This is the last of our series about the worship of false idols and how these secular religions are eroding the fabric of our society. (The previous columns appeared here, here, and here.) Climate obsession, the concept of ensuring equal outcomes as opposed to equal opportunity, and the unmooring of gender from biology have profound implications, but these generally do not have as pervasive effects as the imaginary “right not to be offended” and its progeny, self-censorship.
Claiming to be offended has become a weapon to exert control over others that is neither justified nor deserved. It is, itself, offensive, to say nothing of annoying.
For instance, a recent study conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found, among other perceptions of a stifling environment, that more than two-thirds of students feared for their future if they said the wrong thing. This is hardly an isolated example of fear about hurting somebody’s feelings. Looking back, many of us laughed at “participation trophies” in everything from athletic competitions to spelling bees, because they made a mockery of genuine achievement. The concept was rooted in the belief that those who did not possess exceptional skills should be sheltered from disappointment – despite the near certainty that they were well aware of their skill level and limitations.
But these “trophies” were just the tip of an iceberg and were early versions of what might be called “toxic overprotection.”
The expectation of receiving emotional shelter has now infected multiple younger generations, so that children and young adults have been conditioned to constantly be alert for anything they deem to be offensive, and they have developed highly tuned antennae for it. (Nor are older adults immune, as those of who follow local social media such as Next Door can attest.) A Philadelphia Flyers hockey player was recently berated for refusing to wear a gay pride jersey despite simply remaining in the locker room. Although his reason was religious belief, the toxic overprotection of the LGBTQ community elicited a predictable response. The cult of “No Offense Is Too Small for Outrage” had weighed in.
Indulgence of this behavior has only reinforced its power. There are appallingly numerous cases of educators and business people who have lost jobs, careers, and reputations for saying or writing something deemed by others (even a single individual) to be objectionable. Once an offense is claimed, others join the mob. One professor was fired for simply asserting that students were being coddled.
The most sensitive person in an audience has become the schoolyard bully writ large. Authorities capitulate to this abusive bullying and support toxic overprotection out of pure cowardice, fear for their own positions, the warm glow they experience from virtue-signaling, or because they have newfound control. Whatever the reason, it is disgraceful.
Toxic overprotection is so pervasive that it can even be used as a cover for other unfair practices. Recently, several high schools in Virginia purposefully withheld recognition from National Merit scholarships until after college application deadlines had passed. Why? Thomas Jefferson High School’s director of student services, Brandon Kosatka, told a parent that the school wants “to recognize students for who they are as individuals, not focus on their achievements,” and that it delayed informing honorees to spare the feelings of those who didn’t qualify. Kosatka seemed to be channeling the nonsensical “Newspeak” described by George Orwell in his iconic dystopian novel, “1984.”
But his justification was arguably a smokescreen for bigotry, just as Newspeak was a tool of government authoritarianism. The 99-plus percent of those who were not recognized with National Merit scholarships will experience the same disappointment no matter when they learn the results, and only a small minority will even be surprised. But the honorees, who were overwhelmingly Asian, were denied a competitive advantage in college application. Moreover, the implication that intellect, aptitude, and achievement are not part of “who they are” reeks of identity ideology where the only defining aspects of a person are race, ethnicity, and gender. Who’s the bigot here?
Some of the blame for the obsession with overprotection lies with many of today’s parents, who were exposed to the idea while they were in school, when Affirmative Action (the progenitor of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) became a cause célèbre. This opened the door to a new spectrum of slights, frustration, criticism, and innuendo. They were also the first cohort to use social media as a personal branding opportunity, which has since exploded, leading to a generation of narcissistic youths who logically expect to be treated always with kid gloves.
Hence, parents have increasingly tended to see their role increasingly as offering blind affirmation and have lost sight of the learning value of setbacks or of the simple word “no.” Resilience is a forgotten lesson, as is the value of constructive negative feedback as a key component of personal growth. Few of us have the attributes required to be an NBA player, to produce groundbreaking scientific research, or to perform neurosurgery. Although these examples are too obvious not to be understood, a steady and excessive diet of affirmation leads to other inflated and unmet expectations, which typically become a source of emotional and self-esteem problems. Unfamiliar with adversity or criticism, the younger generations instead often respond by wallowing in victimhood and continually searching for confirmation of it, based upon imagined offenses.
The declaration of the right not to be offended – such as someone failing to use the “right” pronouns (God help us!) – will ultimately cause our society to regress. The younger generations will waste more of their energy monitoring, sanitizing, and restricting personal interactions and will thus sacrifice individual productivity in the process.
As these generations move into positions of responsibility and control, they will likely accept the diminished productivity of their subordinates without second thoughts. Technology is unlikely to advance fast enough to fill the productivity gap, which is simultaneously being widened by hobbling industry in the pursuit of unrealistic climate and social goals thanks to the golden idols described in our prior articles., The most likely outcome, sustained stunted economic growth, will suck prosperity out of our lives. We could become like the Japan of 40 years ago, which saw a dynamic economy turn into decades of stagnation and a diminished standard of living.
It’s past time to push back on the numerous Big Brothers (again, referencing Orwell’s “1984”) who seek to impose restrictions on and control us. We were certainly happier and less obnoxious growing up in an era of “sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us.” Let’s return that maxim to our modus vivendi.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. They were undergraduates together at MIT.