Monday, August 24, 2015

Emotional Inoculation (Revisited)

(Originally posted as a guest column on a blog of which I've been a long-time reader and admirer,

I thought it would be appropriate to repost this article in light of recent events.


     If I were to tell you that this graph represented the distribution of the 27 worst outbreaks of some unspecified disease in all of US history grouped by decade, you might rightly wonder what recent events have occurred that have resulted in the recent surge of cases over the last few decades, but especially the most recent 10 years. I'll get back to this graph a little later, but for now, let's look at some background.

     Some years back, I found myself curious about the nearly obsessive way many of today's parents clean and disinfect everything within eyesight of their child. Growing up, my brothers and I constantly played in the dirt, local streams/creeks, etc., and never suffered any ill effects. Our parents (and friends' parents) never disinfected our toys and playground equipment with anti-microbial wipes. Nor would they keep us from playing in dirt or “dirty” environments.
     I started thinking that exposure to dirt and germs, like modern vaccinations, were vital to helping develop a healthy immune system. After all, how can a body develop resistance to germs if it is never exposed to any? Might this desire to overprotect children actually be harmful to them? Could this be the reason we are seeing increasing numbers of cases of food allergies, asthma, autoimmune disorders, etc.?
     Sure enough, an increasing number of medical specialists are coming to a similar conclusion. Parents are keeping things TOO clean. A simple web search will find numerous studies and analyses supporting this idea. Summaries of some are linked here:
     You might be wondering what this has to do with anything. Well, read on...
     Over the last decade or two, I've seen a disturbing trend towards “protecting” children (even high school- and college-age kids) from having their feelings hurt. While out and out “bullying” is reprehensible, we've gone so far as to eliminate typical school-age teasing. And I should know about that, having received more than my fair share of it (I AM a nerd/geek and DO have a big head and AM pretty poor at athletic pursuits). Did this hurt me? Yeah, I guess it did – at first. But I quickly learned that the old saying about “sticks and stones” was true – words could not hurt me unless I let them. I had control of my feelings, and nobody else.
     By being exposed to the “dirty environment” of typical school children, I developed an immunity to it – the ability to resist these barbs, and not letting them hurt me. Today, however, children's egos are not allowed to be bruised at all... Teachers can't use red pens when grading, trophies are given to everyone just for participating, and any conflict between students is immediate stopped by teachers. In short, children's psyches are coddled, being overprotected from anything that might cause them distress. In other words, they are not being inoculated against disappointment or insults. More recently, however, young minds are being shielded from “bad thoughts.”
     I recently came across a terrific article in the September issue of The Atlantic magazine ( that discusses this, not just at the grade-school level, but at the college level. I highly recommend reading the entire article, but will provide a few key quotes:
     “Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

     “Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.”
     This movement – call it political correctness, for lack of a better phrase – “... presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” (emphasis mine)
     “... children born after 1980—the Millennials—got a consistent message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.”

     “Even joking about microaggressions can be seen as an aggression, warranting punishment.... When speech comes to be seen as a form of violence, vindictive protectiveness can justify a hostile, and perhaps even violent, response.” (emphasis mine)

     “Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.” (emphasis mine)

     Not exposing a child's developing immune system to a normal physical environment (e.g., dirt and bacteria) harms that child – with disastrous results as the child is then unable to deal with these germs when inevitably exposed to them later in life.
     Likewise, not exposing a child's developing psyche to a normal emotional environment (e.g., insults and disappointments) harms the child just as much – he or she will also inevitably be exposed to these realities later in life... there's no getting around it Someone not prepared to deal with these events as a child will be ill-equipped to deal with them as an adult. This practice has been increasing exponentially over the last few decades – we are seeing a new generation of kids and young adults entering the “real world” who have not been “inoculated” against disappointment. If you're wondering what the long-term effect of this might be, reconsider this quote from The Atlantic article:
     “When speech comes to be seen as a form of violence, vindictive protectiveness can justify a hostile, and perhaps even violent, response.”

     Now, let's get back to the graph shown at the beginning of this screed. The graph represents the occurrences of the 27 worst mass shootings in US History grouped by decade.  With the exception of one in 1949 and one in 1966, these events are a fairly recent phenomena.  Indeed, the most recent decade has seen almost half of the 27 worst shootings. And more than half of these are committed by people under 35.

Note:  With the recent shooting in Oregon, we can add another horrific number to the column for this decade, and another attributed to the product of today's school educational system.

Is there an actual connection between these events and the increasing inability of today's youth to deal with perceived slights? I think it's possible and certainly worth further study.

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