Opinion

The Safety Police: Is Free Speech Being Stifled on College Campuses?

Jonathan Haidt

By Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

Safety is good, of course, and keeping others safe from harm is virtuous, but virtues can become vices when carried to extremes.

By Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

Something is going badly wrong for American teenagers, as we can see in the statistics on depression, anxiety, and suicide. Something is going very wrong on many college campuses, as we can see in the rise in efforts to disinvite or shout down visiting speakers, and in changing norms about speech, including a recent tendency to evaluate speech in terms of safety and danger. This new culture of “safetyism” is bad for students and bad for universities.

Safety is good, of course, and keeping others safe from harm is virtuous, but virtues can become vices when carried to extremes. “Safetyism” refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. “Safety” trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger. When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to stay “emotionally safe” while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient. The end result may be similar to what happened when we tried to keep kids safe from exposure to peanuts: a widespread backfiring effect in which the “cure” turns out to be a primary cause of the disease.

When the federal Office of Education began collecting data in 1869, there were only 63,000 students enrolled in higher education institutions throughout the United States; they represented just 1 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds. Today, an estimated 20 million students are enrolled in American higher education, including roughly 40 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds. U.S. elite institutions draw substantial international enrollment, and 17 of the top 25 universities in the world are in the U.S. The enormous expansion of scope, scale, and wealth demands professionalization, specialization, and a lot of support staff.

Read the full article in The Saturday Evening Post.

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Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership.