Bigoted speech is not an inoculation

 By William Cook

In recent years, the immune system has become popular analogy for how speech on campus should operate. The argument is thus: just as our body adapts to better defend against pathogens through incremental exposure, so to do our minds adapt to better defend against “objectionable ideas” through incremental exposure. This argument also tends to emphasize developing immune systems/minds in particular – i.e. those of children and young adults. It is an argument that has been (re)popularized by Lukianoff and Haidt’s (2018) Coddling the American Mind and their earlier Atlantic article and taken up in a variety of places and forms since. Their argument draws on Taleb’s (2012) Antifragile by suggesting that humans (and especially children) are strengthened by facing mild forms of harm – e.g. unpleasantness, conflicts, insults, teasing, exclusion. In a “sterile environment”, just as the immune system is stunted, so too is a child’s “social psychology”. This argument is then further extended to the context of university campuses in which developing young adults are supposedly stunting their social development by insulating themselves from harm in the form of ideas they find objectionable. This branch of the argument also dabbles in the “marketplace of ideas” realm in that exposure to bad or objectionable (as perceived by the listener) ideas is understood not only to inoculate one against future feelings of harm when engaging with them but also against the acceptance of certain genuinely “bad ideas”. However, these two entangled branches are rarely teased out, partly because it exposes a fundamental problem with the whole endeavor. Who is being inoculated against future harm and who is being inoculated against (which) objectionable ideas?


Let’s set aside for the moment the dubious metaphorical overreach of a biological mechanism plastered onto social practice. One challenge rarely addressed in the invocation of a marketplace of ideas argument (that good ideas win out over bad ideas when put into competition), is the fact (well-articulated by Jason Stanley in his 2018 book How Fascism Works) that language does not merely convey meaning and ideas, it also conveys emotion. This emotive power of language often surpasses any embedded meaning, especially in the case of highly politically charged speech, where beliefs are already presupposed, as in the case of fascist speech for example. In this case, language resonates with the listener not though persuasive arguments but through words which trigger particular emotions or pre-existing beliefs. Put another way does, not all ideas can be effectively debated away because they don’t accept mutual respect for ideas and interlocutors as a starting point. As Aleksadar Hemon argues, “Fascism is not an idea to be debated, it’s a set of actions to fight.” It is also why repetition and exposure are important propaganda techniques. When a racist speaker comes to campus, how can we be assured that their language will have an inoculating effect rather than a propagating one? Indeed, the latter effect often seems to be the whole point of such “controversial” speaking events. This raises serious questions for those who claim that without exposure “we will not have the intellectual antibodies to fight such ideas”.


On the other side, the inoculation against future harm argument relies on a few misguided assumptions. The first is that students complaining about objectionable ideas or language on campus are fully insulated from them in their daily lives and thus need a dose now and then. As Anna Klieber (2021) argues, specifically in the case of trigger warnings (one of several targets for Lukianoff and Haidt), that the people calling for such measures are those who already know about the content from experience in their lives. They are not insulated and in need of exposure – they have lived through it. A second questionable assumption is that engagement with objectionable ideas is weighted equally – that inoculation against future harm is a challenge for college students as a whole. Klieber makes the important point that in some cases one can opt out of engaging with challenging ideas, but not everyone can opt out equally. Using an example, from Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017), of a white student who decided that a course about the trans-Atlantic slave trade didn’t interest them (in sharp contrast to Eddo-Lodge herself), Klieber emphasizes that abolishing trigger warnings doesn’t stop this kind of privileged disengagement. Similarly, on the topic of microaggressions, Solórzano & Huber (2020) point out that Lukianoff and Haidt claim “we usually share responsibility for conflicts” while simultaneously dismissing the validity of complaints over microaggressions as fundamentally a perception problem on the part of the victim. The third problematic assumption is that classrooms should somehow function as cognitive behavioral therapy (which Haidt cites far too often) sessions for students. If they have problems with certain language or ideas, the classroom is an appropriate space to microdose their way to freedom and happiness, one microaggression at a time. Indeed, it seems stunningly inappropriate for Lukianoff and Haidt to suggest that not only are college classrooms appropriately controlled therapeutic spaces analogous to CBT sessions, but also that they know better than the students – the ones who have lived through the bigotry they seek shelter from – the form and degree that this therapy should take as well as the context in which it should occur.


This takes us back to the initial problem: who is being inoculated against what in this model? By now it should be pretty clear, the white majority is being inoculated against specific “bad ideas” and everyone else is being inoculated against future harm. To put the formula slightly differently: the white majority gets to explore specific “bad ideas” now at the cost of minority group comfort, to the benefit of all in the future. Except, that exploration sometimes becomes a super-spreader event. And, as Klieber and Solórzano & Huber show, the white majority can often opt out of their inoculations (especially ideas presented by minority groups that they find objectionable), while minority groups need to take their dose.