Popular author speaks on 'safe space' controversy at January Series

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By Cynthia Price

Jonathan Haidt, well-known co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (with Greg Lukianoff), spoke at the Calvin College January Series last Monday about the genesis of the notion that college students should be protected from hearing upsetting things.

As detailed in the past, the January Series is a month-long set of lectures by people with significant thoughts - some famous, some not. Held at Calvin College, the series is live-streamed across Michigan and beyond.

Haidt’s book might be termed a more thoughtful version of what so many “boomers” believe about the “snowflake” tendencies of Gen Z, people who were born after 1996. The book has drawn criticism based on a number of factors: its tendency to gloss over important details of the cases of outrage against scheduled university speakers; the way it ignores the true threat that some ideas engender toward people who do not live privileged lives; and its tendency to “disapprove of” direct action against those who espouse certain ideas, and encourage only genteel discussion.

However, what seems to interest Haidt most is what caused it, and what those societal trends mean.

Originally, his interest was piqued by the increase in reported episodes of anxiety and depression (though not other mental illnesses) in high school (and even middle school) and college-age males and females, to include suicide rates. In particular, the rise among girls has been very sharp.

Looking backwards, he noted that Gen Z individuals had, statistically, many fewer life experiences than previous generations. In large numbers they put off getting drivers’ licenses, they did not date, they didn’t get jobs, and they didn’t do drugs or drink. “Mostly they came home from school and looked at their phones,” Haidt said.

While recognizing that correlatoio is not causation, Haidt theorizes that the turning point was the push in the late 2000-aughts for people to engage more with social media - the ability to hit “like ” -  which was more addicting for girls, feeding into the our culture’s females’ tendency to use bullying in a relational and not physical sense, and girls’ greater FOMO/FOBLO (Fear of Missing Out/Fear of Being Left Out).

This heightened anxiety combined with the overprotection-engendered the documented lack of real-world experiences and the “bubble”effect of social media (in particular as it relates to the wisdom of previous ages) to produce individuals who have little resilience and lack in strength and hardiness.

He blamed three untruths that have become prevalent beliefts” 1) What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; 2) Always trust your feelings; and 3) Life is a battle between good and evil people.

Haidt asked the Calvin audience to divide into two groups and say aloud when in their  youth they had first been allowed to go out and play alon: those born before 1996 reported the age as 10-12 and those born before answered age 6-8. He backed Lenore Skenazy’s book Free Range Kids recommendation that we stop overprotecting children and let them go play.

He also talked  about the notion of antifragility as put forth by Nassim Telab, who says that some people and cultures improve in the face of adversity (as opposed to resiliency, where they meet adversity and stay the same, also a positive). Along with rules limiting social media time and a social media policy of not allowing anyone to open an account without showing some form of ID, Haight recommends embracing antifragility.

He ended by showing a clip of CNN Commentator Van Jones, who said, among other things, “I want you to be safe physically and [from abuse]. But I don’t want you to be safe ideologically, I don’t want you to be safe emotionally, I want you to be strong. That’s different.” He went on to talk about how strong civil rights freedom fighters had to be.

“I just love that,” Haidt commented.

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