Why Concepts Creep to the Left

She asked for my love
and I gave her a dangerous mind
Now she’s stupid in the street
and she can’t socialise

— Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

One really has to be skeptical of the extensional and intensional adequacy of the concepts under discussion (this over and above the standard political labels of mutual reproach). Since the regressive Left now has a dearth of causes to meet the bloated managerial apparatus that’s in place (thought police have self-justificatory quotas to be met), they succumb to concept creep thereby rendering concepts at best meaningless, at worse obscure: i.e. Newspeak and associated thought control, shallow and cynical virtue signaling, products of intellectually dishonest grotesque photofit-like minds.

Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory Volume 27, Issue 1, 2016, pp. 40-45 (freely available).

Last year I cowrote an essay with Greg Lukianoff titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015). Lukianoff and I analyzed several new concepts that have been spreading rapidly around the academy—but almost nowhere else in American society. The two most colorful are “Trigger warnings” (warnings given to students before professors assign readings that might reactivate painful memories in survivors of trauma) and “microaggressions” (words, questions, or even facial expressions that have the effect—often unintended—of making another person feel marginalized, different, or excluded). A search for these terms on Google Trends shows that they were barely mentioned before 2012 but have been rising rapidly in popularity since late 2013.

These terms are part of a new conceptual package that includes all of the older concepts long referred to as “political correctness” but with greatly expanded notions of harm, trauma, mental illness, vulnerability, and harassment. These concepts seem to have expanded in just the way that Nick Haslam (this issue) describes—horizontally, to take in new kinds of cases (such as adding the reading of novels to the list of traumatizing activities), and vertically, to take in ever less extreme versions of older cases (as is made explicit by the prefix “micro” in the word “microaggression”). In this conceptually augmented political correctness, the central idea seems to be that many college students are so fragile that institutions and right-thinking people must all work together to protect vulnerable individuals from exposure to words and ideas that could damage them in a lasting way. If this protection requires banning certain speakers from campus, or punishing student newspapers that publish opinions that upset the dominant campus sensibility, then so be it.

But the reactions to the “Coddling” article—in essays, blog posts, and commentary on the original post—has revealed a large generational gap. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Americans older than 40, including progressives, and including progressive professors, dislike the illiberal tendencies of the new political correctness. They do not share the view that college students must be shielded from words, books, and visiting speakers. These older progressives value freedom of speech to such an extent that they oppose efforts to shut down student newspapers or shout down professors or visiting speakers. President Obama himself recently spoke out against “coddling” and in favor of vigorous cross-partisan debate on campus (see quotes in Haidt, 2015). There has been hardly any published criticism of the “Coddling” article, but what little pushback there has been has come almost exclusively from current college students and from humanities professors younger than 35 (e.g., Manne, 2015).

Why is this? Why has this new and expansive sense of student fragility spread so rapidly, but only among millennials who are currently living or working on college campuses? Lukianoff and I tried to explain the recent spread of trigger warnings and microaggression theory by examining broad historical trends, such as increases in protective parenting that began in the 1980s, and we examined more recent changes in federal laws that pressured universities to overpolice language use on campus. But Haslam’s explanation of concept creep provides a large and crucial missing piece of the story. In this article I expand upon a point that Haslam (this issue) raised only briefly at the end of his target article: Concept creep has happened primarily to concepts related to a left-liberal moral agenda. As he noted on p. 14: The concept creep phenomenon broadens moral concern in a way that aligns with a liberal social agenda by defining new kinds of experience as harmful and new classes of people as harmed, and it identifies these people as needful of care and protection.

I position concept creep within the recent historical trend of rising political polarization, particularly “affective partisan polarization,” which refers to the increasing hostility felt by partisans toward people on the other side. I tell this story in three graphs. Together, the trends in these graphs can explain why concepts of trauma and victimhood have undergone such rapid expansion on university campuses and among psychologists. In brief, the loss of political diversity in many universities—and in psychology in particular—at a time of rising cross-partisan hostility has amplified the already powerful process of motivated reasoning. Concepts are morphing to become ever more useful to “intuitive prosecutors” (Tetlock, 2002), who are prosecuting their enemies in the culture war.