Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have recently published an important book called “The Coddling of the American Mind,” based on their 2015 article in the Atlantic by the same name. Their premise is that the vocal efforts to police language and stop all microaggressions with vigorous, vociferous correction and confrontation—most prominently on American college campuses but in other spaces as well—can have unintended negative consequences. These consequences are important for any of us engaged in the work of reconciliation, racial or otherwise.
Most notably Lukianoff and Haidt have pointed out how the hyper-focus on language, and the attribution of racist intent behind insensitive comments, has unhealthy parallels to the very cognitive distortions and logical fallacies that contribute to a rise in anxiety and increased levels of depression and mental illness amongst college students. Yes, they say, our work to counter racism can, in some cases, contribute to mental health disorders!
Now I am all for uncovering our unconscious biases. We need careful reexamination of how we can harm others, even when that is not our intent. But the work of Lukianoff and Haidt has made me realize, there have been times even I’ve veered into what they call “vindictive protectiveness.” And that is not love and it’s not productive. It’s just a pointless performance.
Lukianoff and Haidt are not bomb throwers or provocateurs. They are thoughtful researchers and professors concerned for the mental health of their students and society at large. They are urging us to foster resilience and not reinforce fragility.
Most of the time, in this work, I’m countering “white fragility.” But this concept of “vindictive protectiveness” is something different. It’s our default tendency for stridency when doing this work. It’s when, instead of thoughtfully engaging others, we sanctimoniously police their language and browbeat them. I’ve witnessed this among my allies and definitely in myself. We’re the overzealous social justice warriors and campus protestors who would counter arrogance with our own condescension, thereby we become the mirror image of the very narrow-mindedness we are aligned against.
Humbly, I’ve realized my tendency for stridency, unchecked, only serves to bolster my own fragile ego—while alienating people who are just starting off on this work. Again, that is not real love, which I know is the antidote to this. It’s just my own insecurities run amok.
In his sermon just before Christmas Eve, the senior teaching pastor at my church reminded us that our Higher Power (God) never promises to hermetically seal us away from suffering. I came to recognize my own efforts over-protect and over-police others whom I perceived as less “woke” than me, rested on the very ungodly assumption that we could create a zone absolutely free of offense and a life free of suffering. I can’t do this or even promise this. No one can.
I don’t claim to know where the perfect balance between constructive dialogue that leads to helpful correction and overreaction that just leads to digging in is . . . but I’m aware I’ve erred on the side of the latter at times and need to course-correct.
This year I’m trying to reign in my self-righteous anger. Anger can be good, it can lead to social change, but it also can be self-indulgent and smug. I can’t make that choice for others, but I can make it for me. Half the time when I let myself get too publicly spun up, I’m engaging in a sort of self-righteous display to flaunt my credibility to others (virtue signaling or slacktivism as some sociologists call it). The risk I run with that, is that my performance of outrage will alienate people taking their first steps in this work (and, moreover, I’ll look like a fool).
The link to the article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is below. It’s a good read and certainly moved me into new places of reflection and started some great discussions in my own circles on how to approach the work of living and realizing MLK’s Beloved Community.
 The action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue e.g. "It's remarkable how often virtue signaling consists of saying you hate things." (Wikipedia)
 A pejorative term for "feel-good" measures in support of an issue or social cause. Slacktivism is showing support for a cause with the main purpose of boosting the egos of participants in the movement. The action may have little effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfied that they have contributed. The underlying assumption being promoted by the term is that these low-cost efforts substitute for more substantive actions rather than supplementing them. (Wikipedia)