You might think that when today’s college students call for “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings”, and protection from “microaggressions”, that we’ve crossed a kind of cultural threshold and entered new territory for what counts as social justice. The demands of today’s college students, however, have a longer pedigree than you might think. For example, in 1789, at Princeton University (then, College of New Jersey), student body president, William Henry Bancroft, organized a student protest calling for “the headmasters and chancellors to acknowledge summarily the special appanage enjoyed by the white man and, in recognition of his acts of oppression, to grant the creation of impregnable safe havens for any antagonized descendants of those who suffered heinous injustice under the heavy hand of European colonization.” Sound familiar?
Now, if you find the above paragraph is even the least bit believable, then you believe things you read on the internet far too easily. Of course nothing like what you just read ever happened. No student body president at any college anywhere in the 18th century ever demanded anything even close to the demands of today’s college students, nor could he have. The obsession with safe spaces and trigger warnings which currently occupies the minds and hearts of college students and millennials in general is truly a historic phenomenon.
So if you were to say to the most progressive-minded college professor teaching two-hundred years ago that you, a student, were lobbying for control of the curriculum by demanding that he place trigger warnings on any and all assigned reading that has any potential to offend, you wouldn’t even get a response like “suck it up, buttercup.” No, such a response would entail that your demand could at least be interpreted by a college professor living two-hundred years ago. You’d more likely get a look one gives to a mad man who has just uttered complete gibberish, because slapping warning labels on literary works foundational to Western thought only because they might hurt the feelings of some who read them isn’t something for which a college professor from two-hundred years ago even has a category. Likewise, complaining to an 18th-century military officer that the phrase “chinks in the armor” is racially offensive wouldn’t result in a spirited debate about the issue. Rather, the complaint wouldn’t even register with its intended target.
It’s not just that he doesn’t share the worldview of the trigger-warning, safe-space Social Justice Warriors, he doesn’t even have the luxury of sharing their worldview. He lived in a world of such substantial and obvious human suffering that accepting responsibility to protect people from vague “hurt feelings” was so far down the list of concern that it didn’t even register as a concern. His was a world with so much regular ol’ macro-aggression that so-called microaggression got no attention.
There are some ideas that can only be taken seriously when enough things are going right. Amplifying hurt feelings to this level of trauma is the byproduct of today’s Western college students having experienced a life relatively free of suffering. Any world where someone can be published on the subject of the inherent racism of poultry-eaters who prefer white meat over the richer, tenderer dark meat is surely a world where so many more serious problems have been overcome — or at least significantly diminished. “First-world problems” exist because most of us are running out of substantive things to complain about.
So why has this paradigm for social responsibility gained such a foothold now at this point in the history of the world, when there are so many other competing paradigms floating around out there seeking to gain a acceptance? Any answer to this question that puts most of the attention on the idealogical and cultural forces at work (e.g., political correctness) won’t really suffice, since such an answer still fails to explain why these intellectual and cultural forces are the ones at work. Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals doesn’t have that much explanatory power, conservatives. There’s got to be more to the story.
The better answer to the question is that an obsession with providing protection from hurt feelings can only win the day in a technological context that has provided the average college student so little to otherwise complain about. Yes, today’s fiery youth have been coddled, as the charge goes. No argument there. But why are they being coddled? Why are today’s parents so bent on constructing a protective bubble around their precious snowflakes when yesterday’s parents were not? The lion’s share of the answer has to be that parents now have the luxury of doing so. They have an option largely unavailable to parents of previous centuries. As I’ve argued elsewhere, technology has largely altered our primary purpose for having children from what it was for nearly all of human history. So if you were to time travel to the 18th-century America and drop our modern world’s many technological comforts of microchips and laser surgeries on that primitive world, you’d find that it wouldn’t take long for colonialists who had previously depended on their sons and daughters to labor for the family business to suddenly run out of much practical use for them and to begin to coddle their children much the same as so many of us do today. Chattel slavery would largely grind to a hault — not because people would suddenly develop a conscience about it — but because the cost associated with owning people to do strenuous manual labor is greater than the cost of owning and operating machines to do the work. Children whose feelings bruise easily is just what you get when technology makes your environment so comfortable.
What counts as suffering is relative to what we come to expect from life, and the more problems we correct, the more expectations shift. New room is created for us to focus on new problems — problems that perhaps we never considered before as problems. There is no annoyance so slight that, under the right conditions, could not seem to us the worst of all evils. So if through our technological achievements, we were one day to eliminate all human suffering except the occasional itch in one’s finger, you could never convince me that the itchy finger wouldn’t be elevated to proportions of the greatest human tragedy and suffering. Foundations to eradicate Itchy Finger Syndrome (IFS) would be created. Millions of dollars would be raised. Ribbons would worn in solidarity with victims of IFS, and our hearts would go out to them in much the same way they do for those with the most debilitating of diseases today. Scientists would devote their careers to finding a cure, and you could count on endless television commercials and print ads promoting medications that mitigate the symptoms.
Demands for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” aren’t going away. Expect to see them increase in frequency and expand into contexts beyond college campuses. So long as you wish to live in a world where the greatest of human suffering is solved through technology, you can also expect to live in a world where a hispanic teenager donning a mariachi Halloween costume causes great pain and an imbalance in the Force of social justice. Just how far engrossed we will become in these otherwise negligible pains of life remains an open question, but it will likely be proportional to the limits of our technological prowess.
Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man, Salvador Dahli. Oil painting, 1943.