Is Sensitivity a Plague?

May 13, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I begin my Foundations of Sociological Inquiry course with Durkheim, specifically the stability of suicide rates.* Last year, after that first class, one of the students asked to speak with me for a minute. He was, a burly-looking man of about 30, with heavily tattooed arms and legs (warm September, shorts).  He said he’d recently gotten out of the military. He knew guys who had committed suicide, including a good friend who had killed himself only a few months earlier. “So some of this stuff can be kind of rough for me.”

I assured him that we were going to be talking about suicide rates, not cases, but that I would keep in mind what he’d just told me.  And I did.

“Are we living through a plague of hypersensitivity?” asks Todd Gitlin in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (here, behind a paywall). He’s referring to demands by some students that assigned material that might upset them be prefaced by “trigger warnings.” That plus speech codes and talk of “microaggressions.”

 “Is fragility the new normal?” Gitlin asks.

He doesn’t really answer the question as to whether the plague is real.  He seems to assume that the answer is yes and offers some data that might explain “Why should so many skins be so thin nowadays?”

The data Gitlin digs up shows that students today report more stress, anxiety, depression, and less “self-rated emotional health” than did their counterparts of decades past. They see therapists more often and take more meds. They also work more at non-academic jobs.

But Gitlin never explains why these factors would lead to more demands for trigger warnings, perhaps because there’s no good evidence of that cause-effect connection. Instead, he moves to “the realm of higher, perhaps airier speculation.” I’m all for speculation, but what puzzles me is that although Gitlin is a sociologist, his speculations omit three important sociological dimensions: class, gender, and power.

I get the impression that the principle movers and speakers for what Gitlin calls fragility are women at elite schools. I repeat, that’s my impression, not data, and it might be just me, or it might be where the media like to focus their attention.  But that’s sort of the point. I teach at a university, but it is not an elite school, and I know of these sensitivity issues only via the media. Even my ex-soldier student was making a personal statement, not pushing a policy. I haven’t heard any calls for trigger warnings here. Neither have friends at similarly second- and third-tier schools. I would also guess that when there are such demands at non-elite schools – UC Santa Barbara has gotten some press – the students demanding more sensitivity come from privilege.

Those reacting against these student demands often want to frame the issue as one of toughness. “America’s College Kids Are a Bunch of Mollycoddled Babies” says the title of a post at Politico by Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who writes a lot about education. (Finn says some other pretty stupid things in the post – here if you’re interested.) Oberlin’s trigger warning policy elicited tweets about “sniveling little Victorian misses with vapours” and “the victimization style of feminism that has become so popular with young people” (cited in a worthwhile post at  XO Jane). In other words, man up and shut up.

What seems to bother these critics is that students are asserting themselves, trying to use what power they have to bring about changes they want – in this case, protection of the vulnerable. With this “students should be seen and not heard” attitude, it’s the Chester Finns who want students to be more like Victorian misses – docile and compliant.

Where did students get this idea that they can speak up for what they want and for what they think is right? 

I’m surprised that Gitlin didn’t mention Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, a study of child-rearing and social class, one of the most widely read sociology books in recent history. Most relevant here are class differences in the lessons parents give to kids about school – lessons taught by example rather than directly articulated. Lower-class and working-class children saw their parents passively accept what the teachers and administrators did. Parents might complain among themselves, but they didn’t challenge the school’s authority. Midde-class parents, by contrast, were “very assertive.”

There were numerous conflicts during the year over matters small and large. For example, parents complained to one another and to the teachers about the amount of homework the children were assigned. A black middle-class mother whose daughters had not tested into the school’s gifted program negotiated with officials to have the girls’ (higher) results from a private testing company accepted instead. The parents of a fourth-grade boy drew the school superintendent into a battle over religious lyrics in a song scheduled to be sung as part of the holiday program. The superintendent consulted the district lawyer and ultimately “counseled” the principal to be more sensitive, and the song was dropped.

Children assimilated the lesson.

Children, too, asserted themselves at school. Examples include requesting that the classroom’s blinds be lowered so the sun wasn’t in their eyes, badgering the teacher for permission to retake a math test for a higher grade, and demanding to know why no cupcake had been saved when an absence prevented attendance at a classroom party. In these encounters, children were not simply complying with adults’ requests or asking for a repeat of an earlier experience. They were displaying an emerging sense of entitlement by urging adults to permit a customized accommodation of institutional processes to suit their preferences.

 American Sociological Review, 2002, Vol. 67 (October:747–776) (here)

Yes, as a teacher, I would prefer that students shut up and not complain about anything I do or say. I would also prefer that people inside and outside the academy stop whining that we don’t have enough conservatives on our faculty or on our commencement programs.  They should all just shut up and stop complaining. But somehow, they’ve gotten the idea that they can try to change policy. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.


* I show the annual data on US suicides since 1990. “It’s not like TV ratings,” I say.  “We know that if eight million people watched ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ this week, next week’s audience will also be about eight million. They’re the ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ fans.”  Then I point to the numbers on the suicide chart.  “But the 32,000 people who killed themselves in 2005 cannot be the same 32,000 who killed themselves in 2004.”   I add, “There aren’t very many facts in social science that we’re 100% sure of, but that’s one of them.” Sometimes it gets a laugh, sometimes it doesn’t.

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