The cult of safetyism dates only to about 2013. That was the start of an era in which it became worryingly common to hear that, on this or that elite campus, speech was being classified as a harmful substance. Today, some of the youngest crop of graduates from those top colleges are overreacting to casual remarks at the office and marching on to Human Resources to file formal complaints. Phrases associated with safetyism — snowflake, trigger warning, safe space — became clichés almost as quickly as fake news did.
As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt point out in their book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, the Right has exaggerated the extent of the problem — most members of the post-Millennial generation sometimes called iGen are perfectly normal and functional human beings. Nevertheless, the shift starting in 2013 was measurable. There are some fragile young people out there, and what they’re suffering from overlaps quite a bit with the symptoms of persistent anxiety or depression. Haidt and Lukianoff have some advice on how to stop your children from becoming as breakable as potato chips.
Advanced snowflake syndrome may be new, but the treatment for it isn’t. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a guide to breaking bad mental habits that the authors wittily trace back to the late-Roman politician Boethius, who faced a problem even worse than an offensive Halloween costume: He was awaiting execution when he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in his jail cell. His imaginary interlocutor, Lady Philosophy, asked him the sorts of questions one poses to oneself in CBT.
The evidence that CBT works is “overwhelming,” the authors say, citing research that shows it as about as effective as Prozac-type drugs for treating anxiety or mild-to-moderate depression, but with more enduring benefits and no side effects. It amounts to locating errors in one’s thinking by running through a checklist of questions. To reduce anxieties, drag them into the light.
The process begins with making a commitment to write down your feelings when you become anxious or depressed. Rank your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 100, then describe your first reaction to whatever set you off. “Bobby cancelled our date, I’m a loser, no one will ever date me.” Then run through a list of common mental errors and ask yourself whether you are distorting reality. Lukianoff and Haidt provide 17 common types of mental distortions such as catastrophizing (overestimating how dire the consequences of a given act will be), labeling (“this person is horrible”), shoulds (looking at everything in terms of how it should be rather than how it is), emotional reasoning (mistaking your feelings for reality), and overgeneralizing (“all men/women/black people/white people do this”).
As you ask yourself whether you are cognitively distorting reality, consider evidence for and against the idea and consider the argument that could be made by someone who disagreed with you. With all of this in mind, reevaluate the initial rush of despair. Write down again what your level of anxiety is from 1 to 100. Usually when people undergo this kind of self-correction, they find the second number is much lower than the initial one.
Many of these cognitive failures flourish in the classroom, hence the increasingly fraught atmosphere on campus, where students might complain of being damaged by, for instance, a reference to rape or slavery in a book from the 18th century. This author is misogynist, the student cries, or all white male authors are horrible, or she falls prey to some other cognitive distortion, and the classroom stops to accommodate her venting.
That dispiriting experience ties into what Haidt and Lukianoff call the three great untruths that serve as the foundation for their book. All three are being indulged by overly cautious parents and by overly solicitous educators:
One: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
Two: Never question your feelings, because feelings can’t be wrong.
Three: Life is a battle between the good and the evil.
The authors note that these three shibboleths are contradicted by both ancient wisdom and contemporary psychological research, and that they poison the individuals and communities that embrace them. These untruths, which are being fueled by social-media behavior, tie into sharp increases over the last few years in teen depression, anxiety, and suicide, especially among girls. The suicide rate among teen girls is up nearly 100 percent since the early years of this century.
Being alarmed at how the next generation might turn out is a kind of cultural cliché; kids do tend to turn out okay. Nevertheless, there are some significant differences in how Americans born in the last 20 years or so have been raised, from the ever-increasing age at which children are allowed to roam without supervision (people over 40 say this happened to them when they were about eight; younger people say they were more like 12 or 14) to the predominance of smartphones. The Coddling of the American Mind is not a screed or an attack. Lukianoff and Haidt aren’t out to own the snowflakes. But they shed light on some important problems facing younger people, together with proven solutions.