The argument in Coddling makes some sense, but there is also, to me, an unsatisfactory section in the book that speculates that the safe-space problems on campus also coincided almost exactly with the arrival of what is now called the “iGen” generation... The authors also variously reference the generation-bemoaning Cassandra-like psychologist Jean M Twenge of San Diego State University, evolutionary psychology and chimpanzee behaviour in aid of their argument, and these are never good signs... In the end, however, I agreed with Messrs Lukianoff and Haidt that protecting kids has gone too far, and that some campus behaviour is absurd and worrying. What I wasn’t convinced by was their thesis that one led to the other. I was much more taken by the part of their argument that dealt with the changing face of politics, and especially left-wing politics. I think they are right to believe that a section of the Left (students and old faculty) are reworking the “free speech is violence” concepts of the Marcusian New Left of the 1960s, updated for the age of identity politics.
The authors approvingly quote the progressive activist Van Jones, who makes a distinction between “good” safe spaces on campus...and the “horrible” idea that students require ideological or emotional safety. This makes intuitive sense, but in practice the distinction between the two definitions is blurry. While undocumented students face the imminent threat of deportation, can we expect them to welcome speeches by the likes of Bannon? Can we expect them to maintain an academic detachment when discussing his ideology? ... Despite this, I found myself admiring the confidence and fluency with which students are testing out arguments about power and privilege that I was merely dimly aware of as a student, only a decade ago. The state of American politics today, and even the clumsiness of the public debate about the New Yorker and the NYRB, suggest that students might be better off figuring things out on their own.
The core irony of The Coddling of the American Mind is that, by opposing identity politics, its authors try to consolidate an identity that does not have to see itself as such. Enjoying the luxury of living free from discrimination and domination, they therefore insist that the crises moving young people to action are all in their heads. Imagine thinking that racism and sexism were just bad ideas that a good debate could conquer!... As their constituency shrinks, their cant of progress starts to sound hysterical. The minds they coddle just may be their own.
What has gone wrong? A lot, they contend. . . . Mr Haidt’s and Mr Lukianoff’s analysis is wise and scrupulous. . . . In reality, only a minority of students take part in the more egregious sorts of disorder that “The Coddling” documents. . . Another mitigating factor—which Mr Haidt and Mr Lukianoff acknowledge—is that, in the headline incidents, at least, bolshie students are not the only blameworthy parties. . . .
Lukianoff and Haidt offer a variety of compelling explanations for the rise of the “safetyism” culture that so dominates elite colleges and, increasingly, much journalistic discourse along the lines of The Nation’s editorial note. One of the most intriguing ideas they present is the Australian psychologist Nick Haslam’s notion of “concept creep.” Haslam found that since the 1980s key concepts in clinical and social psychology, including abuse, bullying, trauma and prejudice, have expanded both “downward” and “outward” to apply to less severe circumstances and to take in novel phenomena. “By the early 2000s,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, “the concept of ‘trauma’ within parts of the therapeutic community had crept down so far that it included anything ‘experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful.’”