Safetyism was never real.

Launched into the world by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, “Safetyism refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people are unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.”

According to the authors safetyism, along with other factors such as “screen time,” were causing observable increases in anxiety and depression among young people, as well as leading to protests such as the one over Halloween costumes at Yale, which the authors see as an illiberal assault on the values of the institution.

Coddling was published in 2018. 

I am trying to recognize the description of a generation which is so apparently fragile that they cannot even bare a challenging thought with the one who has been the greatest number of those facing pepper spray, tear gas, beatings, ad rubber bullets on the streets as they protest systemic injustices in the wake of the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

I’m seeing plenty of sacrifice and bravery, sacrifice rooted in anger, frustration, despair, and desperation. I’m not seeing any safetyism.

If safetyism is a thing, its true avatar is President Donald Trump, whose first act after inauguration was to send his press secretary out to lie about the crowds on the National Mall. The tear gassing of peaceful protestors from near the White House so Donald Trump could stage a photo-op in front of a church while holding a Bible was explicitly designed to soothe his ego, following reports of a brief stay in an underground White House bunker as protestors massed outside the building.

Donald Trump’s inability to withstand even the slightest criticism without lashing out is a hallmark of his presidency. It has largely been normalized as a matter of Trump’s style or politics, rather than pathologized as Haidt and Lukianoff do with the “iGen,” but the pattern is clear.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens is another example of someone who decries the pernicious influence of safetyism while cocooning himself in a protective bubble. In a 2017 commencement address at Hampden-Sydney college, Stephens decries the existence of so-called “safe spaces” on campuses, ultimately exhorting students to “Get out of your own safe spaces. Define what your intellectual comfort zone is — and leave it. Enhance your tolerance for discordant voices. Narrow your criteria for what’s beyond the pale. Read the authors or watch the talking heads with whom you disagree. Treat those disagreements as a whetting stone to sharpen your own arguments. Resist the temptation to call people names.”

In 2019, after David Karpf, a professor at George Washington University, joked about Stephens being the metaphoric “bedbug” at the New York Times (as the Times offices were being afflicted by the actual pests), Stephens emailed both Karpf, and a GWU provost in what can only be read as an attempt at using his platform and power to intimidate Karpf. 

When this failed to yield Stephens’ desired results, he wrote an entire column as an ex post facto justification over his hurt feelings arguing (sans evidence) that any bedbug reference was inherently anti-Semitic, while implying that Karpf (who is Jewish) as least had Nazi sympathies.

Following the contretemps, Stephens accepted an invitation to debate Karpf at the George Washington campus, but later cancelled when his insistence that the event be closed to the public was rejected.

Why is this not viewed as an example of safetyism?

The reason neither Donald Trump nor Bret Stephens are tagged as practicing safetyists is because they hold positions of power and influence.

In fact, if you examine those who wield the charge of safetyism against others, they are always in positions of superior power accusing those without power of disrupting some important principle, a principle which protects the status quo.

It’s a good gig if you can get it. While holding all the cards, you get to tell others that they’re not playing the game correctly.

When the disputes involve the academy, it is easy to look like a high-minded defender of the liberal order educating the leaders of tomorrow. Haidt and Lukianoff couch Coddling as an approach to help young people better cope with the world. I do not doubt their motivations, but I question the narrowness of their lens and lament the impact of their putting the concept of safetyism into the world.

Safetyism was never real. 

Safetyism is a clever word a couple of smart guys coined to try to describe some behaviors by others that they didn’t like. It was couched in a need to preserve values like truth and free inquiry, but it has been used far more frequently to dismiss and silence the concerns of those without power who were trying to alert the rest of us to the kinds of systemic problems that have come to a head and are currently roiling the nation.

At the time of Coddling’s publishing I had a different theory, that students were acting out from a problem of “precarity” and “scarcity,” rather than a culture of “safetyism.” 

Just look around you. As we witness the essential fragility of our food supply, our healthcare system, our public health institutions, our educational institutions, our governmental norms, our economic system, even potentially our electoral system, I will suggest that precarity has always been a far greater threat than safetyism.

I observed at the time of Coddling’s publishing that the generation Haidt and Lukianoff were pathologizing as psychologically defective were instead acting rationally in a world where the road to success is narrow and security once achieved, is increasingly precarious. The iGen attitudes had been forged in the wake of a historic global recession, and a higher education system with increasingly high tuition and resulting student debt. 

The young people being criticized for lacking resilience had good reason to be on edge for economic concerns alone. 

Couple this with their recognition of the failure of past generations to deal with the systemic problems of racism and economic inequality, and why should they feel any differently?

Young people, often without fully knowing it, were signaling the essential fragility and precariousness of our institutions, by pointing out that expressing a belief in values and norms is meaningless when not coupled with action.

The Yale Halloween costume incident so frequently cited as an example of safetyism was more a signal of deeper institutional dysfunction. This was articulated at the time by Yale student Aaron Lewis, who said that the protest was not about Halloween costumes, but, “about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day. They’re about real experiences with racism on this campus that have gone unacknowledged for far too long. The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn’t.”

The upset was over a hypocrisy, a mismatch between mission and execution. The students were trying to alert those with power to the problem. 

They were not listened to. 

Those who fall back on safetyism as a core problem, even as police wantonly beat, tear gas, and fire “less lethal” projectiles at citizens exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly, demonstrate how narrow those concerns truly are. 

This is illustrated by New York Times opinion staffer Bari Weiss tweeting that her colleagues who were objecting to the running of an op-ed by Tom Cotton (which Times leadership later said was poorly handled as an editorial matter) were acting out of sense of “safetyism,” while mischaracterizing the internal debate at the paper, at least according to numerous Times employees who were witnessing the same event

Weiss criticized her colleagues in a forum where they could not criticize her back, as Times policy prohibits employees from commenting on editorial content or opinion employees like Weiss. 

Weiss went to a safe space in order to tell her superiors she supported them while throwing her co-workers under the bus. Who is acting out of a motive of safetyism in this case?

The hypocrisy should be as apparent here as it is when Donald Trump shouts that he is the law and order president while releasing gas that is designed to generate debilitating amounts of tears that is somehow not “tear gas” at peaceful protestors so he can go do his church photo op 

The norms that the progenitors of safetyism claim to hold true are being trampled every day by the most powerful person on the planet. It’s a shame we allowed a distraction like safetyism to take our eyes off the ball. 

Inside Higher Ed