Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Does Watch-Your-Words Political Correctness in Universities Contribute to Mental Illness?

There's an interesting article in The Atlantic about how we now coddle college students by avoiding certain ideas -- and even certain words -- that might be offensive to someone.  The article talks about certain words/ideas being 'microagressions' and that professors offer 'trigger warnings,' if course material might remind people of past traumas.  

In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Johnathan Haidt write, "Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress."  Wait, so we think our top lawyers should not be educated about rape law?  Who will prosecute or defend the rapists?

The list of what might be offensive is long and sometimes a bit oblique for me, and I have to say, I wonder about first amendment rights to free speech (or any speech), when the topics come down to things such as this:
During the 2014–15 school year, for instance, the deans and department chairs at the 10 University of California system schools were presented by administrators at faculty leader-training sessions with examples of microaggressions. The list of offensive statements included: “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

America may or may not be the land of opportunity, but if a college professor truly believes that, he can't say it?  And (*beware, possible micro-agression in the rest of the sentence*), I'm totally lost as to what is wrong with expressing the personal belief that the most qualified person should get the job.  

The authors write:
The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness. That’s partly right, although there are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and ’90s. That movement sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse....

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.

The authors contend that over time, parents have become more concerned with safety, from bullying which might contribute to mass murders, to peanut butter bans, to unsafe playground equipment.  Children have learned that the world is an unsafe place and adults will provide protection.  

Read the article, because the examples go on and on, one includes a hearing against a young man who was disciplined for reading a book about the Klan (specifically about how a college protested the Ku Klux Klan) because the picture on the cover offended another student.  

The authors go on to note: 

Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on “blaming the victim,” it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity. The thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card.
 Furthermore, they contend that avoiding discussion of certain topics is not helpful to people with problems and may create pathology in those without them:
However, there is a deeper problem with trigger warnings. According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy. You might start by asking the woman to merely look at an elevator from a distance—standing in a building lobby, perhaps—until her apprehension begins to subside. If nothing bad happens while she’s standing in the lobby—if the fear is not “reinforced”—then she will begin to learn a new association: elevators are not dangerous. (This reduction in fear during exposure is called habituation.) Then, on subsequent days, you might ask her to get closer, and on later days to push the call button, and eventually to step in and go up one floor. This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy.

Students who call for trigger warnings may be correct that some of their peers are harboring memories of trauma that could be reactivated by course readings. But they are wrong to try to prevent such reactivations. Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation. Classroom discussions are safe places to be exposed to incidental reminders of trauma (such as the word violate). A discussion of violence is unlikely to be followed by actual violence, so it is a good way to help students change the associations that are causing them discomfort. And they’d better get their habituation done in college, because the world beyond college will be far less willing to accommodate requests for trigger warnings and opt-outs.

The expansive use of trigger warnings may also foster unhealthy mental habits in the vastly larger group of students who do not suffer from PTSD or other anxiety disorders. People acquire their fears not just from their own past experiences, but from social learning as well. If everyone around you acts as though something is dangerous—elevators, certain neighborhoods, novels depicting racism—then you are at risk of acquiring that fear too. The psychiatrist Sarah Roff pointed this out last year in an online article for The Chronicle of Higher Education. “One of my biggest concerns about trigger warnings,” Roff wrote, “is that they will apply not just to those who have experienced trauma, but to all students, creating an atmosphere in which they are encouraged to believe that there is something dangerous or damaging about discussing difficult aspects of our history.”
The authors conclude, for a number of reasons, that shielding students from potentially controversial or upsetting words and ideas is wrong -- it leaves them too thin-skinned and it creates an intellectual environment of homogeneity.  What's the answer? The authors conclude that college students should all be taught Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help them deal with uncomfortable ideas.  The whole article was great food for thought, although the idea that we are stifling intellectual innovation and exploration for fear of using a word that might offend someone, well it makes me kind of uncomfortable. 


Joel Hassman,MD said...

This is how personality disorder is becoming pervasive across society.

Especially cluster B features. To me, the collusion between Managed Care, the pharmaceutical industry, and Psychiatry as a whole, allowed flagrant ignoring of personality issues in the presentation of psychopathology to then allow personality disorder issues to propagate.

Hey, it's just my opinion, but, what are the examples A and B front and center?

Two words: Trump, and, Clinton.

I don't think about it, but that time has been lost.

Dinah said...

So political correctness induces personality disorders?

I was raised in an era of people singing "Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me." I wonder if that message left people with the idea that they were stronger, rather than campaigning for victim-hood. There are, however, certainly cases where repeated verbal taunting becomes a distraction, harassment, and victimizing to some -- but this article seems to say that there is no clear line as to when we define it as harassment, and that anyone can be a victim simply by saying they are offended, which trumps (forgive the pun) another person's right to expression. And furthermore, it doesn't need to be repeated, people are feeling victimized by an interpretation of a single sentence that may have had a wholly different meaning to the person who was speaking. Reminds me of Philip Roth's novel, The Human Stain -- an excellent read btw.

Also, I find it offensive that blogger repeatedly asks if I'm a robot.

Joel Hassman, MD said...

Think about it Dinah, what are the tools of the antisocial and narcissist, who are the primary examples of who are running for public office of late, and not just for President but other political offices and even those running businesses, and leadership in general for various aspects of society, even the APA?

Denial, deflection, projection, minimization, passive aggression, acting out, and distortion. This is what you tolerate, if even expect in people in positions of power and influence these days?? Immature and pathological defenses, wow, this is what American influence has devolved to in this millennium?

Selfishness is not amenable to medication, and certainly not 6-10 psychotherapy visits as dictated by many managed care plans of late. And who are the loudest proponents of political correctness, in my opinion at least the Democrats and the Left, who use it to stifle honest and fair debate and healthy dissent. What kind of person thinks their opinion not only is better, but the only one to be validated?

In order, narcissist, antisocial, and sociopath. Again, my imperfect opinion, but, tell me what you think of "Black Lives Matter" as a political movement?

You really tolerate people disrupting someone else's conferences and highways?

Take the "v" out of the middle word of that movement's slogan and you have the real agenda of what they are up to! And that is not a racist comment, but, an indictment of what is pathetically tolerated by too many of late.

Microaggressions, hmm, a term that probably could have been used in describing Borderline Personality Disorder in DSM 3 or 4, you think?!

Oh, and cue I Robot by Alan Parsons Project:


A great album, in my humble and per music almost perfect opinion...

Sideways Shrink said...

I don't know, Dinah. I have my kids in a public school K through 8 coop in the ex-urbs of Seattle. While it is true that there are a lot of UBER-Christians amongst the parents in the school, there are also a lot of orher kinds of parents at the school. But political correctness is rampant in the school. Halloween is "Literary figure" day and the whole PC thing drives the teachers crazy. My 10 year old who is on the autism spectrum reports continually that she feels excluded and bullied in other passive-aggressive ways. This whole "correctness" thing is real and it's bullshit. Instead of teaching kids empathy we are teaching them words to say that seem like understanding.

Sideways Shrink said...

Oh, Dinah, when the zombie apocalypse comes (as surely it will) the zombies will know whether you are a robot or not so don't sweat it!!

Sideways Shrink said...

Something that's driving me nuts is the bleeping and obscuring of the word "nigger". Some media even bleeped out first black President when he used the word in a speech. We don't bleep "concentration camp", "pogrom", "slavery", "kike", "Hebe", "whore". I know everyone is desperate to get to that mythical "post-racial" America, but pretending words don't exist does not seem like the way to get there.

Anonymous said...

I really liked this post. It shows what can happen when people with supposedly altruistic motives try to micromanage some intrinsic human behavior. There will always be aggression. (Read Conrad Lorenz.) It might be physical (for those who are strong and agile). Or it might be verbal and intellectual (for those who prefer to cloak their aggression in words). It is a noble thing to want to increase good behavior to our fellow citizens. It is good to try to prevent aggression. But it is unwise to try to raise a "society in a bubble." Just as we do not do children any favors by isolating them from pathogens and antigens related to them, we do not do them any favors by isolating them from aggression. We keep the most virulent forms at bay but allow natural defenses to develop to the milder ones. This promotes resilience and health and minimizes weakness and susceptibility.

Catherine Munson said...

I find this interesting. In my opinion, all cultures and subcultures have rules about what is offensive or not offensive. And what is offensive in one situation might not be in another. I wonder if some of the fear, over-protectiveness and semi-censorship is related to the disappearance of privacy both as an idea, a "right" and a reality.

Was that a drone over there?