Imagine, as a university professor, you are describing a scene from the epic poem of Odyssey; the tale of Ulysses, who fended off certain death by tying himself to the mast of his ship. In so doing, he denied himself the weakness of the flesh that would surely have had him succumb to the singing mermaid’s sirens. To better articulate this story, you might use imagery such as the 1909 oil painting by Herbert James Draper, which depict the mermaids half naked, as is typical for mermaids. Imagine at that point having a complaint voiced against you in your teaching evaluations, and being called out as insensitive for showing imagery that is degrading for women. Johnathan Haidt does not have to imagine this scenario, he lived it. Unlike Ulysses I suppose the sirens of the Social Justice Warrior proved to be a greater seduction for Haidt; because it was at this point he chose not tie himself to his mast of safety, but instead plunge head first into this world, with the article: the coddling of the American mind.
In this article John Haidt and Greg Lukianoff put forward a dilemma currently sweeping American Universities: if one assumes that individuals are fragile, and in need of saving and protecting from psychological harm, then it becomes a logical conclusion that you would want to prevent distress to these individuals any way you can. If this is the case, then really there seem to be two options available; shield and protect them, and provide a ‘safe space’, or help them grow stronger, so that they can face these daemons and grow. On a western university campus, no genuine, everyday threat to life exists for the vast majority of people, as such we must find alternative ways to understand what is causing the extreme distress and anxiety to students. The obvious choice appears to be words and ideas. To understand why this is, we must briefly turn to why anxiety exists. Anxiety is, at least unconsciously, the brain’s way of preparing you for what it perceives as a deadly threat to one’s life. This article provides more details, but in short, your brain, in response to evolving at a time of literal threat from predators, sees movement in the grass as a danger to your life. Adrenaline will course through your veins; you will prepare to either fight, or get the hell out of there. This part of our brain that kept us alive still remains intact, and unfortunately since society has evolved faster than our brain, we see movement in the grass in how people look at us, talk to us, reply to texts, ignore us in the meeting, etc. As such, when you have anxiety, you become hyper vigilant to your surroundings: Is that person mad at me? Am I going to fail my degree course because I’m useless? This description is a reductionist, simplified version of the cognitive process, but you get the idea.
Returning to the authors’ argument: if you assume someone is fragile, and there is no genuine physical threat, then all that is left is to protect them against are words, because words can hurt, especially when you suffer from a mood disorder like anxiety. In Psychology we have known for the longest time, possibly since the time of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, that when an adult is suffering from anxiety, wrapping them up in cotton wool and protecting them will not help them improve. In fact, it may well pathologise the issue further. In fact, you want to do the opposite, you want to gently expose them to threats that typically make them anxious, to help that person learn and master those events, and conquer their anxiety, or at the very least, learn to tolerate it better. In short, you want to make that person stronger and braver, because quite simply, you can’t control those outside events that they feel are scary.
Haidt and Lukianoff argue that universities are doing the opposite. In an overzealous attempt to protect the perceived fragile students, they actively punish anyone who interferes with that safe space, even if they do so accidentally. Haidt and Lukianoff call this vindictive protectiveness. That is to say: creating a culture of fear for speaking one’s mind, lest someone is offended, or the speaker is accused of being ‘violent’.
The overprotective university
Haidt and Lukianoff argue that vindictive protectiveness instills: “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 behavioural therapists as causes of depression and anxiety”. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, arguably based on stoicism and critical thought dictated by Marcus Aurelius, Buddha, and Socrates, is easily the most extensively studied psychological therapy treatment protocol for mental illness, especially for mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Boiled down to its essentials, CBT is designed to minimise distorted thinking, to aid in seeing the world more accurately, and addressing some common cognitive distortions, such as overgeneralising, discounting positives and emotional reasoning. The concept is based on the principle of working through these distortions with critical thought; analysing the emotion, behaviour and cognition, and looking at alternative interpretations that are more in line with facts presented to that person. Ideally over time, this process becomes automatic, frees up space from obsession over irrational thinking, and minimises depression and anxiety symptomatology. Haidt and Lukianoff suggest that good formal education shares clear and obvious similarities with a cognitive approach, with the underlying message being that one must ground their beliefs in evidence over emotion or desire, and learn to be better at evaluating evidence that might initially contradict an initial hypothesis. The current climate in some higher academic institutions, argues Haidt, fosters emotional reasoning and subjective desires, which of course is the opposite treatment protocol established to treating a mood disorder like anxiety. Haidt continues:
“A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offense. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologise or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.”
This emotional reasoning puts the individual in a state of being the victim, assaulted verbally by the abuser. Universities, in a noble and worthy cause to reducing victim blaming, due to power imbalances and addressing those, do not challenge this assumption or call someone out for reacting emotionally. When someone links this emotional reaction to their identity of being ‘offended’ as a ‘victim’, the universities appear to feel compelled to protect that person’s identity.
The Social Justice Personality
A recently famous Jordan Peterson, and a doctoral student Christine Brophy conducted an illuminating, and frankly ground-breaking study looking at a phenomenon, of Political Correctness (PC), a distinctly ‘left wing phenomenon’, and corresponding personality traits. In this study the authors created a comprehensive politically correct scale measuring belief, emotions and language of politically correct individuals. 332 participants completed the PC scale, along with a personality test. The researchers found that PC can be reliably measured, as a distinct quantifiable construct, so labelled PC-Egalitarianism (PC-E) and the second dimension PC-Authoritarianism (PC-A).
In an interview, the authors note that PC-Egalitarianism and PC –Authoritarianism are based in part on a child-parent bond. Indeed responsive and contingent parenting style will more likely result in a securely attached child, who is curious, self-reliant, and independent. In contrast to this, those who do not experience a secure attachment style may develop issues with confidence, trust, may be slow to adjust to experiences, and may experience conflict as personal attacks, feeling inadequate or unworthy. Peterson adds that an overprotective parent reinforces distress in the child, based on the premise that they promote unconditional reinforcement of anxiety, because the child is always justified in their distress, by virtue of being a child.
Both type of political correctness are particularly relevant to this conversation, as both types appear to be involved in a social justice warrior calling or ideological stance. According to Peterson, PC-A appear to have low verbal cognitive ability, utilising a range of tests that, broadly speaking, measure reasoning skills. These individuals have high disgust level (for example, feels the need to wash their hands after shaking someone’s hand). PC-A is also highly correlated with mood disorders (those being anxiety and depression). Generally individuals in this category will be intolerant of the unknown, and be partial to black and white thinking. It should be noted, this concept of PC-A is a quite controversial construct, as for many years it was thought to be an exclusively right wing phenomenon.
Standing at a contrast, PC-E have high verbal cognitive ability, higher trait openness, and higher compassion. This means that these individuals are going to be articulate, more likely to be attracted to an occupation like academia or a helping profession, and crucially, they emphasise strongly with individuals in high distress. Due to their personality type, the will be protective in nature. Combine these traits together; it is easy to see how this person may be an excellent spokesperson for social justice warriors. Peterson argues that when they observe a PC-A use censorship techniques, or punitive strategies to avoid distressing language or concepts, the PC-E will create post hoc justification to protect them, because they truly feel the PC-A’s disgust and pain. This is similar, Jordan Peterson suggests, to a parent’s reaction to a very young distressed infant. This mother type behaviour, can be so unconditionally overprotective, they destroy the person’s ability to be independent. As such the PC-E views the situation as thus: PC-A is experiencing distress, they must be justified in that distress. There is a clear and very real problem with this solution, summarised by Jordan Peterson:
“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.”
In therapeutic terms, you are expected, as a trained professional, to challenge these and help that person grow by 1) overcoming their anxiety 2) low self-esteem, or trust issues, and 3) help them face the world. It is not easy, it is confronting, but it is required to help that person grow and be psychologically robust. To do the opposite, is to set that person up for failure. If the universities wrap students in cotton wool, it might feel good, it might feel protective, but what happens the next time? What happens when they face the next ‘monster’ of the week and you are not there? They will be distraught, and they will not know how to process and deal with those feelings alone. You have provided the fish, as it were, instead of teaching the individual to fish, and at great cost to that individual. The fish, in this analogy might be seen as safe spaces and trigger warnings.
“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?” – Lukianoff and Haidt, 2015.
The warrior mentality
What drives someone to be a warrior? The warriors I studied were often searching for something. Something that could test them, challenge them and make them into something unique. This sense of purpose they sought in life made them feel unique, gave their life direction and meaning, and helped them make sense of their life narrative.
When an individual choses to be a warrior, they go through an intense and rigorous training process. During this time they allow themselves to be immersed into a warrior culture, a willing immersion into propaganda of military decorum and bravado. In this time they are immersed into a rich history of glory, unit achievements and past deeds, and crucially, how to negotiate the act of killing in combat. They do so willingly, because they believe in what it means to be a warrior. They have a purpose, and that purpose become part of who they are. Generally speaking during this time they do not question orders, they do not speak against the military, or the mission, even if they may not always believe in it. Why? Well that is complicated, but for the purpose of this article, let’s boil it down to a few quite reductionist points: Cognitive dissonance, sense making of what it means to be a warrior, and the life and wellbeing of their fellow warriors, often described as nothing short of platonic love. As an example, let’s say a British infantry soldier feels that what they are doing in Afghanistan is just, and morally right. However as time passes, they begin to question if they are making a real difference. Perhaps they see poppy fields being harvested by the locals to sell for heroine, and the military turns a blind eye. Perhaps they see the hatred in the eyes of the locals whom of which they came to liberate, and they begin to wonder? Is it worth it? Those 12 hour shifts in the blistering heat, wearing 50kg of weaponry and webbing, patrolling through some backwater village in the dessert? They begin to rationalise, justify, and more importantly debrief with their fellow soldiers to make sense of it all, and to make the story make sense in their life narrative as a just, moral warrior with a calling. Nothing, it appears, is harder and more confusing than a fragmented, broken life narrative.
Considering these soldiers are willing to kill, or be killed in the line of duty, it becomes easy to see how a social justice warrior who is 1) looking for meaning 2) finds a group they can be immersed into 3) surrounded by people to debrief with on the same wave length and legitimise your sense making, can easily denounce someone, call them names, and professionally assassinate them for ‘the greater cause’ ‘the mission’, which is just. When you dehumanise the enemy, by branding their enemy as a racist, misogynist, you are attaching a label that immediately makes a statement: I detest you, you are detestable and contaminated, and by extension, easier to hate. In short, the name calling serves the purposes of making it clear that this person is in the outgroup, and if you identify or socialise with that person, you are, by proxy also part of that outgroup. As such, if someone is labelled as an oppressive person, by virtue of their group identity, they and you are no longer in the same group. You are, by default, the victim of the oppressor, and it seems difficult to see how the two can reconcile. More likely it seems, such aggressors, or oppressive people must be defeated. If those people are attacked, by nature of their status as an outgroup, they will naturally retaliate, and as such a self-fulfilling prophecy has been created of being attacked by the outgroup.
Parallels to the mentally ill
In a video series, psychologist Dr. Amitay describes how his experiences as a psychologist give him unique insight to the similar communication strategies between Social Justice Warriors and people with Narcissism and Borderline Personality Disorder. Narcissists, he argues, are great manipulators. They will attempt to provoke people for a response. Individuals with BPD may achieve the same goal, but without the mal intention of a narcissist. As noted by Dr Amitay, therapists have nothing but compassion for individuals suffering from BPD, who have, in many instances, been through a very difficult life. This parallel drawn is simply to note how SJWs share similarities to someone wrestling with BPD. Indeed, individuals with BPD communicate the way they do because of their past damaging interpersonal relationships. As such, they are often in flight or fight mode during encounters with other people. In short, they are terrified of not surviving. Whilst narcissistic controlling behaviour is premeditated, individuals with BPD are simply trying to survive the interaction. They will attempt to manipulate an emotional reaction, but not for ill intended reasons; indeed they will provoke you to attack them verbally, so that they can be the victim. This type of response and behaviour, as noted, is all about fear. Naturally from a SJW perspective this fear may lead them to seek out a community that will offer protection. This group may have attributes they lack; and as such they can become empowered through a movement. When you come from a place of fear, you will attempt to lower the power status of the perceived outgroup to empower oneself. On a similar theme to Peterson, Dr Amitay suggests that this way of talking, which on the surface appears to protect and empower individuals in fear, has a very paternalistic or maternalistic vibe to them. He argues that perhaps the PC-E SJW, who is the protector, may become self-righteous in their mission. He notes this may be the product of people following and praising them indiscriminately, a deadly mix for reflective thinking. Combine arrogance with a sense of fighting for good, or for justice, may lead to fighting at all costs, in order to empower the people whom look up to you, and have been ‘victimised’.
A final note
Why are these individuals difficult to negotiate with, or difficult to persuade when presented with facts? Peterson suggests this has a lot to do with 1) cognitive dissonance and 2) a distorted reality. It is difficult to challenge one’s belief; in fact it’s a skill set that takes a lot of work. Worse, if you are not used to being criticised, on the contrary you are praised indiscriminately, then it becomes cognitively far less stressful to go with what you already believe: You are right, and smart. It is ‘them’ that is in the wrong. On the second point, creating and maintaining a distorted reality of a nuanced, archetype, existential crisis takes up an incredible amount of resources. This is not only tiring, and anxiety provoking, it is also depressing. Think about it this way: when you are constantly hyper vigilant to threat, danger of life, or violence, it taxes the system. You can’t think as clearly, you’re in a state of arousal anxiety known as fight, flight or freeze.
This has been a long article, so I will keep this short. The perfect storm of events that lead to a social justice warrior can be summarised as approaching anxiety with the epistemological framework that runs contrary to everything Psychology has taught us about treating mood disorders. Instead of building the individual up to face the tiger in the long grass, we are training individuals to be fearful of the monster around each and every corner. We are reinforcing the victim mentality, which would naturally lead to crying out to be wrapped in the comforting embrace of a protective figure, or safe space. A space which according to the authors quoted throughout this article, universities are happy to oblige.