American society, and especially university campuses, are “doing everything wrong” when it comes to engendering a healthy sense of community, according to Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain who shared the podium with Haidt in front of a large audience of NYU students last Wednesday evening, agreed that young people are being coddled to a dangerous degree, and as a result are lacking in resilience and “seeking protection from words and ideas they don’t like,” as Haidt puts it.
Their conversation, entitled “Not Your Parents’ Crisis,” was sponsored by and at the NYU Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, and The Jewish Week. It was moderated by New Yorker magazine writer Larissa MacFarquhar.
Eloquent and consistently on the same page, the rabbi and professor were highly critical of the popular campus culture of “micro-aggressions,” “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” practices intended to protect marginalized students from exposure to potentially upsetting texts or situations.
“I can’t think of a more un-Jewish concept than having safe spaces,” asserted Rabbi Sacks. He was referring to a designated area on campus where students can come together to talk about difficult shared experiences without having to worry about verbal attacks from classmates. He noted that in 19th-century Europe, Jews were not allowed out of the ghetto so as not to alarm their Christian neighbors. So “there were safe spaces for Christians, but not for Jews. A safe space [that is only] for some is safe for none,” the rabbi said.
He added that avoiding disputes was unhealthy and contrary to Jewish life. “Judaism is the only religion whose texts are all about arguments,” from the Torah, where Abraham and Moses challenge God, to the Talmud, which consists primarily of arguments and disputations among the rabbis.
“Judaism is built on the concept of argument as essential to the pursuit of truth and of justice,” Rabbi Sacks said, noting that the students of Hillel and Shammai, who disagreed on almost every issue they commented on in the Talmud, respected each other to the point of offering the other’s viewpoint before countering it with their own. Disputations like that are “for the sake of heaven,” the rabbi said, quoting the sages.
“You can’t have justice unless you hear the other side,” Rabbi Sacks asserted.
Haidt, whose specialty is the psychology of morality, worries that young people are being trained today to see themselves as victims. In citing the need for them to be raised “anti-fragile,” he compared the situation to the growing number of youngsters in the U.S. who are allergic to peanuts, about four times as many now as two decades ago. The dramatic increase has been attributed, in part, he said, to parents not feeding their children any form of the legume in infancy or early childhood, though doing so is now believed to ward off the allergy rather than cause it.
Haidt cited what he called the over-reaction of schools and parents who ban teasing, and even of having best friends, so as not to exclude others. “They are crippling these youngsters” emotionally, he said, adding that the change seen among students in American universities in the last four years in terms of lack of resilience has been dramatic.
Rabbi Sacks noted that the traditional way of teaching Jewish texts — the back-and-forth of discussion and debate — instills in students an understanding that “you can listen to voices that oppose your own and still uphold your views.”
Instead, on some campuses today, extremist students are protesting, sometimes violently, the right of provocative speakers espousing an opposing viewpoint to come to their campus, thus setting off a debate on whether such actions are a sign of the freedom — or intolerance — of free speech.
In generations past it was those on the right seeking to prevent speakers on the left from appearing; now the tables have been turned. Activists opposing the likes of Ann Coulter, Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos accuse them of bigotry and insist that to block them is not suppression of free speech but of hateful racism.
The rabbi and professor noted the danger of justifying violence in the name of preserving free speech. “Freedom of speech must be defended,” Rabbi Sacks said, praising Haidt for his efforts, including speaking out against the trend among universities to limit free speech in an effort to make all students feel welcome. (In a front-page story last week, Jewish Week staff writer Hannah Dreyfus reported on the bind Jewish students find themselves in, caught between the alt-right and the intersectional left on this issue.)
In a 2015 article in The Atlantic, titled “The Coddling Of The American Mind,” Haidt described what he called a “vindictive protectiveness” on campus that creates “a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression or worse.”
The antidote, he and Rabbi Sacks asserted, is more — not less — free speech and open debate, encouraging rather than muffling expression of divergent points of view. Surely efforts to avoid difficult subjects in the name of promoting emotional well-being only heightens the problem.
In the words of Isaac Samuel Reggio, a 19th-century Talmudic scholar (also known by the acronym Yashar) in Italy, “He who seeks the truth must listen to his opponent.”
A Personal Apology: Last week, in an Editorial I wrote in these pages (“Elie Wiesel, All Too Human”), I sought to honor the voice and emotional pain of Jenny Listman, a woman who accused Elie Wiesel of touching her inappropriately almost 28 years ago, and to note as well the remarkable accomplishments and honorable reputation of the Nobel Peace laureate, author and teacher who was a personal mentor for me for more than 40 years.
On reflection, with no way of knowing definitively what happened that day, and with the accused no longer alive to defend himself, I believe two truths can stand on their own: a man who was the conscience and voice of his generation, with a lifetime of human rights leadership and wise teaching, and a woman with an allegation of a wrongful touch.
I am painfully reminded of the chasidic tale of the man who, after speaking ill of someone in public, asks his rabbi how he can make amends. The rabbi instructs him to tear up a feather pillow, scatter the feathers in the wind and then collect them all.
His point, well taken, is that we cannot retrieve hurtful words, once spoken. Or published. I can only acknowledge my error in passing judgment, and want to believe that if Elie Wiesel were alive, he would display the depth of his compassion and hold out the opportunity for forgiveness.