What is Safetyism?

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Safetyism is the cult of safety–an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. Safetyism deprives young people of the experiences that their antifragile minds need, thereby making them more fragile, anxious, and prone to see themselves as victims.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

There is a difference between throwing someone a life preserver when they are in danger of drowning and barring them from getting into the pool at all, or in only allowing the pool to be so shallow as to not enjoy the freedom and thrill that comes from entering the deep. Without sufficient depth, we never learn how to swim.

Lukianoff and Haidt identify three bad ideas that prevail on too many university campuses: the untruth of fragility (what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker), the untruth of emotional reasoning (always trust your feelings), and the untruth of us versus them: (life is a battle between good people and evil people).

As a solution, they argue for the elevation of wisdom.

Unpleasant experiences and exposure to discomfort can result in growth and maturity. While our emotions are part of our humanity, alone, they are insufficient for sound judgment. And while there are good ideas and bad ideas, righteousness and wickedness, and there are arguments worth having, it isn’t always easy to make such neat divisions. The Christian doctrinal commitment to human sinfulness and God’s position as rightful judge simultaneously humbles us when we do make arguments and chastens us in the knowledge that our judgments may be in error.

Lukianoff and Haidt wrote their book to address a deficit in our intellectual discourse as it unfolds on university campuses, and then, by extension, in the culture. It’s a great book. It not only contains insight for the classroom, but also for how we think about public debate. All of us would benefit from sharpening our ability to reason, to listen, to learn how to make compelling and persuasive arguments, and to make those arguments in a way that acknowledges reality as it is: a real mess.

This book has another benefit: it exposes flaws in the way we have come to measure reality, and challenges us to instead seek to become people of wisdom. The first step to move beyond a problem is to admit that you have one and to accurately define it. The second is to chart a path forward. The third is to walk the path.

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