The first presidential debate of 2016 was held at Hofstra University. The leadership at Hofstra, with all the problems this nation faces, was very concerned about – hurt feelings – the possibility that students might suffer emotional distress from hearing ideas that might challenge their thinking, or hear words that might scare them. They went so far as to post a “Trigger Warning” sign, to warn students that they may hear language which may trigger anxiety. The warning sign included resources to help distressed students deal with the trauma. How did our society get to this ludicrous point?
Dr. Jonathan Haidt recently examined this “tender little feelings” phenomena, and discussed how we got here in an evening talk he gave at New Paltz titled, appropriately enough, “An Evening Talk with Dr. Jonathan Haidt.” He proposes the idea that just as academia had a split some time ago between secular institutions – think Harvard and Yale – and sacred – think Wheaton College or Trinity Evangelical Divinity School – we need another split now, between “Truth” institutions – any of the above – and “Social Justice” institutions – which should be physically separated from each other. For example, Brown University leans toward Social Justice concerns, based largely on feelings, whereas Chicago University puts truth above feelings, as revealed by their issue of the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” to let everyone know their ideas will be challenged and there will be conservatives on the Chicago University campus.
From its very founding, the University of Chicago has dedicated itself to the preservation and celebration of the freedom of expression as an essential element of the University’s culture.
They ended with:
As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.
As Robert M. Hutchins observed, without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university. The University of Chicago’s longstanding commitment to this principle lies at the very core of our University’s greatness. That is our inheritance, and it is our promise to the future.
It appears that these institutions may already be making the split Dr. Haidt is proposing, which we think would be a positive development. Those seeking objective truth should not be hobbled by anyone’s subjective feelings. And, we must admit that feelings-centered pity parties might be seriously hobbled if objective truth is allowed in the door. Truth can seem so rude with its emphasis on proof and evidence. But again, how did we get to this place and how does it impact the church in a seemingly increasingly adversarial culture?
Dr. Haidt’s talk is about an hour long (after the introductions and before the Q&A), and we would recommend it. It is not apparent whether he is a Christian, but he strikes us as an honest and engaged academic. He talks about the “Honor Culture,” which he sees as dominant in the 18th and 19th Centuries. When wronged, people didn’t immediately look around for the law to bludgeon their adversaries, but instead defended their own honor. There was a certain civility expected and practiced, but if someone’s honor was impugned, a duel might ensue to decide the issue. In 1804, founding father Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel by vice president Aaron Burr! We are gentle folk, so we do not recommend this way of settling differences. It is undeniably difficult to find a “safe space” when bullets are ricocheting around! Today, perhaps the Burr/Hamilton issue could have been settled by both men standing 20 paces apart and hurling insults at each other until one or the other (or both!) collapsed in a puddle and required professional help to go on with their life. But that doesn’t seem a satisfying way to resolve differences either.
The “Honor Culture” was replaced in the 20th Century with what Dr. Haidt called “The Dignity Culture.” People were wronged at regular intervals, as indeed people have been wronged since the fall, but evil motives weren’t always ascribed. When a “dignified person” was jostled on a New York City or Chicago sidewalk, he or she didn’t automatically assume they were being intentionally attacked. Perhaps, thought the jostled, the jostler was merely in too much of a hurry or distracted. The dignified personage might, if they were feeling cranky, have given the jostler “a look,” maybe even a somewhat frowny look, but anything more than that was highly discouraged in polite society. This is the shared heritage of most of us today. This is not to say that all persons took part in the dignified culture, because there always have been “jerks” (an undignified way of categorizing the non-dignified, we admit) in our midst. However, dignified personages came in all colors, both sexes, and all financial spheres. Compare old classic movies with today’s popular movies, to see just how far “dignity” has fallen. (Along with such old-fashioned values as kindness and goodness) Yes, there were “undignified” characters in the old movies, but they were not generally idolized, and usually got their comeuppance in the end. Often they sported black hats, making it easier to spot their character defects from the start.
Dr. Haidt suggests that we have made the transition from the “Dignity Culture” of the 20th century to the “Victimhood Culture” of the 21st century. In his view, it is largely related to what is happening at the universities and the pursuit of “Social Justice.” He looks at the ratio of Leftist professors to Conservative or Right leaning professors, and shows that the ratio in 1996 was 2 to 1 Left to Right. There were roughly twice as many leftists as conservatives at that time. In 2011, the ratio jumped to 5 to 1. That is a very dramatic increase in less than a decade! Haidt believes that this stat is somewhat misleading, however, because the conservatives tended to be concentrated in engineering, dentistry, or what we might call the “hard sciences.” So, he put his focus on psychology professors and their political leanings, since so much of modern victimhood has been mass-produced in the softer, feelings-oriented “sciences.” In 1960, the left vs right ratio was 2 to 1. In 1996 the ratio changed to 4 to 1! That is a substantial change but the worst was yet to come. From 1996 to 2012, just 6 years, the ratio jumped to 14 to 1! Why do more students believe themselves to be victims? Well, it could be because there are substantially more professors telling them they are victims! Everywhere you look – victims, victims, and more victims – purposely and maliciously shoved off the sidewalk of life!
Haidt notes that many employers are shying away from those in the “Victimhood Culture,” for fear of increasing lawsuits, and claims of being victimized. As more universities go the way of Brown University, more college grads will join the ranks of welfare recipients, because victimhood is not a marketable skill. Of course we are not saying that there are no true victims in life. Some people are born in great poverty and adversity. For example, there are people on planet Earth that do not even have enough to eat, nor clean water to drink. And, even people living where clean water and healthful food is presently plentiful can have great difficulties in life. There is evil – there is abuse – there is pain. Life has never been fair or without trials. But why would the number of supposed victims have skyrocketed, especially in the western nations, when we are yet living in a time of unprecedented blessings, compared to former generations? In a way, we could say that lots of people have been victimized by victimhood!
In Charles Dicken’s book, “Great Expectations,” there is a memorable character by the name of Mrs. Gummage. She is a widow who has been kindly taken in by her late husband’s partner, Mr. Peggotty. (you just got to love Dicken’s character names!) Mrs. Gummage is pretty cranky and feels very sorry for herself, referring to herself as a “lone lorn creetur” and complaining often that “everythink goes contrary with me.” All the family members, especially Mr. Peggotty, are very kind to Mrs. Gummage and try to soothe her feelings whenever they can. And eventually, in a time of great trial for the family, she lays aside her self-pity to help others. All of us can be a little “Gummagey” at times, and it is sweet to watch how Mr. Peggotty, a man of honor and dignity, tries to lift her up. But if every character in the book acted like she did, her rotten attitude would have ceased to be a quaint oddity, and the story would have pretty much depicted hell on earth! Stepping back outside the book, if all of us, or even most us, feel as though our lives, our trials, are far worse than other people’s problems, and we have the right therefore to blame and abuse others around us, who is going to be Mr. Peggotty? And what will life look like in another few short years?
We obviously cannot cover all that Haidt had to say, but one other important thing he noted is that the more humans are protected from life – bubble wrapped if you will – the weaker and less able to survive they become. On the other hand, the more of life’s challenges a person encounters, the stronger they tend to become. The early Christians encountered great trials and much persecution. They had to have been tough to endure what they did. Not mean, not unfeeling, certainly not hard hearted, nor immune to pain, but tough enough to stand when difficulties came. They were not snowflakes. Yet, the Christian faith grew in the early centuries largely because the early Christians grew and thrived under severe persecution and non-Christians saw their faith and embraced it. We should ask ourselves what the lost world sees in us?Ω
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