Monday, August 17, 2015

Neurotic Anxiety and the Fearful Nation

Right now the most talked about magazine article in America seems to be The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, at the Atlantic. It's a long and complex piece, worth taking the time to read carefully. They start from what Rush Limbaugh would call the new political correctness, all that stuff we have read about professors who are afraid to teach the law of rape or even say that the law has been violated, the posting of trigger warnings, the obsession with microagressions. They proceed to analyze this trend in the light of cognitive psychology. The premise of cognitive psychology is that we can become happier and more productive by changing the way we think, in particular by training ourselves to resist obsessive negative thoughts. Seen through the lens of cognitive therapy, the whole apparatus of trigger warnings and so on is absolutely backwards:
One of the great truths taught by Buddhism (and Stoicism, Hinduism, and many other traditions) is that you can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to your desires. But you can master your desires and habits of thought. This, of course, is the goal of cognitive behavioral therapy. 
As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, one thing psychologists are quite good at these days is helping people to overcome phobias, and this is not done by avoiding the feared thing. On the contrary it is done by confronting what you fear, in safe circumstances, over and over again until it doesn't scare you any more. To them the use of trigger warnings to keep people from encountering what frightens or upsets them is exactly the wrong approach.

The theory of "microaggressions" is that women, gay people and minorities are constantly subjected to low-level harassment or belittlement; individually each case seems unimportant, but added together over a lifetime they drive home the message that you are no good. To Lukianoff and Haidt, this sounds like exactly the sort of thinking cognitive therapy is supposed to counteract. Among the patterns of negative thinking they cite are these:
1. Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”

6. Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”

7. Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
To a cognitive psychologist, worrying about microaggressions is not any sot of political act, but a treatable symptom. A person who goes through life seeing criticism everywhere and seeking protection from that criticism is likely to end up miserable. Lukianoff and Haidt worry that the reason crippling anxiety is on the rise in America is that we have created a fearful culture, in which people are driving themselves and their children crazy worrying about how to avoid every scary or unpleasant thing. It starts with an insistence on safe playground equipment, followed by safe sports and crusades against bullying, and then college campuses safe from microaggressions, and finally safe suburbs with security guards and alarm systems. Swaddled by all of this safety, we shrink into anxious wrecks.

I absolutely agree that from the perspective of personal psychology, all of this sensitivity is a terrible mistake. My favorite self-help book, The Road Less Traveled by M.Scott Peck, has exactly the same message: in fact after twenty years I can hardly remember anything about it except the constant assertion that life is hard, so if you want to make a good go of it you need to stop blaming, stop making excuses, and toughen up. If I am giving advice to a person who suffers from such worries, that is what I say.

But personal psychology is not the only relevant perspective here, because these are also political issues. In many ways a therapeutic approach to life is the negation of political activism. Psychologically, the healthiest thing may be to accept that the world is the way it is, and learn to thrive despite everything that is wrong with it. Politically, that would mean that nothing would ever change; things change in politics largely because somebody decides they are not acceptable. Perfectly sane people might be like Buddhist sages, indifferent to most of what happens in the world. Some of the things that scare people are legitimately scary -- sexual assault, mugging, car accidents -- and legitimate fields for political and government action. Where should the line between the therapeutic and the political be drawn?

Many of the issues that upset people now have to do with what it is acceptable to say in public, an issue that I find very complicated. I absolutely believe that driving racist jokes out of the public sphere has been a real gain for equality. But it has also come at a high cost, through aggressive policing or self-policing of speech. Even the ultra-liberal Fredrik deBoer has complained about this, for example, when a young, liberal Hispanic man was multiply berated at a university political meeting for saying that people need to "man up" about some issue. You don't have to be a feminist-hating racist to see that something is lost when people cannot speak frankly to each other about the biggest issues of the age, and you have to be a fool not to notice that white men who get shushed in this way get their revenge by voting Republican. But when does speaking frankly end and disrespect begin?

Turning over this question of the therapeutic vs. the political, I have been wondering if there were cases in which ignoring slights and getting on with life could be powerful politics. What about Jackie Robinson? Robinson was put into major league baseball to take it, to ignore all the insults and abuse and just get on with playing baseball. Surely he accomplished more for America that way than if he had been constantly complaining about the way he was treated. Of course we can't all be Jackie Robinson, but I often wonder if maybe that is the model that might do the most to change the world.

As it happens I have been reading a collection of Saul Bellow's essays, and one of his constant themes is the omnipresence of the political in modern life, to the point that it destroys art and makes conversation impossible: "A liberal society so intensely political can't remain liberal for very long." The liberal watchword is tolerance, and that means tolerance of everyone, even bigots, for we are all bigoted about something.

But an activist might respond that how much value you set on novel writing and polite conversation depends on your slot in the system -- rich white men care a lot, but the oppressed and downtrodden think there are more important questions than whether you can unburden yourself of your callous, mean-spirited thoughts. Exactly so.

So I go back and forth. I am convinced that some policing of public speech is necessary for us to have a fair and just society. All societies have rules about what can and cannot be said, so there is nothing totalitarian about placing limits on public speech. But I remain certain that too much sensitivity to what other people say and think is a terrible mistake. There will always be jerks in the world, and if you let them ruin your day you will have a lot of days ruined. If you really want to fight them, stop giving them the power to make you feel bad. Buddhism, stoicism, and cognitive psychology all provide different sorts of tools you can use to do this.

To me the most interesting part of the essay is Lukianoff and Haidt's theory that our very search for safety is making us anxious. This appeals so strongly to me that I wonder if it can possibly be true. In my experience, the world rarely conforms to my ideological expectations, so when it seems to I immediately become suspicious. But I think there is a strong case. So far as we can measure these things, the amount of crippling anxiety in America has risen over the past fifty years, even as the world has grown ever safer. Protection from both physical harm and psychological assault may be exactly parallel to protection from disease. Just as our overall health is making our allergies and other autoimmune problems worse, so perhaps our safety is making us worry.

If that is true, even partially, it has all sorts of implications for many areas of life, especially in education. Perhaps it would have even bigger implications for how we think about life in a broad sense, and how we envisage what the best life would be.


Unknown said...

As you know, I don't have much sympathy with the "toughen-up" crowd, for precisely the reason you give in another post: simply being told, and even agreeing with, an idea like "toughen up," I don't think, changes too many people. I suspect that you and others who respond to this idea simply find it easier to be tough than other people do. My suspicion is that this is largely a matter of endocrinology.

I would repeat what I've said before: I think that our current safety-oriented culture is in large part a response to spreading egalitarianism: people who, say, eighty years ago might have repressed their miseries and let them come out in drinking, domestic violence, etc., now feel free to say what bothers them. Many of those who now complain about anxiety would have been no less anxious in the past; they simply wouldn't have talked about it, and gone on hating themselves without public acknowledgement.

In any case, I would say bullying fits in with legitimate fears, and if the price of less bullying and suchlike is a culture where people feel free to crinkle their brows and wring their hands in worry in public, I'm eager to pay it.

Unknown said...

Thinking further, of course one might say that this whole to-do is a battle of different endocrinological natures. After all, some folks find self-policing easier than others, and I imagine that at least some of those complaining about our "over-safe" society are the ones who find self-policing difficult. But self-policing is what the anxious have been doing for a long time ("I'm really bothered by the way my professor/boss/etc. talks about X, but I'm probably just being over-sensitive/whimpy/uppity/rude/time-wasting/etc. I should just toughen up."). No matter what happens, someone's going to have to police themselves about the way they act. Our society is simply in flux about who has to do that--and our debate is more wide-open than it's probably been in most other societies.

John said...

I am impressed by how many different political and psychological issues intersect in this one topic: bullying, racism, anxiety, safe playground design, sexism, dodgeball, university teaching, and so on.

I suppose that because we are a social species, how we treat each other is central to everything.