The question of what one is allowed to say in public is not really new. In May 1972, for example, comedian George Carlin caused trouble when, during a performance in Santa Monica, California, he explained to the audience which “seven dirty words” were not allowed to be pronounced on US television under any circumstances (these were expected expressions from the fields of sexual practices, genitals and faeces). When Carlin repeated the number two months later in Milwaukee, the local police arrested him for lewdness. The limits of freedom, Carlin was able to show with this simple provocation, sometimes simply lie where state-sanctioned prudery begins.[“In 2020 the debate in the USA will have a different twist. It’s not the state that is accused of censorship, but quite crudely: the progressive left. And it’s not about a few dirty words, but – if you follow those who accuse the left or at least warn of its alleged methods – about the end of liberal society. “]
In recent weeks, many prominent intellectuals have made a very high-profile plea that freedom of speech is under threat, particularly but not only in the United States of America. Open letters have been written, resignations have been submitted, even new platforms have been founded, quasi as a liberal resistance – all with the more or less same message that moral zeal from the left prevents the free exchange of points of view. There is talk of a new McCarthyism, of a new orthodoxy, of Cancel Culture, of neo-Puritanism, even of civil war.
One term that is still little used, at least in the German-speaking debates on the subject, is a particularly condensed ideological conflict: safetyism. “Confronted with words, ideas or decisions that they dislike, more and more people claim to be in danger of suffering psychological or even physical harm,” writes author Emily Yoffe in a text published on the online platform Persuasion, recently launched by political scientist and ZEIT-ONLINE author Yascha Mounk. “In practice, safetyism will make some of the most vulnerable people in our society less safe.”
When the New York Times published a guest article by Republican Senator Tom Cotton at the beginning of June, in which he called for the deployment of the US military at home against Black Lives Matter demonstrators, and protests were formed within the editorial staff against this article, Bari Weiss, still a columnist for the Times, accused her colleagues on Twitter of safetyism. In her publicly distributed letter of resignation, the rather conservative Weiss later described an allegedly poisoned atmosphere in the newspaper, in which dissenting positions like hers would be answered with disparagement or silenced by self-censorship.
Weiss recommended the book that coined the term safetyism in 2018 for reading a few months ago: The Coddling of the American Mind by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and lawyer Greg Lukianoff. “Safetyism is the cult of safety,” according to the two authors. In their book they try to show that at many universities in the USA a climate has developed in which feelings now count for more than arguments. One of the book\’s central theses is that the constant reference to traumas suffered and the demand for trigger warnings would have the consequence that students would shield themselves more and more aggressively from other worlds of opinion, thus becoming incapable of confrontation and susceptible to victimization.
Haidt and Lukianoff jump in their book from anecdote to study to analysis. They deal with overprotective parents, the side effects of social media and the increasing prevalence of anxiety disorders and depression among young people; they discuss the supposed dangers of intersectionality and identity politics, supposed witch-hunts against professors; the use of the concept of violence, which in the eyes of the two authors is inflationary, the advantages of cognitive behavioral therapy and much more.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about The Coddling of the American Mind is – as Harvard professor Moira Weigel pointed out in a review in The Guardian two years ago – what this book on the mental state of young US citizens is not about. There is no mention of their massive debts from tuition fees, nor of the dramatic underpayment in education, nor of the lack of jobs for young professionals in many industries. In the end, the economic conditions of the object of study “young Americans” are completely ignored. The Coddling of the American Mind is supposed to be a plea for a fact-based debate culture, but it omits crucial facts.
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