Our Emotional-Fragility Epidemic

We’ve lost the social norms that once gave meaning to our human experience, including our suffering.

Why are we all so emotionally fragile?

Both men and women, right-wingers and feminists, are beginning to ask that question, especially about the next generation of college students.

In The Federalist, Chris Hernandez, a cop and former Marine combat veteran, says he has reviewed the micro-aggression literature and writes: “F**k your trauma”:

If your psyche is so fragile you fall apart when someone inadvertently reminds you of “trauma,” especially if that trauma consisted of you overreacting to a self-interpreted racial slur, you need therapy. . . . Oh, I should add: f** my trauma, too. I must be old-fashioned, but I always thought coming to terms with pain was part of growing up. I’ve never expected anyone to not knock on my door because it reminds me of that terrifying morning decades ago. I’ve never blown up at anyone for startling me with a camera flash (I’ve never even mentioned it to anyone who did). I’ve never expected anyone to not talk about Iraq or Afghanistan around me, even though some memories still hurt.

In the New York Times Sunday magazine, Judith Shulevitz ponders a litany of recent events in which students proclaim their intense fragility and demand someone in authority do something about it. At Oxford’s Christ Church College last November, for example, students demanded that the dean (whose title is “censor” in Oxfordspeak) cancel a debate between two men on abortion and were “relieved” when they succeeded. “I’m relieved the censors have made this decision,” said the treasurer of Christ Church’s student union. “It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church.” 

At the University of Chicago this spring, a brave woman named Zineb El Rhazoui, who worked at Charlie Hebdo and faces death threats, spoke — and a student objected to her use of the phrase “I am Charlie” as hurtful to Muslims. Shulevitz report, “Ms. El Rhazoui replied, somewhat irritably, ‘Being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing,’ and not everyone has the guts to do that (although she didn’t use the word guts). She lives under constant threat, Ms. El Rhazoui said. The student answered that she felt threatened, too.” A student editorial then complained that Ms. El Rhazoui did not fulfill her responsibility to make sure “that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions.”

Shulevitz points to helicopter parents and the new small army of service professionals deployed to soothe students’ emotional needs (driven in part by Title IX harassment claims) as partial explanation for this weird new phenomenon.  But she says that doesn’t explain the central mysterious question: “But why are students so eager to self-infantilize?”

Now Rod Dreher breaks the news that at a national student conference in Great Britain, a women’s student group tweeted: “Some delegates are requesting that we move to jazz hands rather than clapping, as it’s triggering anxiety. Please be mindful! #nuswomen15

Aside: If you don’t know what jazz hands are, watch this video. Trigger warning: It is disturbing.

Dreher asks, “If this kind of thing is not global, only Anglo-American, why would that be? Serious question.”

Helicopter parenting among the privileged; a culture that turns suffering (including legitimate suffering) into a club to wield against those who disagree with you; the fragmentation of the family and the sexual revolution, which makes betrayal and abandonment the norm in young people’s family life and then their own young romantic lives; aggressive, mean, and ephemeral cyberlife competing with real life in many of our teens’ experience.

“Something is clearly happening,” a London child psychotherapist says about a sharp increase in attempted suicides starting around 2010, “because I am seeing the evidence in the numbers of depressive, anorexic, cutting children who come to see me. And it always has something to do with the computer, the Internet and the smartphone.”

All of these candidates are, no doubt, contributing factors. But I suspect there is something even more basic here: the loss of shared communal narratives and norms to give meaning to our human experience, including our human suffering.

“Why don’t people see how terrible the sexual revolution is? How can they support it?” a Catholic woman asked me a few weeks ago, given the — to her (and me) — obvious carnage. I pondered a moment and came up with two reasons. First, because we use the sense of connection and passion that our erotic hopes give to cover up a host of personal emotional wounds, and people are reluctant to give up that salve because they don’t have a good substitute. Second, many people have committed their lives to the story that sexual freedom is a great good, that if we could only get rid of so-called slut-shaming, life would be fine; many are too old to face that their life story is not one of success in that realm.

For most of American history, three great and interlocking supportive communal narratives gave meaning to people’s lives: family, patriotism, and religion.  In our elite institutions, all of those, but especially the last two, are constantly torn down, described as relative at best and evil at worst, not available to the students to give meaning to their suffering or purpose to their lives.

So instead they make do with what they have: an Edenic vision that somehow the Lion will lie down with the Lamb and create safe spaces for the 21-year-old children who are suffering from invisible, self-inflicted wounds. A generation many of whom cut themselves as young teens to numb the pain literally has now morphed to include an adult generation that cuts itself psychologically — magnifying every possible small hurt and begging authority figures to help.

And when that proves futile, they lash out in their rage against those who, they imagine, have caused their suffering, because our culture turns pain into power, if it is the right kind of pain.


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