Unsafe Space

An Interview with Greg Lukianoff

The issue that conservatives look to as being the most symbolic here was the rise of the term “safe space.” The problem with the safe-space movement is that at this point in my career, I've seen probably seven different definitions of what a safe space is. Some are absolutely not problematic at all. If you want to have a group of like-minded people to get together and form an agreement to hang out with each other, more or less, you have every right to do that. In other cases, you saw students asserting that a residential college that was supposed to be educational was in its entirety a safe space, so things that were offensive to them should not be allowed in an educational environment.

In 2013 and 2014, then, we start seeing these trends that are problematic when it comes to freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus — trends that showed a decreasing tolerance for an appreciation for freedom of speech on campus.

What really made it different was that students were medicalizing the requests for increased policing of speech.

This is one of the things that really piqued my interest. If Ray Kelly, for example, came to speak on campus, rather than saying, "I think his policies are bigoted and I dislike stop and frisk,” part of the argument was that it would be traumatic to have someone like him on campus for students given the reality of stop and frisk.

This medicalization struck me as odd. No psychologist would say, "If you have an aversion to something, or if you have a phobia of it, that means that everybody around you has to not mention that topic, not discuss that topic, not remind you of it in any way." In fact, mainstream psychological thinking is that you don't want to create a situation where someone's fear around a particular topic just keeps on growing, and when the entire community is participating and protecting them from a topic that they find particularly unpleasant.

If that happens, you run the risk of transforming something that might have simply at first been an aversion into a phobia. Then with time, the most dangerous thing that can happen is it becomes more like a schema — a deep self-definition.

So it seemed like we had succeeded, unfortunately, in teaching a generation of students the intellectual habits of anxious and depressed people. I thought this would be harmful not only to the psychology health of students but also to the atmosphere for free speech and academic freedom. I brought this idea to Jonathan Haidt. We met in the Village. We went to an Indian restaurant. We talked about what I thought was an interesting approach, a way to think about it. To my delight and surprise, he wanted to write an article about it. That was 2014. About a year later, we wrote an article called “The Coddling the American Mind” for The Atlantic.

OR: What was the response like?

Lukianoff: For at least several months after the article came out in August 2015, we got very positive responses to it. People were talking about seeing these problems themselves. Students were coming forward saying that in some cases, being treated differently because people knew about someone's trauma could actually make them feel worse and more excluded and less a part of a society of friends and equals.

For a while, the article the second most-read cover story in the history of The Atlantic. Unfortunately, after the article came out in the summer 2015, the kind of trends we were talking about continued to get a lot worse. It was clear by 2016 that we needed to write a book about it and to go much more in depth.

One of the trends that came up that really underlined that the problem was much worse than we initially thought was when we started getting good data on the psychological makeup of the incoming class of 2016. They were having dramatically higher rates of anxiety and depression than students who entered in 2012.

Our prediction that anxiety and depression would increase ended up being much more dramatic than we ever expected, and really genuinely horrifying. When it comes to self-reports, you have in some cases a tripling of self-reports of psychological problems. You have lots of reports of students attending counseling services in larger numbers.

People that say this could just be that students are more comfortable talking about psychological issues. I'm a little skeptical of this. While that could certainly account for some of the variance, it would be surprising if there was really that much difference from 2012 to 2016.

Regardless, the saddest and most troubling piece of data that underlined our concern was an increase in the suicide rate of about 25 percent for male students when compared against the first decade of the millennium. 25 percent is very bad. When it came to women, the stats were dramatically higher. They were on average about 70 percent higher. But if you look at 2008 versus 2017-2018, the suicide rate actually doubled for young women and girls, which is horrifying.

In the book, we try to figure out what on earth was so different about the incoming class around 2013-2014. The number one trend that seems to come out in the data we saw is social media use. This was essentially the first generation of students to enter college who had smartphones in their pockets and were using social media on a regular basis. We definitely think this is one of the reasons why you saw this very rapid uptick in anxiety and depression. We think it also helps explain why it disproportionally affects girls, partially because male interrelationship hostility tends to be taken out in the form of physical aggression. Whereas for women a lot of the difficulty of, say, junior high school is in relational aggression.

We also think social media speeds up one of our other causal threads: polarization. If you look at the demographic data (and this has been going this way for some time) we increasingly live in communities that are more politically homogeneous. This is much more pronounced than it was in, let's say, the 1970’s. Red counties have become more red, blue counties have become more blue. Add to that the fact that we have also created these digital environments that really do give you a pat on the back for having a good echo chamber, where people follow you on Twitter because they already agree with you, where if you tweet something out, you just get more people saying, "I second that. I agree with that. You're right." Facebook, to a degree, does the same thing.