Guest column: The rise of the snowflake fascists
December 16, 2015
Melanie Sturm's recent article described the mounting pressure for colleges to restrict free speech on their campuses. It referenced students calling for the resignation of two Yale professors, Erika and Nicholas Christakis, for the offense of suggesting that students take responsibility for their own Halloween costumes rather than the administration controlling what they wore. The result of this "cry-bullying" is that the Christakises, both known for advocating for students, disenfranchised populations and social justice, have chosen not to teach at Yale next term.
Vindictive students behaving with utter incivility at one of our nation's most prestigious universities because professors promoted free speech, the capacity to tolerate offense and students being treated like adults is a sign of an unhealthy society.
Free-speech advocates are alarmed at how swiftly and effectively "snowflake fascists" exact retribution on anyone disloyal to their kindergarchy. Psychologist Jon Haidt contends, "The Yale problem begins in high school." Instead of learning to grapple with viewpoints that diverge from their own, students in high school learn "twin habits of defensive self-censorship and vindictive protectiveness." In other words, high school kids pretty quickly grasp which views are permitted and which are not. When they disagree with accepted viewpoints, they know to keep quiet and the teens who hold the accepted views thoroughly lambast anyone who dares speak up.
But perhaps the "Yale problem" begins even earlier.
Haidt's "twin habits" look an awful lot like the social ethos of middle school. "Good" children learn they can get away with mean-spirited behavior like name-calling and social exclusion as long as there is unspoken peer agreement regarding which children are acceptable targets — typically the unconventional or "different" kids.
Alarmingly, evidence suggests that some anti-bullying programs may make matters worse; when kids learn which behaviors educators want to stop, they change their methods to avoid detection. And kids become experts at avoiding detection. One of the primary reasons targeted children don't report harassment is they know teachers won't do anything. Although teachers want to eradicate bullying, often if they don't see it, as far they're concerned, it isn't happening. In fact, in some schools, regardless of conduct codes and even stated goals to engender kindness, parents are more likely to receive concerned phone calls when children exhibit eccentric behavior than when children spread rumors, taunt targeted children or call them names.
It should come as no surprise, then, that by middle school, about 80 percent of kids believe that their parents and teachers are more concerned with their personal success than being caring toward others, according to a Harvard study. This is due to the rhetoric/reality gap, the gap between the values parents and teachers espouse and what they actually do regarding their children being kind versus successful. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of children learn to value their own success over being kind. This is especially problematic because when children don't prioritize kindness and caring, they are likely to become disrespectful and even cruel to peers.
In this self-centered environment, children who are unkind to acceptable targets are often still well-liked and are not seen as bullies by their peers or teachers. (They certainly don't see themselves as bullies.) Yet they haven't learned how to interact with people they dislike (or just don't understand) with civility or respect.
If by high school these children have accepted certain "correct" sociopolitical views, those views can become a part of their identity. Then when they advocate for disenfranchised and marginalized groups, they may unknowingly actually be driven by a need to protect their identity and social standing.
In college, these young adults may continue to use their well-honed self-elevating social skills against a new set of acceptable targets — those who don't share their views. Having joined the ranks of the snowflake fascists, they advocate eradicating whatever threatens their identity, and they don't mind being disrespectful and even cruel in the process.
As the Harvard study concludes, civil society "depends on adults who are committed to their communities and who, at pivotal times, will put the common good before their own. We don't seem to be preparing large numbers of youth to create this society."
Imagine what college might look like if middle school were primarily about developing the capacity to create respectful and civil communities in which people listen to others, consider opinions they don't share and value viewpoint diversity? Perhaps rather than becoming "safe spaces" where only certain ideas and viewpoints are allowed, colleges would be safe spaces for intellectual collision and the free expression of diverse points of view.
In contrast to Yale, one college that describes itself as "a community of teachers and learners who value civility in all their interactions" promotes the value of civil discourse. Its website advertises its commitment to freedom of expression: "When you encounter people who think differently than you do, you will be expected to honor their free expression, even when what they have to say seems wrong or offensive to you."
Thankfully there is one college left that still values civility and honors freedom of expression.
Wait. That's from Yale's website.
Executive coach and consultant Pamela Paresky writes about happiness, leadership and human development for Psychology Today at http://www.psychologytodayblog.com. A mother of two and a psychologist, she is the author of the guided journal "A Year of Kindness" and serves as director of the Aspen Center for Human Development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.