We are living in a time characterized by what I can only describe as wrong thinking. While making this absolutist claim flies contrary to the ideas and evidence to follow, I can conjure no better definition than “wrong.”
Most of us can agree that the chief aim of our university system is to teach students how to think and how to reason their way to their personal and scientific beliefs. Secondary, is to teach the skills specific to a given vocation. Still, even the most technical of expertise will benefit from a focus on the “why” over the “what.” My mechanical engineering degree, for example, focused more on the theory behind specific concepts and methodologies rather than on assertions that specific equations and laws are true.
A movement has arisen in modern universities that both teaches and incentivizes thought patterns, belief structures, and behavior that fly in the face of everything we understand about individual mental health and societal progress. Cognitive behavior therapy is the most effective non-pharmaceutical method for treating mental illness. In many cases, it is far more effective than drugs for treatment of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even schizophrenia. Better yet, it does not require longterm dependency and after several months most patients understand the methodology well enough to self-implement independently.
Cognitive behavior therapy is, essentially, a template to identify and overcome a series of cognitive defects or distortions. We can so easily fall into patterns of thought that, at best stunt our own development and at worse lead to depression, anxiety, and a litany of other mental disorders. Mental disorders are a two-way street between behavior and action; behaviors or thoughts that are the symptoms of depression can themselves lead toward depression when acted on.
Many of the cognitive distortions that cognitive behavior therapy seeks to identify and remedy are actually being thought and incentivized in the modern university landscape.
Before beginning my identification and critique, I’ll assert the caveat that while this issue is growing more widespread and pernicious and demanding more media attention than ever before, the trend is still contained to minority of departments at a minority of campuses (largely the Humanities at west coast universities).
If the goal of any society or university system is to teach its participants how best to address their own growth and happiness, we can draw inspiration from the template of cognitive behavior therapy. Like a new patient, we can teach ourselves and our young people to both identify and overcome the cognitive distortions that lead to discontent, mental illness, a polarized political climate, and poor societal health.
As many spiritual philosophies attest, true fulfillment can never be found through trying to change the world to your desires. Young people are learning that their personal feelings about a given idea or situation are both true and valid. Worse, they are increasingly incentivized to come to divisive and negative conclusions.
At the end of this piece, I will include a full list of the cognitive distortions that cognitive behavior therapy identifies, but I’ll continue here by naming a few particularly prominent examples and outlining their deleterious effects on individuals and societal progress.
Reason, by definition, means assessing ideas with logic for merit and effectiveness. Successfully employing reason requires (to the extent that it is possible) limiting your emotional response to a given idea.
Emotional reasoning means believing your personal feelings to be objective truth. It is “I feel it, so it must be true.” Rather than seeking an objective understanding, one allows their emotions to interpret and define objective reality.
This not only leads to severely distorted views of the world, but to offense and outrage. If someone’s words or ideas offend you, this expresses not your subjective taking of offense, but the obvious understanding that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. Once deemed “wrong” the offending person and his/her ideas can be demonized. Their simple utterance of a thought that you either disagree with or makes you uncomfortable represents their objective intent to harm you. This understanding leads into the next cognitive distortion.
When feelings achieve the elevated status as objective facts, we can then infer the offenders intent in expressing their views. A simple expression of a personal idea or a professor teaching about a subject matter that they personally find indefensible can be received as a purposeful attack.
Inferring a person’s intent has even extended into the future. Triggers warnings are the assumption that a given subject matter might trigger offense in a particular student. Often the students or administrators that demand issuing a trigger warning do so preemptively. They do not feel personally offended nor has an individual issued a personal complaint of offense, but they empathically demand a trigger warning under the assumption that some hypothetical individual will take offense sometime in the future. Once an idea has been identified as objectively harmful, any righteous individual then has a moral obligation to fight it on all fronts.
As any psychologist will attest, overcoming fears and discomfort comes not from insulation but from inoculation; we must face our fears rather than hide from them. This process means slowly upping the dosage of a particular fear or offense to develop a greater tolerance in the future. Psychologists treat individuals with a fear of elevators by first discussing elevators, then by showing patients photos of elevators, slowly progressing until their subject can successfully ride one. Universities have the unique opportunity to offer small tastes of uncomfortable and offensive ideas. Students should be exposed to “vaccinations” against racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and every other example of potentially harmful ideas through literature, historical case studies, and firsthand debate and discussion. These small doses will arm them for future exposure.
Perhaps the most effective tactic to enforce your viewpoints and eliminate any opposition is to negatively label any and all dissenters. Once you deem someone evil by any such label (Nazi, fascist, racist, sexist, homophobic, oppressor, etc.) you can universally demonize them and discount their views.
Absolutist, black and white thinking is perhaps the strongest method for distorting your perception of the world and the individuals that inhabit it. A person, a situation, an idea, or a group is either all bad or all good. This thought pattern completely discards the mere idea of nuance and grey areas. Life happens in the grey areas. All ideas define their value or damage within the nuances. This completely distorted method of perception casts the world into teams, your team and the others.
Those who engage in labeling do so with utmost transparent hypocrisy. Once deemed “good,” a person from your team is to be universally forgiven for transgressions. Yet, once deemed “bad,” anything that individual says can be taken in whatever context suites your demonizing interpretation of their intent. We see this blatant hypocrisy in the case of Sarah Jeong, the journalist recently hired to the editorial board at the New York Times. Her anti-White views, directed at any other group would have her labeled as hateful and racist, but since her other views support the other aspects of the leftist narrative, she is part of the team, labeled noble, and celebrated.
Via black and white thinking, social justice warriors have claimed a monopoly on deeming virtue; universal acceptance for insiders and universal denigration of outsiders. While unjust and hypocritical, thinking in absolutes is a recipe for anger and outrage. Those who see the world as their team against the “others” are doomed to seek conflict and outrage. They will fight a never ending battle convinced of their own righteous intentions.
Catastrophizing and Zero Tolerance
Catastrophizing means transforming any negative scenario into a monstrously terrible disaster. This phenomenon is a common symptom of depressive people who can exaggerate any unfortunate circumstance into a terrible hardship or massive injustice.
While unhealthy of its own right, when compounded with the above distortions, young people are incentivized to catastrophize any minor word or idea that they might deem as oppressive. When inflated to the level of unbearable, any minor indiscretion must be met with zero tolerance. This mode of thinking has given power to the idea of a “micro-aggression,” or words and phrases that are objectively aggressive and offensive regardless of the speaker’s intent. Thus is born the concept that words can be violence, a severely dangerous notion as it can be used to justify combating “micro-aggressive” language with actual physical violence.
Mental Filtering Toward the Negative
A focus to right all wrongs and eliminate all forms of oppression is, on its face, noble. The modern movement for social justice aims to find injustice under every stone. All of the above distortions enable any well intentioned ideologue to hone in on a single word, phrase, or belief, interpret intent devoid of nuance or without allowing the appropriately labeled “bad” person to contextualize or explain. They then take offense and exaggerate their outrage to deem that they are the victim of violence and can then feel justified to respond accordingly. Their peers call them a hero and applaud their sniffing out and silencing an oppressor.
Social proof is one of the deepest human motivators and has an especially strong grasp on young people seeking to find their role amongst the adult ranks. Peer acceptance and approval create the fire that drives this trend, but it has incentivized filtering out the good. Focus on the bad. Exaggerate and demonize those aspects. Call out the oppressor. Become a hero.
Filtering out the good of any scenario is another symptom of depressive behavior and thought patterns. The current social justice trend encourages just such thinking with social proof, perhaps the most powerful driver of young behavior.
This only bolsters the black and white thinking and labeling distortions.
What This All Means
These practices are not only anti-intellectual, but infantilize the students and young people who have fallen under their grasp. I see a minor positive in this trend. I am encouraged that young people want to rise up and make their voices heard. I believe that their behavior comes from an honest desire to both find and declare their place in the adult world and to empathically create a more accepting and fair world than the one that they were born into. While noble of aim, their methods are hopelessly misguided and ironically contrary to their goals.
As most spiritual philosophies attest, true happiness can never be found in trying to change the world to your desires. By honoring students juvenile impulses for both comfort and control we teach them that they have a right to both. No one is entitled to such things, only granted the opportunity to engage in a journey toward them.
We are deluded to believe that these trends will not continue post-graduation. We have already seen cases of terminations at major technology companies and news organizations due to mass outage. In all cases, the then-employee voiced a perfectly acceptable and well-reasoned viewpoint that confronts the gated institutional narrative of far-leftist politics.
The role of higher education is, to the extent that it is possible, to abolish childish notions of fairness rather than bend to and encourage them. Universities and the culture at large must teach discourse and nuanced thinking, the only means by which societies progress.
The social justice movement engages in a form of academic genocide, seeking the spread their views so forcefully and universally that they are willing to completely eliminate opposing views (and their view-holders) entirely.
This is cult-like behavior. Every cult leader in history understands that the cult narrative cannot survive contact with outside perspectives. “Safe spaces” are not meant to protect individuals from harm but are tools of the narrative structure to insulate its true believers from dissenting opinions.
We need partisanship. We all need to be challenged. Most importantly we need to have the ability to receive these challenges for the merit they might hold. No person is all bad, and certainly no person is all good regardless of how much “social justice” they achieve. Many young people today are encouraged and rewarded into thoughts patterns that deteriorate their own mental health and distort their view of society and their fellow citizens. Taken to its extreme, this path leads the “leaders of tomorrow” to become miserable individuals who will only widen the growing partisan polarization in our current political discourse.
We are all prone to such mental distortions. Catastrophizing something bad can be fun and give us a call to action, but we soon learn to search for the negative in all situations. Demonizing those on the other side of the isle is trump card to discount their views, but this is a lazy tactic that allows us to never confront the logic that probably backs their viewpoints.
While a systemic issue, we can all correct this scary trend as individuals. When facing any opposing views or seemingly offensive people take the cognitive behavioral therapy approach to possibly reframe the facts. Ground your views in evidence and facts. Seek out evidence that might disprove your initial hypothesis or viewpoint.
The social justice movement claims to be rooted in empathy. I ask, if you are so empathic for a given minority that you commit verbal or physical violence against a white male, are you truly acting from empathy or hate? True empathy is universal.
There are people and ideas that are truly beyond the pale. There are claims so outlandish or hateful that we need never consider them. However, the fence between these views and reasonable, debate-worthy ideas has been increasingly shrinking. I challenge you to act with empathy in all scenarios and to give voice and credence (at least initially) to any opposing opinion until you can determine its possible merits. If you are a parent, the best wisdom you can impart of your child or young adult is to openly receive and consider all views as valid until proven harmful.