Choose one of the attached essays linked below.
Write an analysis that specifies up front the kind of analysis you will do and why; will it be a textual analysis or contextual? Will you concentrate on one of the popular appeals: logos, pathos, ethos, kairos or perhaps one or two of the 5 canons of rhetoric? Perhaps you will be evaluating the author’s use of metaphor or irony, or some other rhetorical device.
Your analysis should be 4-5 pages, double spaced, 12 point font.
You should use MLA citation
, though most essays will not require outside sources (with the possible exception of a contextual analysis). No matter which sources you do use, you should provide citation for quotations, paraphrases, or summaries.
The most important thing to keep in mind with rhetorical analysis is that you are not as interested in the meaning of the text (what it says) as you are in how the author constructs that meaning. This difference requires somewhat of a switch in your attention and focus. Of course your investment and evaluation of how the text is working can also arrive at some conclusions and observations about what the text means. A better question than *is the thesis true?* then, is *are the rhetorical qualities working together toward a persuasive outcome, and how so?*
THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND
BY GREG LUKIANOFF AND JONATHAN HAIDT
SOMETHING STRANGE IS happening at Americaâ€™s colleges and universities. A
movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub
campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or
give offense. 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 lawâ€”or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in â€œthat violates
the lawâ€) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor
at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher
Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoiaâ€”and was then
subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the
article and by a tweet sheâ€™d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June,
a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox
describing how gingerly he now has to teach. â€œIâ€™m a Liberal Professor, and My
Liberal Students Terrify Me,â€ the headline said. A number of popular
comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college
campuses (see Caitlin Flanaganâ€™s article in this monthâ€™s issue). Jerry Seinfeld
and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college
students, saying too many of them canâ€™t take a joke.
Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus
parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no
malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some
campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American
â€œWhere were you born?,â€ because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger
warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a
strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua
Achebeâ€™s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgeraldâ€™s The Great
Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously
victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe
might â€œtriggerâ€ a recurrence of past trauma.
Some recent campus actions border on the surreal. In April, at Brandeis University, the Asian
American student association sought to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians
through an installation on the steps of an academic hall. The installation gave examples of
microaggressions such as â€œArenâ€™t you supposed to be good at math?â€ and â€œIâ€™m colorblind! I
donâ€™t see race.â€ But a backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt that the
display itself was a microaggression. The association removed the installation, and its president
wrote an e-mail to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was â€œtriggered or hurt by
the content of the microaggressions.â€
According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid
the things they fear is misguided.
This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the
classroom, even as a basis for discussion. During the 2014â€“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: â€œAmerica is the land of opportunityâ€ and â€œI believe the most
qualified person should get the job.â€
The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness.
Thatâ€™s partly right, although there are important differences between whatâ€™s happening now and
what happened in the 1980s and â€™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 â€œsafe
spacesâ€ 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.
We have been studying this development for a while now, with rising alarm. (Greg Lukianoff is
a constitutional lawyer and the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in
Education, which defends free speech and academic freedom on campus, and has advocated for
students and faculty involved in many of the incidents this article describes; Jonathan Haidt is a
social psychologist who studies the American culture wars. The stories of how we each came to
this subject can be read here.) The dangers that these trends pose to scholarship and to the quality
of American universities are significant; we could write a whole essay detailing them. But in this
essay we focus on a different question: What are the effects of this new protectiveness on the
students themselves? Does it benefit the people it is supposed to help? What exactly are students
learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights,
places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense
that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are
expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors?
Power, identity, and speech in the new American university
Thereâ€™s a saying common in education circles: Donâ€™t teach students what to think; teach
them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. 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
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.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Itâ€™s difficult to know exactly why vindictive protectiveness has burst forth so powerfully in the
past few years. The phenomenon may be related to recent changes in the interpretation of federal
antidiscrimination statutes (about which more later). But the answer probably involves
generational shifts as well. Childhood itself has changed greatly during the past generation.
Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers can remember riding their bicycles around their hometowns,
unchaperoned by adults, by the time they were 8 or 9 years old. In the hours after school, kids
were expected to occupy themselves, getting into minor scrapes and learning from their
experiences. But â€œfree rangeâ€ childhood became less common in the 1980s. The surge in crime
from the â€™60s through the early â€™90s made Baby Boomer parents more protective than their own
parents had been. Stories of abducted children appeared more frequently in the news, and in
1984, images of them began showing up on milk cartons. In response, many parents pulled in the
reins and worked harder to keep their children safe.
The flight to safety also happened at school. Dangerous play structures were removed from
playgrounds; peanut butter was banned from student lunches. After the 1999 Columbine
massacre in Colorado, many schools cracked down on bullying, implementing â€œzero toleranceâ€
policies. In a variety of ways, children born after 1980â€”the Millennialsâ€”got a consistent
message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect
you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.
These same children grew up in a culture that was (and still is) becoming more politically
polarized. Republicans and Democrats have never particularly liked each other, but survey data
going back to the 1970s show that on average, their mutual dislike used to be surprisingly mild.
Negative feelings have grown steadily stronger, however, particularly since the early 2000s.
Political scientists call this process â€œaffective partisan polarization,â€ and it is a very serious
problem for any democracy. As each side increasingly demonizes the other, compromise
becomes more difficult. A recent study shows that implicit or unconscious biases are now at least
as strong across political parties as they are across races.
So itâ€™s not hard to imagine why students arriving on campus today might be more desirous of
protection and more hostile toward ideological opponents than in generations past. This hostility,
and the self-righteousness fueled by strong partisan emotions, can be expected to add force to
any moral crusade. A principle of moral psychology is that â€œmorality binds and blinds.â€ Part of
what we do when we make moral judgments is express allegiance to a team. But that can
interfere with our ability to think critically. Acknowledging that the other sideâ€™s viewpoint has
any merit is riskyâ€”your teammates may see you as a traitor.
Social media makes it extraordinarily easy to join crusades, express solidarity and outrage, and
shun traitors. Facebook was founded in 2004, and since 2006 it has allowed children as young as
13 to join. This means that the first wave of students who spent all their teen years using
Facebook reached college in 2011, and graduated from college only this year.
These first true â€œsocial-media nativesâ€ may be different from members of previous generations
in how they go about sharing their moral judgments and supporting one another in moral
campaigns and conflicts. We find much to like about these trends; young people today are
engaged with one another, with news stories, and with prosocial endeavors to a greater degree
than when the dominant technology was television. But social media has also fundamentally
shifted the balance of power in relationships between students and faculty; the latter increasingly
fear what students might do to their reputations and careers by stirring up online mobs against
We do not mean to imply simple causation, but rates of mental illness in young adults have been
rising, both on campus and off, in recent decades. Some portion of the increase is surely due to
better diagnosis and greater willingness to seek help, but most experts seem to agree that some
portion of the trend is real. Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by
the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe
psychological problems was rising at their schools. The rate of emotional distress reported by
students themselves is also high, and rising. In a 2014 survey by the American College Health
Association, 54 percent of college students surveyed said that they had â€œfelt overwhelming
anxietyâ€ in the past 12 months, up from 49 percent in the same survey just five years earlier.
Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile, and this has surely
changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them. The question is
whether some of those changes might be doing more harm than good.
THE THINKING CURE
For millennia, philosophers have understood that we donâ€™t see life as it is; we see a version
distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments. The Buddha said, â€œOur life is the creation of
our mind.â€ Marcus Aurelius said, â€œLife itself is but what you deem it.â€ The quest for wisdom in
many traditions begins with this insight. Early Buddhists and the Stoics, for example, developed
practices for reducing attachments, thinking more clearly, and finding release from the emotional
torments of normal mental life.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a modern embodiment of this ancient wisdom. It is the most
extensively studied nonpharmaceutical treatment of mental illness, and is used widely to treat
depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and addiction. It can even be of help to
schizophrenics. No other form of psychotherapy has been shown to work for a broader range of
problems. Studies have generally found that it is as effective as antidepressant drugs (such as
Prozac) in the treatment of anxiety and depression. The therapy is relatively quick and easy to
learn; after a few months of training, many patients can do it on their own. Unlike drugs,
cognitive behavioral therapy keeps working long after treatment is stopped, because it teaches
thinking skills that people can continue to use.
The goal is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately. You start by
learning the names of the dozen or so most common cognitive distortions (such as
overgeneralizing, discounting positives, and emotional reasoning; see the list at the bottom of
this article). Each time you notice yourself falling prey to one of them, you name it, describe the
facts of the situation, consider alternative interpretations, and then choose an interpretation of
events more in line with those facts. Your emotions follow your new interpretation. In time, this
process becomes automatic. When people improve their mental hygiene in this wayâ€”when they
free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts that had previously filled so much of their
consciousnessâ€”they become less depressed, anxious, and angry.
The parallel to formal education is clear: cognitive behavioral therapy teaches good criticalthinking skills, the sort that educators have striven for so long to impart. By almost any
definition, critical thinking requires grounding oneâ€™s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or
desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict oneâ€™s initial
hypothesis. But does campus life today foster critical thinking? Or does it coax students to think
in more-distorted ways?
Letâ€™s look at recent trends in higher education in light of the distortions that cognitive behavioral
therapy identifies. We will draw the names and descriptions of these distortions from David D.
Burnsâ€™s popular book Feeling Good, as well as from the second edition of Treatment Plans and
Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders, by Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland,
and Lata K. McGinn.
HIGHER EDUCATIONâ€™S EMBRACE OF â€œEMOTIONAL REASONINGâ€
Burns defines emotional reasoning as assuming â€œthat your negative emotions necessarily reflect
the way things really are: â€˜I feel it, therefore it must be true.â€™ â€ Leahy, Holland, and McGinn
define it as letting â€œyour feelings guide your interpretation of reality.â€ But, of course, subjective
feelings are not always trustworthy guides; unrestrained, they can cause people to lash out at
others who have done nothing wrong. Therapy often involves talking yourself down from the
idea that each of your emotional responses represents something true or important.
Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someoneâ€™s
words are â€œoffensiveâ€ is not just an expression of oneâ€™s own subjective feeling of offendedness.
It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a
demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.
There have always been some people who believe they have a right not to be offended. Yet
throughout American historyâ€”from the Victorian era to the free-speech activism of the 1960s
and â€™70sâ€”radicals have pushed boundaries and mocked prevailing sensibilities. Sometime in the
1980s, however, college campuses began to focus on preventing offensive speech, especially
speech that might be hurtful to women or minority groups. The sentiment underpinning this goal
was laudable, but it quickly produced some absurd results.
What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin just before
they leave the cocoon of adult protection?
Among the most famous early examples was the so-called water-buffalo incident at the
University of Pennsylvania. In 1993, the university charged an Israeli-born student with racial
harassment after he yelled â€œShut up, you water buffalo!â€ to a crowd of black sorority women that
was making noise at night outside his dorm-room window. Many scholars and pundits at the time
could not see how the term water buffalo (a rough translation of a Hebrew insult for a
thoughtless or rowdy person) was a racial slur against African Americans, and as a result, the
case became international news.
Claims of a right not to be offended have continued to arise since then, and universities have
continued to privilege them. In a particularly egregious 2008 case, for instance, Indiana
Universityâ€“Purdue University at Indianapolis found a white student guilty of racial harassment
for reading a book titled Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The book honored student opposition to the
Ku Klux Klan when it marched on Notre Dame in 1924. Nonetheless, the picture of a Klan rally
on the bookâ€™s cover offended at least one of the studentâ€™s co-workers (he was a janitor as well as
a student), and that was enough for a guilty finding by the universityâ€™s Affirmative Action
These examples may seem extreme, but the reasoning behind them has become more
commonplace on campus in recent years. Last year, at the University of St. Thomas, in
Minnesota, an event called Hump Day, which would have allowed people to pet a camel, was
abruptly canceled. Students had created a Facebook group where they protested the event for
animal cruelty, for being a waste of money, and for being insensitive to people from the Middle
East. The inspiration for the camel had almost certainly come from a popular TV commercial in
which a camel saunters around an office on a Wednesday, celebrating â€œhump dayâ€; it was devoid
of any reference to Middle Eastern peoples. Nevertheless, the group organizing the event
announced on its Facebook page that the event would be canceled because the â€œprogram [was]
dividing people and would make for an uncomfortable and possibly unsafe environment.â€
Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on â€œblaming the victim,â€ it is generally
considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someoneâ€™s
emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to oneâ€™s group identity. The thin
argument â€œIâ€™m offendedâ€ becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to what Jonathan Rauch,
a contributing editor at this magazine, calls the â€œoffendedness sweepstakes,â€ in which opposing
parties use claims of offense as cudgels. In the process, the bar for what we consider
unacceptable speech is lowered further and further.
Since 2013, new pressure from the federal government has reinforced this trend. Federal
antidiscrimination statutes regulate on-campus harassment and unequal treatment based on sex,
race, religion, and national origin. Until recently, the Department of Educationâ€™s Office for Civil
Rights acknowledged that speech must be â€œobjectively offensiveâ€ before it could be deemed
actionable as sexual harassmentâ€”it would have to pass the â€œreasonable personâ€ test. To be
prohibited, the office wrote in 2003, allegedly harassing speech would have to go â€œbeyond the
mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.â€
But in 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual
harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply â€œunwelcome.â€ Out of fear of federal
investigations, universities are now applying that standardâ€”defining unwelcome speech as
harassmentâ€”not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is
supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a
professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim.
Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.
If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weaponsâ€”
or at least as evidence in administrative proceedingsâ€”then they are teaching students to nurture
a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and
beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and
friendships, along with their mental health.
FORTUNE-TELLING AND TRIGGER WARNINGS
Burns defines fortune-telling as â€œanticipat[ing] that things will turn out badlyâ€ and feeling
â€œconvinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.â€ Leahy, Holland, and McGinn
define it as â€œpredict[ing] the future negativelyâ€ or seeing potential danger in an everyday
situation. The recent spread of demands for trigger warnings on reading assignments with
provocative content is an example of fortune-telling.
The idea that words (or smells or any sensory input) can trigger searing memories of past
traumaâ€”and intense fear that it may be repeatedâ€”has been around at least since World War I,
when psychiatrists began treating soldiers for what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder.
But explicit trigger warnings are believed to have originated much more recently, on message
boards in the early days of the Internet. Trigger warnings became particularly prevalent in selfhelp and feminist forums, where they allowed readers who had suffered from traumatic events
like sexual assault to avoid graphic content that might trigger flashbacks or panic attacks.
Search-engine trends indicate that the phrase broke into mainstream use online around 2011,
spiked in 2014, and reached an all-time high in 2015. The use of trigger warnings on campus
appears to have followed a similar trajectory; seemingly overnight, students at universities across
the country have begun demanding that their professors issue warnings before covering material
that might evoke a negative emotional response.
In 2013, a task force composed of administrators, students, recent alumni, and one faculty
member at Oberlin College, in Ohio, released an online resource guide for faculty (subsequently
retracted in the face of faculty pushback) that included a list of topics warranting trigger
warnings. These topics included classism and privilege, among many others. The task force
recommended that materials that might trigger negative reactions among students be avoided
altogether unless they â€œcontribute directlyâ€ to course goals, and suggested that works that were
â€œtoo important to avoidâ€ be made optional.
Itâ€™s hard to imagine how novels illustrating classism and privilege could provoke or reactivate
the kind of terror that is typically implicated in PTSD. Rather, trigger warnings are sometimes
demanded for a long list of ideas and attitudes that some students find politically offensive, in the
name of preventing other students from being harmed. This is an example of what psychologists
call â€œmotivated reasoningâ€â€”we spontaneously generate arguments for conclusions we want to
support. Once you find something hateful, it is easy to argue that exposure to the hateful thing
could traumatize some other people. You believe that you know how others will react, and that
their reaction could be devastating. Preventing that devastation becomes a moral obligation for
the whole community. Books for which students have called publicly for trigger warnings within
the past couple of years include Virginia Woolfâ€™s Mrs. Dalloway (at Rutgers, for â€œsuicidal
inclinationsâ€) and Ovidâ€™s Metamorphoses (at Columbia, for sexual assault).
Jeannie Sukâ€™s New Yorker essay described the difficulties of teaching rape law in the age of
trigger warnings. Some students, she wrote, have pressured their professors to avoid teaching the
subject in order to protect themselves and their classmates from potential distress. Suk compares
this to trying to teach â€œa medical student who is training to be a surgeon but who fears that heâ€™ll
become distressed if he sees or handles blood.â€
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 distanceâ€”standing in a building lobby, perhapsâ€”until her
apprehension begins to subside. If nothing bad happens while sheâ€™s standing in the lobbyâ€”if the
fear is not â€œreinforcedâ€â€”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 theyâ€™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 dangerousâ€”elevators, certain neighborhoods, novels
depicting racismâ€”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. â€œOne of my
biggest concerns about trigger warnings,â€ Roff wrote, â€œis 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.â€
The new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the
classroom, even as a basis for discussion or debate.
In an article published last year by Inside Higher Ed, seven humanities professors wrote that the
trigger-warning movement was â€œalready having a chilling effect on [their] teaching and
pedagogy.â€ They reported their colleaguesâ€™ receiving â€œphone calls from deans and other
administrators investigating student complaints that they have included â€˜triggeringâ€™ material in
their courses, with or without warnings.â€ A trigger warning, they wrote, â€œserves as a guarantee
that students will not experience unexpected discomfort and implies that if they do, a contract
has been broken.â€ When students come to expect trigger warnings for any material that makes
them uncomfortable, the easiest way for faculty to stay out of trouble is to avoid material that
might upset the most sensitive student in the class.
MAGNIFICATION, LABELING, AND MICROAGGRESSIONS
Burns defines magnification as â€œexaggerat[ing] the importance of things,â€ and Leahy, Holland,
and McGinn define labeling as â€œassign[ing] global negative traits to yourself and others.â€ The
recent collegiate trend of uncovering allegedly racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise discriminatory
microaggressions doesnâ€™t incidentally teach students to focus on small or accidental slights.
Its purpose is to get students to focus on them and then relabel the people who have made such
remarks as aggressors.
The term microaggression originated in the 1970s and referred to subtle, often unconscious racist
affronts. The definition has expanded in recent years to include anything that can be perceived as
discriminatory on virtually any basis. For example, in 2013, a student group at UCLA staged a
sit-in during a class taught by Val Rust, an education professor. The group read a letter aloud
expressing their concerns about the campusâ€™s hostility toward students of color. Although Rust
was not explicitly named, the group quite clearly criticized his teaching as microaggressive. In
the course of correcting his studentsâ€™ grammar and spelling, Rust had noted that a student had
wrongly capitalized the first letter of the word indigenous. Lowercasing the capital I was an
insult to the student and her ideology, the group claimed.
Even joking about microaggressions can be seen as an aggression, warranting punishment. Last
fall, Omar Mahmood, a student at the University of Michigan, wrote a satirical column for a
conservative student publication, The Michigan Review, poking fun at what he saw as a campus
tendency to perceive microaggressions in just about anything. Mahmood was also employed at
the campus newspaper, The Michigan Daily. The Dailyâ€™s editors said that the way Mahmood had
â€œsatirically mocked the experiences of fellow Daily contributors and minority communities on
campus â€¦ created a conflict of interest.â€ The Daily terminated Mahmood after he described the
incident to two Web sites, The College Fix and The Daily Caller. A group of women later
vandalized Mahmoodâ€™s doorway with eggs, hot dogs, gum, and notes with messages such as
â€œEveryone hates you, you violent prick.â€ When speech comes to be seen as a form of violence,
vindictive protectiveness can justify a hostile, and perhaps even violent, response.
In March, the student government at Ithaca College, in upstate New York, went so far as to
propose the creation of an anonymous microaggression-reporting system. Student sponsors
envisioned some form of disciplinary action against â€œoppressorsâ€ engaged in belittling speech.
One of the sponsors of the program said that while â€œnot â€¦ every instance will require trial or
some kind of harsh punishment,â€ she wanted the program to be â€œrecord-keeping but with
Surely people make subtle or thinly veiled racist or sexist remarks on college campuses, and it is
right for students to raise questions and initiate discussions about such cases. But the increased
focus on microaggressions coupled with the endorsement of emotional reasoning is a formula for
a constant state of outrage, even toward well-meaning speakers trying to engage in genuine
What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years
just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be
better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to
give people the benefit of the doubt?
TEACHING STUDENTS TO CATASTROPHIZE AND HAVE ZERO TOLERANCE
Burns defines catastrophizing as a kind of magnification that turns â€œcommonplace negative
events into nightmarish monsters.â€ Leahy, Holland, and McGinn define it as believing â€œthat what
has happened or will happenâ€ is â€œso awful and unbearable that you wonâ€™t be able to stand it.â€
Requests for trigger warnings involve catastrophizing, but this way of thinking colors other areas
of campus thought as well.
Catastrophizing rhetoric about physical danger is employed by campus administrators more
commonly than you might thinkâ€”sometimes, it seems, with cynical ends in mind. For instance,
last year administrators at Bergen Community College, in New Jersey, suspended Francis
Schmidt, a professor, after he posted a picture of his daughter on his Google+ account. The photo
showed her in a yoga pose, wearing a T-shirt that read I WILL TAKE WHAT IS MINE WITH FIRE &
BLOOD, a quote from the HBO show Game of Thrones. Schmidt had filed a grievance against the
school about two months earlier after being passed over for a sabbatical. The quote was
interpreted as a threat by a campus administrator, who received a notification after Schmidt
posted the picture; it had been sent, automatically, to a whole group of contacts. According to
Schmidt, a Bergen security official present at a subsequent meeting between administrators and
Schmidt thought the word fire could refer to AK-47s.
Then there is the eight-year legal saga at Valdosta State University, in Georgia, where a student
was expelled for protesting the construction of a parking garage by posting an allegedly
â€œthreateningâ€ collage on Facebook. The collage described the proposed structure as a
â€œmemorialâ€ parking garageâ€”a joke referring to a claim by the university president that the
garage would be part of his legacy. The president interpreted the collage as a threat against his
It should be no surprise that students are exhibiting similar sensitivity. At the University of
Central Florida in 2013, for example, Hyung-il Jung, an accounting instructor, was suspended
after a student reported that Jung had made a threatening comment during a review session. Jung
explained to the Orlando Sentinel that the material he was reviewing was difficult, and heâ€™d
noticed the pained look on studentsâ€™ faces, so he made a joke. â€œIt looks like you guys are being
slowly suffocated by these questions,â€ he recalled saying. â€œAm I on a killing spree or what?â€
After the student reported Jungâ€™s comment, a group of nearly 20 others e-mailed the UCF
administration explaining that the comment had clearly been made in jest. Nevertheless, UCF
suspended Jung from all university duties and demanded that he obtain written certification from
a mental-health professional that he was â€œnot a threat to [himself] or to the university
communityâ€ before he would be allowed to return to campus.
All of these actions teach a common lesson: smart people do, in fact, overreact to innocuous
speech, make mountains out of molehills, and seek punishment for anyone whose words make
anyone else feel uncomfortable.
MENTAL FILTERING AND DISINVITATION SEASON
As Burns defines it, mental filtering is â€œpick[ing] out a negative detail in any situation and
dwell[ing] on it exclusively, thus perceiving that the whole situation is negative.â€ Leahy,
Holland, and McGinn refer to this as â€œnegative filtering,â€ which they define as â€œfocus[ing]
almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notic[ing] the positives.â€ When applied to
campus life, mental filtering allows for simpleminded demonization.
Students and faculty members in large numbers modeled this cognitive distortion during 2014â€™s
â€œdisinvitation season.â€ Thatâ€™s the time of yearâ€”usually early springâ€”when commencement
speakers are announced and when students and professors demand that some of those speakers
be disinvited because of things they have said or done. According to data compiled by the
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, since 2000, at least 240 campaigns have been
launched at U.S. universities to prevent public figures from appearing at campus events; most of
them have occurred since 2009.
Consider two of the most prominent disinvitation targets of 2014: former U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice and the International Monetary Fundâ€™s managing director, Christine Lagarde.
Rice was the first black female secretary of state; Lagarde was the first woman to become
finance minister of a G8 country and the first female head of the IMF. Both speakers could have
been seen as highly successful role models for female students, and Rice for minority students as
well. But the critics, in effect, discounted any possibility of something positive coming from
Members of an academic community should of course be free to raise questions about Riceâ€™s
role in the Iraq War or to look skeptically at the IMFâ€™s policies. But should dislike of part of a
personâ€™s record disqualify her altogether from sharing her perspectives?
If campus culture conveys the idea that visitors must be pure, with rÃ©sumÃ©s that never offend
generally left-leaning campus sensibilities, then higher education will have taken a further step
toward intellectual homogeneity and the creation of an environment in which students rarely
encounter diverse viewpoints. And universities will have reinforced the belief that itâ€™s okay to
filter out the positive. If students graduate believing that they can learn nothing from people they
dislike or from those with whom they disagree, we will have done them a great intellectual
WHAT CAN WE DO NOW?
Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional
discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in
unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for
American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas,
values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward
innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise
that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.
Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter,
colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that
they cannot control. One of the great truths taught by Buddhism (and Stoicism, Hinduism, and
many other traditions) is that you can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to
your desires. But you can master your desires and habits of thought. This, of course, is the goal
of cognitive behavioral therapy. With this in mind, here are some steps that might help reverse
the tide of bad thinking on campus.
The biggest single step in the right direction does not involve faculty or university
administrators, but rather the federal government, which should release universities from their
fear of unreasonable investigation and sanctions by the Department of Education. Congress
should define peer-on-peer harassment according to the Supreme Courtâ€™s definition in the 1999
case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. The Davis standard holds that a single
comment or thoughtless remark by a student does not equal harassment; harassment requires a
pattern of objectively offensive behavior by one student that interferes with another studentâ€™s
access to education. Establishing the Davis standard would help eliminate universitiesâ€™ impulse
to police their studentsâ€™ speech so carefully.
Universities themselves should try to raise consciousness about the need to balance freedom of
speech with the need to make all students feel welcome. Talking openly about such conflicting
but important values is just the sort of challenging exercise that any diverse but tolerant
community must learn to do. Restrictive speech codes should be abandoned.
Universities should also officially and strongly discourage trigger warnings. They should endorse
the American Association of University Professorsâ€™ report on these warnings, which notes, â€œThe
presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once
infantilizing and anti-intellectual.â€ Professors should be free to use trigger warnings if they
choose to do so, but by explicitly discouraging the practice, universities would help fortify the
faculty against student requests for such warnings.
Finally, universities should rethink the skills and values they most want to impart to their
incoming students. At present, many freshman-orientation programs try to raise student
sensitivity to a nearly impossible level. Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense
is a worthy goal, especially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds.
But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses. Why not
teach incoming students how to practice cognitive behavioral therapy? Given high and rising
rates of mental illness, this simple step would be among the most humane and supportive things
a university could do. The cost and time commitment could be kept low: a few group training
sessions could be supplemented by Web sites or apps. But the outcome could pay dividends in
many ways. For example, a shared vocabulary about reasoning, common distortions, and the
appropriate use of evidence to draw conclusions would facilitate critical thinking and real debate.
It would also tone down the perpetual state of outrage that seems to engulf some colleges these
days, allowing studentsâ€™ minds to open more widely to new ideas and new people. A greater
commitment to formal, public debate on campusâ€”and to the assembly of a more politically
diverse facultyâ€”would further serve that goal.
Thomas Jefferson, upon founding the University of Virginia, said:
This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not
afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free
to combat it.
We believe that this is stillâ€”and will always beâ€”the best attitude for American universities.
Faculty, administrators, students, and the federal government all have a role to play in restoring
universities to their historic mission.
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