“The Coddling of the American Mind”: A Rhetorical Analysis

Isabel Beck
Oct 2, 2018 · 11 min read

I’m currently in trouble with Syracuse University. I’m sure this is a fairly unconventional way to begin a rhetorical analysis, but let me explain. Back in April, at the end of my sophomore year, I had a fight with my next door neighbor. We’d never really gotten along, but that day, she pushed me to my limit. In a fit of anger, I called her some very nasty, choice words on a public platform. It was not my smartest idea, as it got back to her pretty quickly. She reported it to the university, where it later became a Title IX sexual assault investigation — because I used the word “bitch.” They called it gender-based harassment. I called it ridiculous.

I am opening my analysis with this extremely personal anecdote because it serves as a great example of the “safe space” mentality that is taking colleges across the United States by storm. In an effort to shield students from words or ideas with the potential to cause offense, colleges are cultivating an environment of extreme political correctness that is toxic for education and mental health. In the article “The Coddling of the American Mind”, Greg Lukanioff and Jonathan Haidt explain why creating such a fragile mentality is a disservice to students and professors alike.

Lukanioff (the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Haidt (a social psychologist and NYU professor) have been studying what they refer to as “vindictive protectiveness” — a new wave of political correctness on college campuses — for years. Lukianoff became interested in the topic after learning how to identify distortions in his own thinking via cognitive behavioral therapy. He soon began to observe cognitive distortions in other people’s ways of thinking too. Blanket statements such as “white people are always racist” and “people of color cannot be racist” were characteristic of several cognitive distortions: overgeneralizing, dichotomous thinking, and an inability to disconfirm. After seeing equivalent statements used during a diversity workshop at the University of Delaware, Lukanioff began to wonder “whether campus culture…was coaxing students towards distorted thinking.” He raised the question with Haidt, hoping his background in social psychology could shed some light.

Haidt began to notice “new moralistic trends” on college campuses in the spring of 2014. He was first exposed to “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions” in his research, but soon after found himself encountering the same issues with his own students at New York University. Haidt was frustrated by the trend, which made it so that “professors must ask themselves not just What is the best way to teach this material? but also Might the most sensitive student in the class take offense if I say this, and then post it online, and then ruin my career?” When Lukianoff came to him with his theory — that colleges were teaching students to think distortedly — Haidt saw the close connection to moral psychology and agreed to work with him. What they came up with was “The Coddling of the American Mind”, a controversial essay that served as the cover story for the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic magazine.

The essay begins by acknowledging that “something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities…a movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause offense.” The ultimate aim? “…To turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable…to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.” In an effort to break down their argument, the essay is separated into various sections following the introduction: the first section, “How Did We Get Here?”, digs deeper into the context and ecology behind the argument.

How did we get here? Lukianoff and Haidt ascertain that generational changes are large contributors: we, the Millenials, are policed and protected in a way that is unique to our generation and goes beyond the span of rhetoric. While our parents and grandparents might have had a “free range” childhood, a rise in crime and child abductions in the ’80s led to new safety standards that included the watchful eye of a parent, at all times. The 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Columbine, CO led schools to follow suit. The children of today do not know a world where they could bring a peanut butter and jelly to school for lunch; the American cultural climate has adjusted, even in slight ways, to meet a new standard of “protecting the children.” It isn’t hard to deduce that a generation used to constant protection and coddling would embrace the same mentality — and turn to social media to share their views.

Much like Millennials are the protected generation, we are also the social media generation. We’ve watched as social media first emerged on the scene in the form of MySpace, and we’ve witnessed it become an integral part of our lives with the later additions of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. As such, it seems fitting that the consumption of news and media would eventually be something that took place via newsfeeds rather than legitimate sources. Though the political climate in the United States has been steadily worsening for years, it wasn’t until the 2016 Presidential Election that social media became a vehicle for vicious political commentary and debate supplemented by moral self-righteousness. In some ways, social media made it hard for students to escape from a tense, polarizing climate, ultimately leaving them extra-susceptible to emotional fragility. Thus it began: soon, trigger warnings and microaggressions became commonplace epithets on college campuses in America, and universities started to modify their policies to reflect a new, more sensitive campus culture.

As I read this piece, it became clear to me that Lukianoff and Haidt’s intended audience is the same demographic they describe in their article: professors and administrative officials, and maybe college students. While it could certainly be beneficial to other audiences as well, the piece’s overarching purpose is highlighting why the phenomenon of “vindictive protectiveness” is bad for college students. As such, Lukianoff and Haidt want to educate the individuals promoting this mentality. Since this movement is largely student-driven, it is fitting that they would appeal to the demographic that is most heavily involved, college students. But Lukanioff and Haidt really wrote this piece for individuals who possess the authority to implement new policies and modify campus curriculum — professors and university higher-ups. This is made apparent by the language, diction, and nuances of the piece. First and foremost, Lukanioff and Haidt consistently refer to students in the third-person, which makes the article feel as though it is about students and not for them. In one instance, they pose the question, “What are the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves?”, which implies that the person reading is somebody with an investment in the well-being of students, not a student. The section “How Did We Get Here?” also describes Millennials as though they are separate from the audience of the piece. It is almost as if the undertone of the article is “kids these days”, albeit in a much more academic and well-expressed manner. This doesn’t mean that Lukanioff and Haidt don’t want to reach college students, but it does heavily suggest that this piece was written about them and for people with the power to manipulate campus culture.

When considering that Lukanioff and Haidt both have backgrounds in education, it makes sense that they would write such a comprehensive article (and later, a book) for a demographic that consists primarily of individuals who work in an educational capacity. Multiple references to “educational circles” and concepts are made, such as the citing of the Socratic method. Professors are frequently used as sources, and trends in higher education are discussed throughout the piece. Finally, the last section of the article, “What Can We Do Now?”, identifies the different ways colleges can prevent the rise of vindictive protectiveness, not students. In fact, the entire essay seems to operate under the belief that this new movement is only made possible because it is indulged, or “coddled”, by universities.

In some ways, vindictive protectiveness can be related back to our in-class discussions and readings about bullshit. As philosopher Harry Frankfurt states in his essay-turned-book On Bullshit, the bullshitter is “neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false,” and is instead concerned only with getting what he or she wants, and will use whatever means necessary to do so. This is reminiscent of an example given in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” as well as the personal anecdote that opened this analysis.

Take Laura Kipnis, a Northwestern University professor who wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a new campus culture of sexual paranoia. Students who were offended by the article and the author’s tweets discussing it filed Title IX complaints against her. A Title IX complaint is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding; sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape all fall under the umbrella of the Title IX law. Like Kipnis, I too underwent an investigation after a Title IX complaint was filed against me. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, sexual harassment can qualify as discrimination under Title IX if it is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” Consider this: in addition to her job as a professor, Kipnis is also a famous cultural critic and essayist with a focus on sexual politics and gender issues. She has dedicated her career to studying these topics. Clearly, Kipnis did not publish her article with the intention of causing offense, and she certainly didn’t sexually harass, assault, or rape anybody. Similarly, a Syracuse University student filed a Title IX complaint against me after I called her a “bitch” in an argument. It definitely wasn’t a nice thing to say, but does it really fit the ACLU’s criteria for sexual harassment? Was it so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it warranted such a serious investigation?

Kipnis and I have different stories, but both share the same ending: the people we offended wanted us to be silenced, and used whatever means necessary to do so, even if it meant filing serious, potentially life-ruining complaints. Clearly, Frankfurt’s definition of a “bullshitter” is rooted in reality. Frankfurt also argues throughout On Bullshit that “the bullshitter bullshits whether or not she actually believes something to be the case.” This theory is put to the test in a video released by the Family Policy Institute of Washington (FPIW), titled “Gender Identity: Can a 5’9 White Guy Be a 6’5 Chinese Woman?”

In the video, we see the director of FPIW, Joseph Backholm, approach University of Washington students with a seemingly simple question: “If I told you I was a woman, what would your response be?” The responses are unanimously positive (“Good for you!”), with only one student expressing hesitation. Backholm then asks more questions, with each situation becoming increasingly unlikely, and culminating in the impossible: “What if I told you I was Chinese? Seven years old? If I wanted to enroll in a first grade class, what would you say? What if I told you I was six feet, five inches?” And every single response he gets is bullshit. You can clearly tell by their facial expressions, body language, and hesitations that these students know Backholm isn’t Chinese, or seven years old, or six foot five. But they refuse to admit it, instead saying things like “I’d ask you how you came to that conclusion,” or, “If you feel seven at heart, then so be it, good for you.” These students are bullshitting Backholm and themselves, under the pretense of inclusivity and open-mindedness. At the end of the video, we see one student finally crack: “No, I don’t think you’re six foot five…because you’re not!” But this same student said that Backholm could be a woman, and Chinese — so why not a six foot five Chinese woman?

The answer is simple: bullshit isn’t rooted in logic, and neither is the movement that Lukianoff and Haidt are describing. As Anne Rice states in her article “Disgusting Bullshit,” what is most concerning about bullshit is “the fact that any attempts to question, engage, or respond to the bullshit’s claims are obstructed.”

Herein lies the crux of Lukianoff and Haidt’s entire argument: “Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on ‘blaming the victim’, it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone sincerity) of someone’s emotional state…the thin argument ‘I’m offended’ becomes an unbeatable trump card.” In essence, this means that students are missing out on some of the most integral parts of the human experience — debate, education, cultural exchange, and curiosity — because they refuse to be exposed to anything that challenges their own ideology. This mentality does not bode well for professional life, which often involves engaging with people who have fundamentally different ideas or beliefs. It also does not allow students to develop the critical thinking skills that colleges so desperately try to impart.

Vindictive protectiveness does not prepare college students for the “real world”, where there are no trigger warnings, and it is impossible to avoid potentially offensive thoughts or ideas. Instead, universities should “equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas they cannot control.” According to Lukianoff and Haidt, this begins at the federal level; if Congress defined peer-on-peer harassment according to the Supreme Court’s definition in the 1999 case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, which asserts that “a single comment or thoughtless remark by a student does not equal harassment,” universities would perhaps feel less inclined to police students’ speech, knowing that there was no risk of an unreasonable investigation or sanctions from the Department of Education.

“The Coddling of the American Mind” is a piece of effective rhetoric for a few reasons. It takes on the form of a lengthy article, but utilizes sections that help break down the different concepts being discussed. Readers who would initially shy away from the article because of its length might instead be persuaded to skim the different sections and see if they enjoy the content and style of writing. In the reading “Generalizing About Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept,” by Amy Devitt, it is revealed that “based on our identification of genre, we make assumptions not only about the form but also the text’s purposes, its subject matter, its writer, and its expected reader.” In this sense, the form of the article is also successful: at the time of its publication it was a cover story, so readers were immediately exposed to it. It was published in The Atlantic, a quality publication with a long history of producing factual journalism, and it was written by two professionals after years of research and field observation. Simply from the genre and form of this article, the reader will assume — whether they want to read it or not — that it is a legitimate piece of journalism, backed up by verifiable facts and sources, and written by qualified individuals. All of these are positive assumptions, a testament to the form and genre Lukianoff and Haidt selected.

In summation, “The Coddling of the American Mind” is an interesting and timely commentary on the nature of rhetoric on college campuses, and how it has changed over the years to take on a toxic agenda that will ultimately harm those who perpetuate it. Lukianoff and Haidt are persuasive, well-informed authors who use their backgrounds to their advantage and explain, step-by-step: what the problem is, when it started, why it’s important, and how to fix it. Any member of a campus community, whether faculty or student, would learn something from reading it, so long as they are able to set aside the unbeatable “I’m offended” card and embrace the critical thinking that colleges are constantly trying to cultivate.

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