Campuses are places for open minds – not where debate is closed down

By Jonathan Haidt and Nick Haslam

Last month, in the early hours, an act of traumatising racist violence occurred on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Students woke up to find that someone had written, in chalk, the words “Trump 2016” on various pavements and walls around campus. “I think it was an act of violence,” said one student. “I legitimately feared for my life,” said another; “I thought we were having a KKK rally on campus”. Dozens of students met the university president that day to demand that he take action to repudiate Trump and to find and punish the perpetrators. Writing political statements in chalk is a common practice on American college campuses and, judging from the public reaction to the Emory event, most Americans consider the writing to be an act of normal free speech during the national collective ritual of a presidential election. So how did it come to pass that many Emory students felt victimised and traumatised by innocuous and erasable graffiti?

Emory students are not unique. Many other universities have been rocked by protests this year over what seem like small things to outsiders, such as Halloween costumes, dining hall food and sombreros. This new way of looking at things is spreading rapidly in the UK, too, with growing student demands for bans on words, ideas, speakers and, once again, sombreros. Students on both sides of the Atlantic are demanding that their campuses be turned into “safe spaces” where a subset of ideas and identities will not be challenged. What on earth is going on?

Part of the answer can be found in cultural shifts that have changed the meanings of many words and concepts used on campus, making it hard for people off campus to understand what the protesters are saying. One of us (Haslam) recently published an essay titled “Concept creep: Psychology’s expanding concepts of harm and pathology.” Many concepts are “creeping” – they are being “defined down” so that they are applied promiscuously to milder and less objectionable events

Take bullying. When research on bullying began in the 1970s, an act had to meet four criteria to count: it had to be an act of aggression directed by one or more children against another child; the act had to be intentional; it had to be part of a repeated pattern; and it had to occur in the context of a power imbalance. But over the following decades, the concept of bullying has expanded in two directions.

It has crept outward or “horizontally” to encompass new forms of bullying, such as among adults in the workplace or via social media. More problematic, though, is the creeping downward or “vertically”so that the bar has been lowered and more minor events now count as bullying. For example, the criteria of intentionality and repetition are often dropped. What matters most is the subjective perception of the victim. If a person believes that he or she has been made to suffer in any way, by a single action, the victim can call it bullying. As the definition of bullying creeps downward for researchers, it also creeps downward in school systems, most of which now enforce strict anti-bullying policies. This may explain why Emory students, raised since elementary school with expansive notions of bullying and subjective notions of victimhood, could perceive the words “Trump 2016” as an act of bullying, intimidation, perhaps even violence, regardless of the intentions of the writer.

Read the whole article at The Guardian

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