It is easier to make fun of trigger warnings than it is to address the root causes of trauma. It is easier to ascribe student demands to their sense of entitlement than it is to combat the issues of racism, sexism and transphobia on campus. Calling millennials sensitive, entitled and fragile does nothing to solve the issues of systemic oppression in America. But it does distract from those issues.
Criticizing millennials has become the go-to strategy for many defenders of the status quo, including social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In a recent interview with with John Leo, editor of Minding the Campus, Haidt warns that college campuses are “going to get much, much worse” as “millennials come to college with much thinner skins.” He argues that as long as children are subject to anxious, overbearing parents, “we’re going to keep seeing these demands to never hear anything offensive.” When asked if he is referring to “micro-aggression, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and different forms of censorship,” Haidt agrees.
Not only does Haidt fundamentally misunderstand what students are asking for, he also suggests that the “academy” — the world of academia — is somehow worse off because college students are pointing out oppression, whether in the form of microaggressions or larger school policies. But millennials will not kill the academy. In fact, they will make it better.
Haidt’s argument is riddled with inconsistencies. He seems to suggest that while it is censorship to call something offensive, it is not censorship to try to silence the grievances of college students. Haidt is worried about students addressing racism on campus but not about actual racist acts that occur on college campuses. This kind of contradictory, offensive rhetoric is what happens when calls for change are conflated with a sense of entitlement and prioritization of student wellness is confused with censorship.
USC has seen its own campus activism grow and develop over the last year. Most notably, perhaps, the Campus Climate Resolution called for serious transformation of the University’s approach to the issues of diversity and inclusion. But asking for a reinstatement of the diversity requirement, for example, is not the result of entitlement, just as the desire to see a more diverse curriculum is not the result of overbearing parents. Haidt fails to realize the larger context in which millennials were born. Although he correctly points out that millennials were born in a time of “anxiety” and rising crime, it was also a post-civil rights and post-second wave feminism society. So if millennials feel entitled, they feel entitled to the society their parents and grandparents imagined and fought for. They feel entitled to a college experience free from rape, intimidation and unequal opportunities. More students addressing racism on college campuses is not the result of helicopter parents, but of more students of color participating in campus life and yet, still not being fully included. The need to create safe spaces on campuses is not because millennials are oversensitive, but because one in four women will be raped or be a victim of attempted rape while attending college.
Haidt, and others like him, are not genuinely concerned about censorship in the academy. They are worried about losing their monopoly on having a voice. As college students demand to be heard, it is disgraceful for previous generations to respond with ad hominem attacks and cries of censorship. Haidt — and others like him — must learn that the academy will survive greater diversity, but it may not survive the attempts to keep it grounded in oppressive ideologies.