Microaggressions, "Coddling", Safe Spaces, and President Obama

I was eight or nine. I was playing with my little brother at the playground adjacent to the apartment complex where my family lived. My mother and father were at a round of tennis nearby. Up to a point, the afternoon was peaceful and clear; but a ruckus disrupted that calm. A sudden and large gathering of adults, clamoring as at a boxing match, surrounded one neighbor’s fenced-in yard. The tumult was loud, angry, as a mob might be, and my parents rushed to see what was the matter. My mom told me to take my little brother home.

She later told me that a raccoon had become trapped in the fenced yard and was chased down and beaten to death by this neighbor. Witnessing it had shaken her. She told me not to tell my little brother (two years my junior) because “what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” It was to protect him that this gruesome reality should be kept from him. I respected that. How many nightmares had I endured as a child from realities I experienced—from bullying to ghost stories, playground gangs to urban legends?

President Obama recently said that “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.” In saying this, the President is contributing to a dialogue recently made national by The Atlantic article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. That article, and the President’s comments, respond to “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

Trigger warnings. The emotional, psychological background that learners might bring to their classrooms. Microaggressions. (“Microaggressions,” the authors explain, “are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.”) All of these can lie dormant in syllabi, required reading, curricular subject matter, or the normal parlance of a field of study.

The movement of students toward a safer educational space is, as Lukianoff and Haidt put it, “largely about emotional well-being … it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.” The two white male authors describe their purpose in the article as actually in the interest of those same students in that they want to answer the questions: “What are the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves? Does it benefit the people it is supposed to help?”
Or in other words, what they don’t know just might end up hurting them.
I’ve often wondered what my mom saw as different between mine and my brother’s psyches that nudged her to tell me about the raccoon’s violent demise. Was my mind braver, more stalwart? Was I more rational, less sensitive? And I’ve often wondered if my brother never found out what transpired, and if he was better off for not knowing adult cruelty so young.

For the record, I like raccoons. And I can’t bear scenes of animal cruelty. I quite literally fainted when reading the sow-slaughtering scene in Lord of the Flies in junior high school.

"Here, struck down by the heat, the sow fell and the hunters hurled themselves at her. This dreadful eruption from an unknown world made her frantic; she squealed and bucked and the air was full of sweat and noise and blood and terror. Roger ran round the heap, prodding with his spear whenever pigflesh appeared. Jack was on top of the sow, stabbing downward with his knife. Roger found a lodgement for his point and began to push till he was leaning with his whole weight. The spear moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high-pitched scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands. The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her. The butterflies still danced, preoccupied in the center of the clearing."

Should I have had a choice not to read Golding’s book? What did I learn from not being able to finish it? From embarrassing myself in front of a classroom of my peers by stumbling out the door and falling to the ground? Should I have had the right to protest that book, just as I claimed my right not to dissect frogs in science? And had I spoken out, would this have betrayed an “extraordinary fragility”?

Is well-being only for the fragile?

The answers to these questions are complicated. As someone who went on to a Master’s in English, I can’t say that readingLord of the Flies put me off literature, or learning, or school, or that it made impossible for me sitting across from someone eating pork. But I don’t believe that any objection I might have to teaching the book, having it as required reading for my similarly sensitive child, or just generally avoiding it in conversation should be considered “coddling”.

It’s pretty disrespectful to talk about “coddling” adults. It’s disrespectful to talk about “coddling” children. Learners are humans with agency, and to assume that it’s “coddling” to make room for the trauma someone suffered is to both make light of that trauma and to overlook the fact that they survived it.

The world—and its literature, history, cultures—can be a dark place full of cruelty, disrepect, and abuse. Raccoons die. Sows get slaughtered. Women (and sometimes men) are raped. People of color are shot down in the street. Trans youth are beaten and disowned and left homeless. It may be the work of education to confront those wrongs, to deal in the inhumanity of its literatures. But if that’s the case, let’s not go down the road of how such confrontations “build character”, or encourage learners to set aside their emotional reactions to the material. Golding would have been proud of his work to see me faint dead away from his words. He meant his work to disturb, to provoke -- but not for provocation’s sake. I had to read about the sow so that I could discern later what was violence and what was not; so that I could, like the boys on his island, uncover my own moral values.

But neither rigidity nor coddling will equip learners with those skills of discernment. Teachers must be allies of students. President Obama, I think, has forgotten what a vulnerable thing it is to learn, and how important a thing it is to be heard when you are a voice quieter than the authority in the room.

I am not sorry I read most of The Lord of the Flies. I do not fault my mother for telling me about the raccoon. I appreciate the truth of literature and life. But I also appreciate that truth should be told in cooperation with the listener. Censor not the ugly dark, but don’t let it blindly roam across the imagination in the name of academic rigor, either.