Can Offensive Political Speech on Campus Cause Trauma?

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I went on Half Hour of Heterodoxy to talk about student reactions to political extremists giving speeches on college campuses. I was grateful for Chris Martin‘s interesting questions and wanted to expand on a few of the discussion points.

What’s the definition of trauma?

The DSM-5 defines trauma as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways: 1) directly experiencing the traumatic event(s), 2) witnessing, in person, the event(s) or the event(s) as it occurred to others, 3) learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend, 4) work-related repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of traumatic event(s).

Do political extremists cause trauma when they speak on campus?

DSM-defined trauma is unlikely to occur at these events unless there’s actual or threatened violence involved (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4). It’s important to avoid watering down the term trauma through misuse in situations where it doesn’t apply. However, I don’t think fear of acute trauma typically drives the opposition to political extremists on campus. I think the fear is more commonly about political extremists using campus appearances to spread discriminatory beliefs that perpetuate social inequities. The sense of threat comes from historical knowledge about the uses of propaganda, and it’s amplified when violent acts are carried out that reference this propaganda (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4). Some political extremists explicitly state that they’re trying to recruit college students to their causes (1, 2) and have developed strategies for persuading people through coded language (e.g., 1, 2, 3). Despite trauma being an unlikely consequence of these speeches, there is a robust literature showing that experiences of discrimination are related to worse mental and physical health (e.g., 1, 2, 3)* and that people can have physiological stress responses when exposed to discrimination and racism.** For example, it’s been proposed that these types of stress responses contribute to birth outcome disparities between Black and White women in the United States (e.g., 1, 2). 

What should universities do?

1) Actions should be individually-tailored for the particular university and involve discussion with students and faculty, instead of something pushed top-down from administrators. Include mental health experts in these conversations.

2) Express support for faculty and students. Even if you disagree with their viewpoints, don’t ridicule students or erroneously reduce all of their concerns to an inability to handle differences of opinion. Students are exposed to politically extreme views in spaces outside of campus speeches, and that exposure often shapes their beliefs about the particular speaker and the potential for harmful societal consequences. It’s not helpful to deride students who respond by using their time and resources to organize nonviolent protests to combat social inequality.

3) Don’t equate mental health issues with weakness or confuse therapy with avoidance. Normalize discussions about mental health on campus. University-wide e-mails are sent around about flu shots and other medical issues – it can be helpful to do the same with mental health information and resources. When people seek counseling, the first step involves determining whether the person has a mental health problem. If a student refers to something as trauma when it’s not, therapists provide them with that valuable corrective feedback. There’s also a misconception that therapy is about unconditional reassurance or hand-holding, but it’s actually all about empowering people to face their problems skillfully.

4) Be precise in stating your rationale for hosting speakers on campus. I doubt that many university administrators think there is educational value in speeches by people like Richard Spencer. Usually, they’re motivated by the importance of upholding free speech principles and are legally obliged to host speakers in public spaces. I’ve heard some arguments that there are educational and mental health benefits to having political extremists on campus (e.g., via exposure to “new and challenging” ideas). The free speech argument is compelling, but the educational and psychological growth arguments are not. I’m not aware of any evidence that exposure to inaccurate, dehumanizing ideas about groups of people confers psychological benefits (if you are aware of such research, please share it with me). For example, some students have opposed Ben Shapiro speaking on their campuses. As I have written about, he spreads false information about suicide and trans people (also watch Natalie Wynn refute Shapiro’s claims). It’s hard to comprehend how learning inaccurate ideas, which are used to restrict rights (e.g., 1, 2), add value to students’ lives. When someone argues that accuracy and education don’t matter when it comes to protecting free speech, I find that much more convincing and honest.

A recent video by Natalie Wynn included a nuanced description of her response to Ricky Gervais telling transphobic jokes in his comedy specials. She made it clear that the thing that bothered her wasn’t that he’s allowed to tell those jokes (she’s a huge proponent of free speech) or even that the jokes are unoriginal, unfunny, or offensive. Rather, she’s afraid that he’s spreading untruthful ideas that make the world a harder place for people like her (she’s a trans woman). Her descriptions reflect the kind of complexity and clarity needed for productive conversations about the psychological effects of these types of speech.

*This paper describes the complexities of measuring discrimination in research.

**Individual differences between people and situations determine the extent to which any particular person will be affected by an event.

Information & Resources

Accurate information about trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder is available here.

For student organizer perspectives, listen to Hoai An Pham here (episode 10) and read Maximillian Alvarez’s article here.

Chris Martin‘s Half Hour of Heterodoxy podcast has featured guests with a variety of opinions on free speech and other campus-related issues.

Two particularly thoughtful academics who write about campus free speech issues are Aaron Hanlon and Jeffrey Sachs.

I’ve learned a lot about First Amendment litigation from reading work by Ken White and FIRE.

I co-wrote a blog post on college mental health that you can access here.

Acknowledgments

In preparation for the podcast, I reached out to three people with relevant expertise and experience: Dr. Yessenia Castro, Linda Gordon, and Carly Marten. They generously shared research, articles, resources, and their thoughts with me. I’m thankful for how much they deepen my understanding of these issues and for all that they do to make the world a better place.

2 thoughts on “Can Offensive Political Speech on Campus Cause Trauma?

  1. Pingback: Does Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Apply to Campus Culture Wars? | Kathryn H. Gordon, Ph.D.

  2. Pingback: Does Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Apply to Campus Politics? | Kathryn H. Gordon, Ph.D.

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