken world that we are called to help restore. This self-understanding is linked to the counter-cultural willingness of the Christian church, from its earliest days, to extend love and care even to non-believers (explained in Jesus the Game Changer series, as well as the new documentary For the Love of God).

Karl Faase is CEO of Olive Tree Media. Luke Nottage is Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law, University of Sydney and a member of Heterodoxacademy.org and Gymea Baptist Church.

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