“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
This quote from British author Evelyn Beatrice Hall (often misattributed to Voltaire) might sound rather foreign on many college campuses throughout the country today, who in many ways seem to prefer to be defended from the First Amendment rather than to defend it.
Last month, students at Emory University in Atlanta protested that their safety was threatened by chalk messages showing support for Donald Trump for president. The president of the University agreed.
In early March, two student government representatives at Bowdoin College faced impeachment proceedings for attending a fiesta-themed party with mini sombreros, since the event was deemed an example of “ethnic stereotyping.”
This week, North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Dan Forest proposed a policy for the state’s public university system that would punish “those who interrupt the free expression of others,” such as hecklers during a speech.
The rise of a culture designed to protect students from words and ideas that seem threatening has some experts questioning the effect that this hyper-sensitivity could be having on higher education and society at large.
Defining the terms
In a long-form piece in The Atlantic in Sept. 2015, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explored this phenomenon that they dubbed “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Words like ‘microaggressions’, which are small, seemingly harmless words or actions that can be perceived as threatening, and ‘trigger warnings’, which are alerts that professors are expected to issue for potentially offensive or provocative material, haved moved from obscure terms to everyday language on campus, they said.
“This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion,” they wrote.
Another recent piece in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf explored a new scholarly paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, who say that this new cultural phenomenon is different from previous cultures that have come before it, such as cultures that valued dignity or honor when faced with an aggrievance.
Now, the new cultural norm is “victimhood culture”, which values immediately and publicly airing one’s grievances, in hopes to “provoke sympathy and antagonism” toward the initial offender by “advertising (one’s) status as an aggrieved party,” Friedersdorf wrote.
A Catholic college perspective
While many public universities are in the throes of grappling with the consequences of victimhood culture, some Catholic liberal arts schools say they have not seen the same cultural shift on their campuses.
Anne Forsyth is the Director of College Relations and Assistant to the President at Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), a Catholic liberal arts school in Santa Paula, California. She said she found it concerning when, for the first time a few years ago, she started hearing about “free speech zones” on college campuses.
“I remember thinking ‘What is this? The whole country is a free-speech zone, what are they talking about? This is America, we all have the freedom to speak.”
But while she was aware of the culture of victimhood picking up speed on other college campuses, Forsyth said the student body of Thomas Aquinas seems to be untouched by the phenomenon.
“What we see here is endless conversation on all subjects, on which people can really disagree,” she said.
The reasons for the differences are complex, she added. One of the reason is the Christian faith of most of the students, she said, and that “where charity and love prevail, hopefully things will go a little bit better, so hopefully feelings won’t be so hurt, people won’t seem so doctrinaire,and those things are somewhat muted.”
Other reasons are likely the differences in pedagogy and curriculum, she said. Every class at TAC is in the form of a conversation-based seminar where the students are able to engage with their subjects on a level that wouldn’t be as possible in a large lecture class of hundreds of students, she said.
This engagement allows students to be able to grapple with differing opinions and ideas in ways that other students may not be being equipped to do, she said.
“I think it’s the advancing of an idea different or contrary to your own is what is triggering this (victimhood cultures), precisely because they just don’t have the tools to deal with it,” she said.
The school also takes steps to reduce “emotional reasoning” in the classroom by requiring students to address each other during discussions as “Mr.” or “Miss”, she added.
“We’re trying to minimize the personal part of it,” she said. “Not that everybody doesn’t have a personal stake in these arguments or discussions, because we do, but we don’t want to be personal about it in the point of feelings.”
Thomas Aquinas College also provides students with a classical education, with required courses in areas of philosophy, theology and literature that used to be the bread and butter of higher education.
What’s God got to do with it?
Dr. William Fahey is the president of Thomas More College, a small, Catholic liberal arts school in New Hampshire. He said that the recent articles about “victimhood culture” are identifying something that’s been happening for several decades in higher education and the culture at large.
“If you have what Benedict XVI called ‘the emancipation of man from God’ in the public square, then it means certain things are going to be absent, certain things are going to become more prominent,” he said. “So if you’re not allowed to talk about God at the center, then you can’t have traditional ethics, you simply can’t. You can’t have virtue, you can’t have justice, you can’t have transcendent things because they actually require some sense of the transcendent.”
“So it’s no surprise if you have a college or university or a country where there is either no discussion allowed or a very perverse discussion of God allowed, you can’t have ethics, you can’t have real solidarity, because there’s nothing that unites everyone,” he added.
If there is no God, Fahey said, then the only thing that matters is gaining power,and many students have realized the power that comes with claiming victimhood status in today’s world.
But like Thomas Aquinas College, the student body at Thomas More has also not experienced the cultural shift seen at larger public universities for various reasons.
“We have a very traditional Catholic culture here that unifies everyone and we have a sense of justice, so if someone actually feels aggrieved, the categories for understanding that are virtue ethics, you could only understand your irritation as something significant because you perceive there’s a violation of justice here, not merely annoyance,” he said.
Thomas More College is also a unique model in that is has less than one hundred students, allowing the student body to become a very tight-knit Catholic community.
“It would be comical at Thomas More College to talk about being marginalized, because one small single Catholic community, we’re united in our faith, so we’re not going to be prey to the same kind of feeling of alienation that most people in modern society and certainly most college students feel,” he said.
Also similarly to Thomas Aquinas College, Thomas More requires students to take many courses in the humanities and literature, which allow them to see the world through many different perspectives, he said.
“Someone who might be feeling marginalized is going to have a tough time seeing that as significant when they’re reading tragedy and hardship, vice and virtue, they’re reading kind of the broad sweep of human experiences across many different time zones, many different cultures, many different races,” he said. “And you realize, ‘Huh, there is something called humanity, and it’s foolish to say I’m going to define myself and my actions by (a more narrow category).’”
A Catholic psychologist weighs in
Dr. Gregory Bottaro is a clinical psychologist practicing with Catholic Psych Institute in Connecticut. He said that while it’s necessary and important to recognize that some people have experienced real trauma in their lives, the solution is not to shut themselves off to any experience that might be uncomfortable for them.
“The reality is that real trauma happens,” he said. “If you have somebody who’s been raped and they’re hearing a story about (rape)…a trigger warning essentially can be a positive thing to give people a heads up that we’re approaching an area that may trigger something for you, but the fact of the matter is that we are going to approach it,” he said.
“So that’s the intent, to just give people the awareness that if there’s something here you may have struggled with, get ready, get yourself ready for what we’re about to do.”
But when awareness takes the form of censorship of differing opinions, then it’s gone too far, he said. For example, trigger warnings, which can be used as an appropriate way to alert someone that certain material may trigger something for them, are often used as an excuse to not engage with material at all.
“The problem is that people take them as permission to avoid or stay away from the material that’s being warned about,” he said.
One of the fundamental definitions of overall health, Dr. Bottaro added, is flexibility, and that applies whether one is referring to biological, physical, spiritual or emotional health.
“Flexibility is an intrinsic quality of overall health, and that means that you can have the ability to talk to different kinds of people, have different opinions, dialogue with different people with different perspectives or different cultural views, different world views, and that’s ultimately what’s healthy,” he said.
Therefore, the inability to handle differing opinions could be a sign of psychological sickness or disorder.
A Catholic worldview can be extremely helpful for people encountering differing ideas and opinions, because they are grounded in something fundamental, Dr. Bottaro said.
“A Catholic worldview gives us a stable foundation that goes to the very root of what it is to be human,” Dr. Bottaro said. “So if our foundation is at the deepest root, then we don’t have t be afraid to dialogue with other people from different perspectives, we don’t have to be afraid of what other people might say to us, because we’re grounded on the deepest foundation possible.”
“And that’s ultimately what’s missing in our culture, that’s why they need these safe spaces, because they don’t have any kind of deeply rooted foundation, they’re not grounded, and so they need to stop people from saying scary things because it’s going to knock them off balance,” he added.
Some secular universities and institutions are recognizing the “culture of victimhood” as a threat to the First Amendment right to the freedom of speech, and are taking action. A new group at Princeton University, called the “Princeton Open Campus Coalition”, who wrote in an open letter to the University’s president that they “are concerned mainly with the importance of preserving an intellectual culture in which all members of the Princeton community feel free to engage in civil discussion and to express their convictions without fear of being subjected to intimidation or abuse.”
The Arizona state senate has also decided to take action against victimhood culture by passing a bill that would prevent colleges and universities from restricting free speech in a public forum. The Senate approved the bill on a 21-8 vote, and it now goes back to the House for a final vote.
However, Dr. Fahey said, until secular universities and society as a whole once again recognize God and some sense of the transcendent as the center, then there’s no way to escape the rising culture of victimhood as an institutionalized part of society.
“The culture of victimhood can’t really come out of a religious society,” Dr. Fahey said.
“I would go so far as to say that if you have an authentically religious culture of any of the traditional religions, you’re not going to have this sense of victimhood.”
“In the United States, the religious tradition is Christianity. If you don’t recognize that and have some sympathy for the other great religions, then you’re never going to escape this problem, instead you’re going to build an office to deal with victimhood, and in that action, as long as you have that office, you’ve now made it part of your culture, you’ve now made it systemic.”