I love Ann Arbor. It’s a wonderful place to live, be educated and even raise a family, and I love the university that calls it home. What I don’t love is how we avoid uncomfortable conversations. Like most college campuses, we have a student and professorial population that overwhelmingly leans progressive. While this bias is not a problem in and of itself, it has contributed to an environment where we tend to avoid people and opinions that we disagree with. Conversations that stray from the ideological norm make us uncomfortable, and understandably so. But it’s only when we engage in conversations that make us uncomfortable that we can have productive dialogue about the issues at hand.
In the early 2000s, it was commonplace to see administrators try to censor students and professors in efforts to maintain peace on campuses. These efforts were almost always opposed by student groups and professors alike. However, in recent years there has been a shift on campuses: Many students now demand censorship of those with whom they disagree.
It has become commonplace for us to justify the censoring of others’ opinions simply because they make us irritated, some even going as far as to say that these words constitute an act of violence. This trend has even convinced educators to accuse students’ speech, with which they disagree, of violence.
Professor Shellyne Rodríguez at Hunter College told a peaceful anti-abortion advocate that his attempt to educate and persuade people to his point of view constituted violence.
“You’re not educating shit,” Rodríguez said, “This is violent.”
Many students cite how contradicting viewpoints cause individuals to feel unsafe or triggered, posing risks to their mental health and allegedly hindering their ability to mentally function.
A prime example of such controversy occurred on Nov. 5, 2015, when a group of angry Yale University students confronted Silliman College (one of 14 residential colleges at Yale) master Nicholas Christakis. Students were outraged over a statement he made in an email, which his wife, Silliman associate master Erika Christakis, wrote surrounding the capacity of well-educated Yale students to choose their Halloween costumes wisely and their right to wear costumes that some deem offensive.
“If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended,” he wrote. “Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
Many students were visibly frustrated and emotional during their interaction and conversation regarding the email while Nicholas Christakis remained remarkably level-headed and responsive to the students’ arguments and accusations. The argument eventually degraded into a smattering of insults targeted at him instead of a productive conversation. Rather than convening a forum in which to discuss these issues and come to a reasonable conclusion, the outrage among the student population led to his and his wife’s resignations as master and associate master of the college, respectively.
Issues like this also occur here at the University of Michigan. In 2022, right-wing political commentator Ben Shapiro came to the University to share his views and have a Q&A with students on campus. Outside of the lecture hall, a protest broke out that opposed his ideology. Protesters held signs stating “No to Shapiro. No to bigotry.”
Rather than going inside the hall and debating Shapiro on the merits of his arguments, most of the students disagreeing with him decided to attempt to silence him. Students did not advocate that the ideals he espouses are incorrect but rather advocated for his removal while simultaneously name-calling. Unfortunately, both the rates of requests for and successful disinvitation of controversial speakers on college campuses have increased dramatically over the past two decades; fortunately, it was not successful here.
As a result of this increased sensitivity of students and their unwillingness to tolerate views that trigger them emotionally and conflict with their own ideological preconceptions, professors have become more anxious. They fear being called out for saying something that could be mischaracterized as racist or sexist and as such avoid many more sensitive topics of conversation and education. Even in personal relationships and friendships, many fear discussing divisive political topics for fear of backlash and retribution.
In a book by social scientist Jonathan Haidt and lawyer Greg Lukianoff, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” the authors comment on how our generation’s aversion to conflict has left us coddled and unprepared for adversity. Their research shows that overprotection of students’ emotional well-being in childhood has created a group identity presuming that students are inherently fragile when the opposite is true. Research into psychological and academic development by Lukianoff, Haidt and many more has strongly pointed to the idea that humans are emotionally antifragile, meaning that, in order to grow academically and emotionally, challenges are a requirement rather than a hindrance, much like how our immune system cannot function at its best without being tested.
Removing contradicting content that makes some people uncomfortable is essentially like not feeding your child peanuts because other kids could be allergic. In the end, not exposing them to peanuts, much like different perspectives, actually leads to increased peanut allergies. Haidt and several other researchers have actually found that this environment of walking on eggshells is not healthy and has contributed to increased average levels of cortisol in college students, increased levels of anxiety and drastically increased numbers of depressive episodes and suicide. If the goal of higher education institutions is to allow all of us to develop well-founded and nuanced opinions, then this fragility has to be managed in a way that promotes productivity and minimizes censorship.
Clinical psychologists have found a way to reduce emotionally triggered cognitive distortions — over-exaggerated emotional states that disrupt our ability to think critically and objectively (like conflating violence and speech) — that led to unproductive conversations decades ago with cognitive behavioral theory. The essential premise of CBT is that emotions should take a backseat when making important decisions or opinions. In truly reasoning through our cognitive distortions, we can think critically and come to informed decisions despite being emotionally irritated.
In the end, it is the discomfort that provides for the advancements of our opinions. Only when our opinions are contradicted are we able to see their flaws and therefore improve on them. If we truly step out of our comfort zone, stop demanding that our environment cater to our emotional distortions and apply our best reasoning that stands in line with cognitive behavioral therapy, we will create a more vibrant and lush intellectual environment on our campus and everywhere we go.
Seth Gabrielson is an Opinion Columnist studying physics and aerospace engineering. He writes about the intersection of culture, religion and science and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.