In May 2014, Greg Lukianoff invited me to lunch to talk about something he was seeing on college campuses that disturbed him. Greg is the president of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), and he has worked tirelessly since 2001 to defend the free speech rights of college students. That almost always meant pushing back against administrators who didn’t want students to cause trouble, and who justified their suppression of speech with appeals to the emotional “safety” of students—appeals that the students themselves didn’t buy. But in late 2013, Greg began to encounter new cases in which students were pushing to ban speakers, punish people for ordinary speech, or implement policies that would chill free speech. These students arrived on campus in the fall of 2013 already accepting the idea that books, words, and ideas could hurt them. Why did so many students in 2013 believe this, when there was little sign of such beliefs in 2011?
Greg is prone to depression, and after hospitalization for a serious episode in 2007, Greg learned CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). In CBT you learn to recognize when your ruminations and automatic thinking patterns exemplify one or more of about a dozen “cognitive distortions,” such as catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, fortune telling, or emotional reasoning. Thinking in these ways causesdepression, as well as being a symptom of depression. Breaking out of these painful distortions is a cure for depression.
What Greg saw in 2013 were students justifying the suppression of speech and the punishment of dissent using the exact distortions that Greg had learned to free himself from. Students were saying that an unorthodox speaker on campus would cause severe harm to vulnerable students (catastrophizing); they were using their emotions as proof that a text should be removed from a syllabus (emotional reasoning). Greg hypothesized that if colleges supported the use of these cognitive distortions, rather than teaching students skills of critical thinking (which is basically what CBT is), then this could cause students to become depressed. Greg feared that colleges were performing reverse CBT.