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How to Empower Students to Break Out of Safe Spaces

There is a growing recognition that something is wrong with intellectual culture on college campuses. For a while now, critics have understood the problem on a relatively superficial level. They claim that students demand “trigger warnings” about controversial course material and “safe spaces” away from controversial speakers because they are “snowflakes” who need to develop some “grit.”

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have done us the favor of trying to understand the problem at a deeper level. In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, they argue that parents and educators have encouraged “safe space” culture by teaching students that they are “fragile” and unavoidably emotional creatures. Lukianoff and Haidt challenge this prescription and contend that it is contrary to clinical psychologists’ advice to people dealing with anxiety. Instead, they advocate giving students the psychological tools they need to face a world filled with real sources of anxiety. They seek to empower students as agents.

As someone who has taught in colleges and universities since around the turn of the millennium, I have seen the growth of the problem Lukianoff and Haidt seek to diagnose. In that same time, I’ve witnessed a plethora of ways in which parents, professors, and administrators really do coddle their students. So I find Lukianoff and Haidt’s contribution to this debate to be apt and refreshing. At the same time, I wonder if they’ve dug deep enough to unearth the philosophical assumptions beneath “safe space” culture.

To take this seriously means coming face to face with the philosophical question of free will vs. determinism.
If we are to reject what Lukianoff and Haidt say are the great “untruths” contributing to “safe space” culture, we need to accept and teach students to embrace the fact that they have sovereign control over their own minds. But to take this seriously means coming face to face with the philosophical question of free will vs. determinism. On this question, Jonathan Haidt, along with too many other psychologists and philosophers, takes positions at odds with the view that human beings are free agents, cognitively.

First, Coddling examines “the untruth of fragility.” Students are thought to need “safe spaces” on campuses because they are thought to be at risk for a kind of psychological distress if they are exposed to ideas that threaten their assumptions, regardless of whether their assumptions are true or false. Coddling claims that students are not the fragile “snowflakes” this viewpoint supposes them to be, and instead encourages them to act on the premise of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” It points to the success cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has enjoyed in encouraging just such a premise, by asking patients to expose themselves to small-scale or imagined instances of the causes of their anxiety. If therapy patients should face adversity rather than escape from it, why should a college curriculum be scrubbed of all reference to it for everyone else?

Next, Coddling argues that if students are to learn to deal with real or imagined adversity, they need to reject the “untruth of emotional reasoning.” Students today are urged to seek “safe spaces” when they interpret any disagreement or insult as a form of “microaggresion” or even “violence.” Inspired again by CBT, Coddling challenges students not to take their emotional reactions as unquestionable givens. It relies on Aaron Beck’s idea that there is a “close connection between the thoughts a person [has] and the feelings that [come] with them.”1 If therapy patients can learn to challenge the despondent or neurotic thoughts behind their feelings, why can’t college students who feel threatened?

But how do we encourage students to face their own adversities and avoid emotional reasoning about them?

Patients need to understand that they have the power freely to engage and direct their minds.
My friends Gena Gorlin and Reinier Schuur recently published a paper in the journal Behavior Genetics that assembled a great deal of evidence showing that even PTSD patients need to be able to accurately identify what they are feeling in the moment and to challenge beliefs that help maintain their disorders, such as the view that they were responsible for their victimization or that they are powerless to improve. To help them adopt this perspective, Gorlin and Schuur urge that it is not enough for clinicians to teach patients information processing skills; such patients also need to be motivated to grapple with unpleasant facts and avoid self-deception. And to be so motivated, patients need to understand that they can and should engage in “active, reality-based cognition.” But this means, in effect, that patients need to understand that they have the power freely to engage and direct their minds.

So what would happen if, rather than being encouraged to embrace their free will, students were taught that what they think and feel is the product of their genes and their upbringing, and, ultimately, a result of forces beyond their control? Then if they seek to escape from ideas they disagree with or to shout down speakers they hate, how can we enjoin or expect them to do otherwise? If they can’t control their minds, why hope that they can do anything but be “triggered” to seek a “safe space”? For that matter, if college administrators can’t control their minds, why criticize them for thinking that we should construct a campus or a society in a way that Haidt thinks it should not be constructed?

Yet when we turn to Jonathan Haidt’s own more theoretical work, we see him urging readers to adopt a perspective at odds with the idea that we control our own minds. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt tells us that it is “one of the greatest truths of psychology” that “to be human is to feel pulled in different directions, and to marvel—sometimes in horror—at your inability to control your own actions.”2 This certainly isn’t the point Haidt would want to emphasize to the easily “triggered” students he thinks should challenge their own emotions.

If students were taught that what they think and feel is, ultimately, a result of forces beyond their control, why hope that they can do anything but be “triggered” to seek a “safe space”?
Haidt’s work goes further, questioning not just our ability to control our actions, but our ability to control our own thoughts—the control that matters most for the efficacy of CBT.  We see this even in Coddling itself, which rehearses Haidt’s idea from The Righteous Mind that the conscious mind is like a “small rider sitting on top of a large elephant,” where the elephant represents emotion and other subconscious processes. The elephant is large because “nearly all of what goes on in our minds is outside of our direct control.” Coddling tries to reconcile this imagery with the lessons of CBT by arguing that the rider can “learn to speak the elephant’s language.” But if that’s true, Lukianoff and Haidt can no longer claim that students should subject the assumptions behind their emotions to logic and evidence. Those emotions speak a language of their own, “a language of intuition rather than logic.”3

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt explicitly denies that reason has autonomous control and insists that reasoning essentially constructs “post hoc” justifications for emotions, affirming a version of David Hume’s thesis that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” This sounds like an endorsement of the idea that “emotional reasoning” is the norm of human nature, not an avoidable pitfall. Here Haidt allows that reason can occasionally affect emotion, but mainly when we are prompted by social pressure. Even when he thinks we occasionally challenge our emotions for ourselves, we do it, he says, not by subjecting them to the scrutiny of logic, but by “suddenly seeing things in a new light or from a new perspective,” where the emphasis is on a model of passive perception, not active cognition.

The issue is not just that there is a tension between Haidt’s own peculiar views in theoretical psychology and his psychological recommendations. His work is typical of researchers in the fields of psychology and philosophy of mind. While few in these fields are willing to explicitly deny the existence of human free will, most adopt the “compatibilist” view that preserves the language of freedom by redefining it in watered-down terms that still apply to beings whose actions are determined by factors beyond their control. Compatibilist “freedom” doesn’t mean an ability to do otherwise, an ability to choose to do or think one thing or another in a moment. At most it means that one’s actions are physically unhindered and determined by certain cognitive factors that could themselves still be determined by a combination of genetics and environment.

If we teach our students that reason offers at most post hoc rationalizations for emotion, should we be surprised that they seek comfort in ethnic or sexual tribes so they can avoid that disapproval?
But it strains credulity to say that we are responsible for our choices even if they are dictated by events that transpired before we were born, and some studies show that this is not at all what students mean by “free will.” Students won’t be encouraged by being told that even though every choice they make might be the result of factors beyond their control, there’s still a sense in which that choice is “free” because they are at the moment not in prison and minimally sane.

(I should mention that I myself have waded into the philosophic debate about whether compatibilism makes sense, and have published a paper in American Philosophical Quarterly arguing that it doesn’t, especially on precisely the issue that matters most for the present debate, the question of cognitive control.)

If we teach our students that reason offers at most post hoc rationalizations for emotion — or works as a cudgel against our emotions only when we fear social disapproval — should we be surprised that they form or accept whole political theories to rationalize their fears? Should we be surprised that they seek comfort in ethnic or sexual tribes so they can avoid that disapproval?4

The point of encouraging students to ask questions for themselves relies on the idea that they have the autonomous ability to ask them, that their rational faculty is independent of the pushes and pulls of emotion. This presupposes the idea of free will, especially the idea that free will is, as Ayn Rand puts it, “your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.”

Ayn Rand was a critic of academic culture as far back as the 1950s. In the early 1970s, she began to sound alarms about the rising tribalism on campuses and in our culture generally. Whereas Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that tribalism is a psychological instinct that is hardwired by evolution, Rand embraced individualism because she thought human beings had free will and the power to rise above tribalism. She denied that we were programmed by our genes or environment and maintained that we have the power either to engage our minds actively and choose our values for ourselves, or to default on cognition and passively absorb our ideas and values from the tribe.

Students are almost immediately fascinated by the question of whether they are in control of their own lives and eager to hear secular arguments for the possibility of free will.
Why do contemporary academics resist the idea of robust free will? Generally, they seem to feel uncomfortable with the idea because they think it is incompatible with modern neuroscience, social psychology and other cognate fields. Here, I think, is a place where a trip to the philosophical-behavioral therapist’s chair could do them some good. They could stand to challenge their own core beliefs about what free will is, whether it is as threatening to science as they think, and whether we can even make sense of scientific rationality in a universe in which reason only serves to rationalize emotion.

Unfortunately, “our time is just about up.” But I can offer several referrals. One is to Gorlin and Schuur, whose aforementioned paper reminds us that research in behavioral genetics reveals that in studies of twins, fully 40–60% of “complex behavioral traits” are unaccounted for by reference to genetic and environmental factors shared by the twins. They note that it’s a mistake to infer that these traits must be accountable by still other deterministic factors from the “nonshared environment.” They argue that it is precisely this “nonshared environment” where behavioral genetics leaves room for free will.

I can also refer academics to Al Mele, who authored a recent slim but compelling volume, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will (Oxford, 2014), which argues for precisely the thesis the title suggests. A final referral is to the work of my colleague Onkar Ghate, who gave an excellent talk last year showing why recent thinkers like Sam Harris and Steven Pinker are wrong to see free will as incompatible with science. Ghate encourages his student audience to “seize the reins of their minds.”

I have taught college philosophy classes on free will and determinism to students for many years. I find that it is the one topic in philosophy that requires almost zero practical motivation to generate student interest. Students are almost immediately fascinated by the question of whether they are in control of their own lives. They are disturbed by the suggestion that they have no free will, offended by the linguistic evasion of contemporary “compatibilists” who say free will can be reconciled with determinism, and eager to hear secular arguments for the possibility of free will.

If Lukianoff and Haidt are right to challenge students to embrace their cognitive agency in the face of emotional discomfort, they owe it to those students to explain what makes this agency possible in the first place. If they can’t, perhaps they owe it to themselves to challenge their own discomfort with the idea of free will. Their students will listen.

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  1. As they know, this idea that emotions are reactions to or instances of our implicit value judgments is an idea that goes back to the Stoics and ultimately to Aristotle. It is a point that has been developed to greater effect by recent philosophers such as Ayn Rand and Martha Nussbaum.
  2. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York, Vintage Books, 2012), 32.
  3. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 35.
  4. The third untruth is “the untruth of us versus them.” In Coddling, they give examples of the worst cases in which students on American campuses have staged massive protest and “call out” campaigns against individuals who were perceived to have committed various “microaggressions.” Coddling suggests that these campaigns work from the assumption that if someone’s perceived infraction moves them out of the “victim” box, they must fall into the “oppressor” box, and there is no third option. This time around, Lukianoff and Haidt don’t appeal to any advice from CBT to combat the “us versus them” mentality. They point instead to evidence from psychology that “the human mind is prepared for tribalism,” invoking the hypothesis from evolutionary psychology that “tribalism is our evolutionary endowment for banding together to prepare for intergroup conflict.” I have serious questions about whether the evidence from psychology actually establishes this. But even so, the most that it does is to explain the “us versus them” mentality; it doesn’t offer us an alternative. The alternative they identify is our capacity to perceive our common humanity, as opposed to our common enemy. But given Haidt’s stress on the primacy of intuitive emotion and social pressure over reason, it is unclear how, in his psychology, we are supposed to be able to escape this deterministic instinct for tribalism.

Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, Ph.D. in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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