It’s well known that American universities have become hotbeds of radical ideology that are making students unwilling to encounter alternative viewpoints and undermining their ability to participate in the rigors of republican government. “In our identitarian age, the bar for offense has been lowered considerably, which makes democratic debate more difficult,” observes Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid. But “safetyism,” “triggering language,” and “microaggressions,” among other ideas popularized on our nation’s campuses, are more than just a threat to self-government—they are a threat to our ability to spread the gospel.
That latter concern is certainly not at the forefront of Greg Lukianoff’s and Jonathan Haidt’s 2018 best-seller The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Lawyer and free speech advocate Lukianoff and social and cultural psychologist Haidt are more interested in how these infantilizing ideas are retarding the intellectual, psychological, and social maturation of young Americans and, as a consequence, impeding their ability to be happy and successful and contribute to a dynamic democratic nation like our own. Nevertheless, the arresting portrait they paint is relevant to our ability to faithfully witness to our Catholic faith.
Let’s first define these terms and how they are typically used. Safetyism, or what Lukianioff and Haidt also call fragility, originates from concerns about protecting people from trauma, which has broadened far beyond its traditional understanding as the psychological effect on those who, say, witness a murder, experience a violent car crash, or survive military combat. Now it includes anything “experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful . . . with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Persons who are “triggered” by ideas or experiences that make them feel unsafe require a “safe space” where they can find help and recuperate.
The second category of ideas has to do with emotional reasoning. This includes microaggressions, which were first popularized in a 2007 article by a Columbia University professor. They are “micro” because they are “brief and commonplace.” They are “aggressive” because they are “verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults.” If intentionality doesn’t matter, people are encouraged to find more things offensive.
Finally, there is what we might call a Manichean worldview that sees people in terms of either good or evil. This is visible in our culture’s increased tribalism and separating people into categories of “victim” and “victimizer,” as well as demands for the dismantling of “power structures” that supposedly increase victimization. Intersectionality—the idea that people have intersecting identities of either victimhood or victimization—is another manifestation of this, as it separates people into categories based on race, sex, sexual identity, social class, etc.
Perhaps you are already anticipating how these three broad themes present a threat to Catholic teaching (and evangelization). Take safetyism: to spread the gospel message, by its nature, makes people feel uncomfortable, since it tells them things about themselves that, in a sense, hurt. We are all sinners who are guilty of transgressions against God and man. We all need a savior. That certainly can “trigger” people to feel emotional harm in the form of guilt—or offense, if they think their behaviors are not sinful, but worth celebrating.
Or consider microaggressions. Lukianoff and Haidt observe that, rightly understood, “aggression is not unintentional or accidental.” For example, if you bump into a person by accident and intend the person no harm, it could be perceived as an aggression, but obviously it is not. But the language of microaggressions creates a social atmosphere where people are encouraged to engage in hyper-emotional, overly sensitive reasoning. “It is not a good idea to start by assuming the worst about people and reading their actions as uncharitably as possible,” the authors write. Indeed, it is an offense against charity, which, understood in the Catholic tradition, demands we presume best intentions, and a sin against justice, by presuming that people who offend us are bigots. Both charity and justice are necessary for evangelistic dialogue.
The tribalistic language of victims and victimizers in turn encourages us to see those with whom we disagree as not only in error, but evil. And if they are evil, you cannot have a productive dialogue with them. On the contrary, you must censure them, silence them, and coerce them into humiliating obeisance, or drive them from the public square forever. Indeed, their banishment or elimination is part of the process of bringing down those terrible power structures.
Of course, the Catholic Church is itself a “power structure,” in the sense that it possesses ancient authority, is led by men (many of whom are white), and promotes “heteronormativity.” Catholicism also teaches its followers doctrines that many of the classes of “victims,” especially those in sexual and gender minority categories, are indulging in behaviors that should be not celebrated, but condemned as sinful and contrary to human flourishing. Moreover, as St. Paul teaches, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In other words, our identity as followers of Christ and Catholics trumps our ethnic, racial, or sexual identities.
The ideas presented by Lukianoff and Haidt have traveled far beyond academic seminars and university diversity and inclusion offices. They are now promoted by major corporations, government agencies, corporate media, and even our elementary schools. People are routinely fired or canceled for their failure to adhere to these new progressive doctrines.
But more than that, the language of trigger warnings, safe spaces, microaggressions, and victimhood culture makes it nearly impossible to spread the gospel, because non-believers can claim that absolute truth claims about God, their sinfulness, or their need for a savior represent an oppressive cisgender, Western colonialist worldview that threatens their emotional well-being.
How can you preach to someone who takes visceral offense at your message, no matter how charitably and graciously it is communicated? How can the Church uphold its teachings in the public square if it is a patriarchal power structure that demands dismantling? This new ideology isn’t just a threat to republican self-government—it’s a threat to the survival of the Church, and thus to the eternal salvation of us sinners here on earth.