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Fragile students just need a hug Neglected children are more likely to be woke

Symptoms of a meltdown include shaking and feelings of terror. Mark Makela/Getty Images

Symptoms of a meltdown include shaking and feelings of terror. Mark Makela/Getty Images


June 30, 2022   7 mins

The number of children killed by preventable accidents declined in every UK nation between 1980 and 2010. The number of children killed or seriously injured by a car gets lower by the year; the incidence of severe burns has declined over time across all of Europe and is now very low. Empirically speaking, children have never been safer.

But this doesn’t seem to have yielded a generation that feels safe. Instead, we have one that feels so unsafe they want to use political process to make things better. That, at least, seems to be the upshot of a new HEPI poll which revealed that (along with broad and rising support for censorship, trigger warnings, and firing problematic professors) 79% of undergraduates think students’ demands for “safety” should always be met. And a look at the factors driving this seismic change suggests a startling conclusion: that we should take “woke” claims of “trauma” much more seriously — but also wholly disregard “woke” claims about their origin.

For it’s not the universities encouraging young people to make “safety” a political demand. Rather, such calls seem to originate with students themselves. In the recent persecution of Kathleen Stock at Sussex University, for example, administrators may have supported or at least failed to halt her harassment. But protests were led by undergraduate activists. One placard said “we were meant to be safe here”.

Nor do such demands start at university, but erupt in schools as well. In May, a British sixth-former was hounded out of her school for questioning consensus views on trans rights, and instead of defending her, the school apologised to other pupils for not maintaining a “safe space”.

I asked Andrew, head of sixth form at an independent girls’ school, what he thought was driving the hunger to be safe. He told me that some of it is grounded in reality: in his observation many of his pupils are “genuinely apprehensive about the future”. Their worries vary from the abstract, such as climate change, to more concrete fears about economics, the job market and declining prospects for home ownership — worries that are objectively far from groundless.

In the view of sociologist Matthew Goodwin, a key driver of the new safety-oriented intolerance is the internet. The deputy head at one London state school, James, backs this up: in his view, social media makes it “much easier” to “isolate oneself from opposing (and discomforting) arguments”. His view resonates with Andrew’s observations of how his pupils behave: “Those who are most concerned about safety”, Andrew says, “are the ones who are very ‘online’.”

And indeed, a defining feature of online sociality is filter bubbles, where we come to think everyone shares our opinions because algorithms filter out content from anyone who doesn’t. One pupil, Andrew tells me, goes even beyond the algorithmic hygiene of her filter bubble to create her own, proactively: she routinely checks an author’s biography for politically disagreeable views and discards “books written by anyone with whom she disagrees politically or philosophically”.

It makes sense, too, that a cohort accustomed to resolving conflict by muting, unfollowing or blocking disagreeable voices might struggle in real-world conflict. In the view of Anne, an American professor, “a big part of it is conflict aversion”, which means “any emotional discomfort they feel from disagreement (whether a peer or a text) is interpreted as a personal attack and ‘unsafe’”. In response to this poverty of interpersonal skills, she says, there’s an expectation that “professors are responsible to create conflict-free and tension-free environments”.

This tallies with a recent report on American campuses, where Title IX protections intended to shield women against sex discrimination have become an expansive means of refereeing interpersonal disputes, one Title IX coordinator tells the author “she sometimes thought of her job as running ‘The Break Up Office’”. In other words: instead of resolving an unhappy break-up among themselves, students seek redress via official sex-discrimination policies.

Another factor that might contribute to such conflict aversion is well-meaning school policies designed to protect schoolchildren. My own daughter isn’t a university student at the other end of her educational journey; and yet her (lovely, attentive, empathetic) primary-school teachers regularly drum home the message that intractable conflict is best resolved by telling a teacher. It’s often struck me that if widespread, over time such policies might well result in more adults whose first response to interpersonal conflict would be seeking resolution via an authority figure.

And perhaps this starts before schools, too. Free Range Kids, a project and book by American mum Lenore Skenazy, argues that in the name of “safety”, over-protective parenting — or, as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff put it in 2018, “coddling” — is undermining young people’s agency, confidence and resilience.

And it’s difficult to dispute that a fixation on “safety” pervades both products and services aimed at children and also behavioural norms. This inevitably shapes children’s experience, even in family cultures that aren’t especially anxious about safety. I realised how deep this reaches when my own daughter became agitated because I started the car moving, slowly, on our driveway, before she’d finished fastening her seatbelt.

This still doesn’t feel like the root of it though. One of the first student eruptions of this nature to make the news took place at Yale in 2015, where two faculty members, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, wrote to students encouraging them to tolerate even offensive Halloween costumes. In the ensuing uproar one young woman told Christakis that the college “is no longer a safe space”.

What shook the world about the 2016 Yale video, and remains startling about the many subsequent similar scenarios at schools, universities and the wider world is how radically dysregulated many politically-engaged young people genuinely seem to be. They actually are that upset. For many proponents of “wokeness”, political issues genuinely seem to cause dramatic emotional highs and lows — so much so in fact that the phrase “literally shaking and crying” is widely used to parody this kind of high-pitched activist tone.

But while the fragility in question often seems to be channeled into political activism, what if it doesn’t originate there? A 2020 Pew study reported that the combination of progressivism and youth strongly correlates with mental health difficulties, a finding gleefully seized upon to claim that progressivism drives people crazy. But it’s possible that this has the causality backwards, and it’s more that unhappy people seize upon what Jason Manning has called “Victimhood Culture” to justify an already-endemic state of maladjustment.

Consider this short article, published by an Australian university, which describes “coping with a meltdown”. Symptoms of a “meltdown” reportedly include shaking, terror, poor decision-making, and destructive self-soothing, and overwhelming emotions such as helplessness, anger and fear. According to the article, we all experience “meltdowns”. Except actually no, we don’t.

And the “meltdowns”, the emotional dysregulation and demands for safety — all the behavioural tics characteristic of militant wokeism — map startlingly closely onto common symptoms of pre-verbal trauma. That is, they’re consistent with symptoms displayed by children abused or neglected before they learned to talk.

The child development theorist Erik Erickson characterised the first stage of infancy as where we develop a foundational confidence that a caregiver will be there when we need them. And where this is interrupted by traumatic experiences, the sense of chronic threat can last forever. As psychotherapist Dorothy Scotten argues, pre-verbal experience of abuse or neglect then means “the infant loses the sense of safety and begins her/his life in a state of psychological mistrust and instability”. Long-term effects of such trauma can then include “a feeling of helplessness, residual fear and lack of safety” along with self-destructive behaviours such as substance abuse, difficulty forming relationships, and overwhelming emotions such as “infantile rage”. Not a million miles, in other words, from the supposed symptoms of “meltdown”.

Another paper describes a traumatised child who expressed “feelings of being unsafe and inadequately protected by caregivers and an intense behavioural regression to an infantile level at home”. This included acting out; the child “would camp outside his mother’s bedroom door pretending to be a ‘lost puppy’ wanting to be taken in”. The longing this expresses for a place of absolute safety is echoed in Christakis’ confrontation with the Yale student body. Here several tearful young women berate Christakis about how Yale was a “home” for them — but now, as one puts it: “Somehow this home is broken.”

It seems unlikely that every single one of these young people has been profoundly physically abused. What about neglected, though? In the Seventies, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth documented the way young children form a strong attachment to a single caregiver. They concluded that attachment took three broad forms: secure, ambivalent or disordered.

Most attachments styles fell within secure or ambivalent patterns, they found. Children with secure attachment were confident that their caregivers would respond in an attuned way; those with an ambivalent attachment pattern could either be anxious and clingy or avoidant. And disordered attachment was found in neglectful, frightened or frightening caregiving situations such as addiction or violent homes.

Are we looking at a mass outbreak of disordered attachment? Perhaps; for the other generational change that swept across the West around the same time as the internet was increased uptake of institutional childcare. In 1980, the year after I was born, it was estimated that around a third of mothers had jobs. By 2011, though, a UCL study reported that among the middle class, stay-at-home mums of young children were increasingly a rarity concentrated among the richest and poorest, while in the middle class nearly 70% had jobs before their child was one year old.

A great deal of research has been done on the effect of childcare on attachment. Results vary considerably by geography and the age of children, but a review of results concluded that there’s likely to be some effect. And, importantly, especially where care is poor-quality and infants are very young, long hours in childcare pose a significant risk factor for disordered attachment.

There are, to my knowledge, no studies on whether any correlations exist between an institutionalised early infancy and an unhappy young-adult preoccupation with “safety”. But if there is a correlation, it might also explain the greater American prevalence and intensity of this type of dysregulated youth politics: American women have no right to maternity leave, and one in four American mothers is back at work within two weeks. That’s a lot of tiny babies in institutional childcare.

Something as seismic as the change in sensibility we’re seeing is unlikely to have a single cause. But the step change in childcare uptake happened just long enough ago for those kids to be arriving in adulthood now. It’s possible that genuine worries for the future, internet filter bubbles, and a culture of safetyism have landed, for some, on psyches that were fragile almost from birth.

And it’s possible that this subset was predisposed to fragility, by an early infancy spent in “care” settings long on stimulation, and short on attuned caregiving and cuddles — a setting inimical to forming the kind of secure or even ambivalent attachment patterns needed for healthy functioning as an adult. If this is so, it’s also possible that much of contemporary student activism isn’t really about race, gender, climate or whatever so much as it is about young adults desperately trying to elicit the care from a new institution, that they missed out on in a different institutional setting long before they even formed conscious memories.

If this so, we should take student claims of distress and trauma more seriously – even as we dispute their origins. And we should also be cautious about taking such individuals’ political demands at face value. For it may be that some of our angriest activists have simply seized upon the opportunity offered by “Victim Culture” to make a renewed plea for something they craved as a baby, and didn’t receive: a reliable sense of being held, and loved, and safe.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Emre 0
Emre 0
2 years ago

Very interesting, and may be a good explanation. The next question now may be whether there’re any universities left who could take this hypothesis and investigate it truthfully.

John Callender
John Callender
2 years ago

Thanks, another excellent article. I spent many years running a weekly student mental health clinic. I think that the influences set out by Mary Harrington are very important but that the list of causes needs to be extended.

A major cause of the problems that I dealt with was sexual traumatisation. This could take different forms e.g. rape (often occurring around puberty), intimate partner violence and abuse, and childhood sexual abuse. One factor that increases the exposure of girls and young women to experiences such as these is the withdrawal from their lives of their fathers.

An obvious paternal role is the care and protection of children. In the absence of a father, this falls on the mother, who may be a harassed, economically-impoverished single parent, who has to work full-time. The absence of a father creates a gap, which may be filled by a step-father or a series of maternal boyfriends. While the majority of these cause no harm or can be a positive influence, many are indifferent, hostile or frankly abusive. The young woman without a caring father will often seek a substitute in the arms of a boyfriend, who uses her emotional dependence to exploit and harm her. 
 
The consequences of sexual abuse include all of the features described by Mary Harrington. It may also explain the flight of many young women from the female identity. The sense of betrayal and abandonment by fathers perhaps explains some of the rage directed against the ‘patriarchy’.

The ‘snowflake’ generation is the product of a social culture that has devalued parenting (especially in fathers) in favour of self-indulgence and hedonism. There is a real concern that we have a younger generation that will struggle to provide stable parenting to their own children.

(if anyone is interested, more information here: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/improving-care/better-mh-policy/college-reports/mental-health-of-higher-education-students-(cr231).pdf) 

Last edited 2 years ago by John Callender
Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago
Reply to  John Callender

We rely too much on others raising our children, be it nurseries, schools, the state and more recently social media!

Jim R
Jim R
2 years ago
Reply to  John Callender

Be careful here. If you were to ask my children, they would say they felt abandoned by their father. And from their perspective, all of the negative consequences you describe flow from that. But in reality, I did everything humanly possible to stay in their lives. But up against a mother who wants the children on ‘her side’ and a legal system that gives her all the tools to do so, fathers do not stand a chance. Show up to pick up the kids for your weekend – knock on the door – the kids all of a sudden don’t want to come or talk to you. No court will make them. And then mother texts that if you don’t leave she will call the police. And if you don’t leave, they will come and you will go to jail. 12 years later, my children tell everyone that I abandoned them and won’t allow me to even try to explain. Let’s stop habitually blaming fathers – reality is more complicated. Quite often there’s a mother pulling the strings.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Jim R

The problem is at least you tried, and at least you know that you were needed in your children’s lives.

In 1-2 generations, as has happened with some communities in the US, the young males will think it’s normal to sleep around, take no responsibility.
And once that happens, it’s very difficult to roll back.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

It was like this back in the 80s and 90s too. I grew up in a British council estate where it was a common occurrence for women to have children with multiple men. Indeed, one of my school friends was a father at fifteen (now has nine children). It was also a symbol of pride for some of men to foister children on as many women as possible.
I think what’s happened is that as there is no divide any more between high and low culture. Low culture norms have been elevated while high culture has been deemed ‘white’. We no longer hold people to personal codes of conduct. Without a code of conduct all that is left is the slave morality of wokeism.

John Callender
John Callender
2 years ago
Reply to  Jim R

Thanks Jim, I agree that these situations are often complicated and that it is sometimes wrong to place the blame solely on the absent father. The fact that your role as the father of your children was not valued by their mother or the Courts is another side of the problem that I was trying to highlight.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  John Callender

One of the rich ironies of feminism is that while labelling men as violent abusers, demonising fathers, and chucking them out of their kids lives….

They removed the main protector for kids, the mentors who would reach them to be strong, and replaced them in the house with unrelated males in the form of their mother’s “boyfriends” who are far, far more likely to be physically, emotionally, sexually abusive both to women and children.

And no matter how many statistics you show them, the people who insisted that everything is the fault of “patriarchy” will not see sense or change their minds.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago

What a surprise! Stay at home mums actually have immense value to society! Who’d a thought it!
Not to mention that the woke/trans threat now impacting feminism is a direct result of their support of getting women out of the home and “liberated” to the work place. Fascinating!

Nicky French
Nicky French
2 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

The huge problem that although many women have been helped by feminism there was no equal push to value “womens roles” and therefore make the also acceptable to men.

Personally I am going to go part time once my wife’s paternity leave is finished. Both sexes can raise a child just as well but is beneficial (especially under 5) for one parent to be at home.

The idea of leaving a two week old in childcare is insane to me though.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

“It’s often struck me that if widespread, over time such policies might well result in more adults whose first response to interpersonal conflict would be seeking resolution via an authority figure.”

I think we are already a very long way down this road. It might explain why our political and business “leaders” are so quick to defer to any kind of outside “expert” authority – they want the status conferred by their “leadership” positions, but far too often they don’t actually want to have to exercise their own judgment to make difficult decisions and lead in a direction that might not turn out to be right, and could render them – horror of horrors – unpopular. Far safer to defer to the outside authority – that way, if things don’t turn out well they can (correctly) claim they were just following guidance or advice.

The trouble is, the same dynamic plays out in the outside “expert” authorities, who are extraordinarily unwilling to break with or even to challenge the consensus of their peers, or the international organisations to which they belong. The Swedish public health authority in 2020/21 is a great counter-example to that rule – but that’s because it was run by an extraordinarily strong, courageous, uncoddled man. In the absence of heroic figures like Tegnell, this leaves the experts, and the politicians, and the societies over which they preside, extremely vulnerable to bad actors who might seek to manufacture or influence “consensus”, and infiltrate international organisations, for their own ends.

Perhaps all sin, at its root, has an absence of love. Thank you Mary Harrington for another thought provoking essay.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

Funny about Sweden, I would put it exactly the opposite way. In Denmark the health bureaucracy started out exactly like the Swedish one, saying that this virus probably was not going to be a problem, and if it was it would probably not get to Europe, and if it did not many would get it, and anyway we would be fine to stick with all the detailed plans we had developed for years for the well-known disease of Influenza. The difference was that in Denmark the government at some point decided to take charge and take some different decisions. In Sweden the government instead chose to submit to the authority of their health experts and let them run the show and follow their own groupthink. Maybe it is of interest that in Scandinavia the Swedes are stereotypically 1) very prone to defer to authority and official opinion, 2) prone to think that whatever Sweden does is surely right and if nobody else does things the same way it is clearly because they have not caught up to the superior Swedes.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Sweden didn’t bully their kids into masks, they didn’t try and track trace their populations, they didn’t try to “lock down” innocent people, they didn’t panic, they exhibited basic human decency that went out of the window in pretty much everywhere else. Twice as many people died “with Covid”, per capita in the UK as in Sweden. How much harm that this absurd groupthinking did to future generations had yet to be seen.

Vyomesh Thanki
Vyomesh Thanki
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

How does one weigh up the value of common human decency and calculate harm to future generations in comparison with dying a horrible Covid death? What’s absurd about preventing Covid deaths that leave friends and relatives bereft and grieving?

“Had the UK adopted Swedish policies, deaths would have increased deaths by a factor of between 1.6 and 4 (Table 1).”

“We estimate that if Denmark had adopted Swedish policies, and introduced them at the same stage of its epidemic, mortality would have been between three and four (Table 1) times higher, and thus Denmark would have experienced similar per-capita mortality to Sweden.”

Sweden population 10.4M – Covid deaths 19, 093; Denmark population 5.8M – Covid deaths 6,463. UK pop 67M; Covid deaths 180,000.

See: Comparing the responses of the UK, Sweden and Denmark to COVID-19 using counterfactual modelling
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-95699-9

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Vyomesh Thanki

Excellent link. Many thanks!

One might note also from the article that
1) The reduction in mobility and social contacts ultimately achieved in all three countries was actually similar (it was just, critically, slower to get there in Sweden). It follows that it is not that Swedes had much more social contacts, partying etc., just that the reduction in quality of life was achieved through recommendations rather than orders.
2) What ultimately matters is behaviour, not rules. It follows that getting the right behaviour without setting hard rules requires a population that is very disposed to do what it is suggested (but not told) to do. Now Swedes are stereotypically very ready to conform to authority and social pressure, even relative to e.g. Danes. Applying Swedish policies in a more aggressively individualistic population (Calabria, say, let alone Texas) would have led to less behaviour change and much higher death tolls.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago
Reply to  Vyomesh Thanki

1.    It’s unclear why anyone would trust counterfactual modelling. The Covid death models used to justify so many interventions were proven wrong time and time again by real life experience. And you cannot prove a counterfactual.
2.    You’re missing the point if you are only counting deaths “with” or “from” Covid. Overall mortality is, surely, what matters.
3.    Except that it is not the only thing that matters. Public health policy is not all about maximising the aggregate years of life lived. And public health policy is only one aspect of public policy.
4.    In narrow mortality terms, Sweden didn’t have a bad 2020, relatively speaking. Sweden recorded 98,124 deaths in 2020. That’s more than the average 92,000 per year in that country in recent years. But considering that (unlike in Denmark) 2019 was such a good year for Sweden – just 88,766 deaths – a higher than average mortality would be expected because many of the elderly or infirm Swedes who happily didn’t meet their maker in 2019 would be expected to do so in 2020. The mortality rate in Sweden in 2020 was comparable to many previous recent years. Adjusted for average population age it was the same as it was in 2013, and many years before that. More here if you are interested: https://softwaredevelopmentperestroika.wordpress.com/2021/01/15/final-report-on-swedish-mortality-2020-anno-covid/
5.    I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination right now to elucidate on the many and various measured, unmeasured, and immeasurable social, economic, physical, mental, development, environmental, political, and societal harms from lockdowns and such like policies but if you want to explore them you may do so here: https://thefatemperor.com/published-papers-and-data-on-lockdown-weak-efficacy-and-lockdown-huge-harms/ or here: https://collateralglobal.org/ or here: https://brownstone.org/articles/more-than-400-studies-on-the-failure-of-compulsory-covid-interventions/
6.    To go back to the original theme of Mary Harrington’s article: if I may be so bold, I would like to invite you to do a little thought experiment. Make yourself a nice cup of your favourite tea or other hot drink, sit down in a comfy chair in a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed, take a deep breath, forget about Unherd commentaries and empty your consciousness as much as you can. Try and be present in the room, noting the warmth of the mug in your hands, the softness of the chair, the stillness in the air. Then reflect on whether there is any possibility, however faint, that politicians could make such horrendous repeated blunders, that supposed experts might all be so misled by their own fears into harmful defensive groupthink, and that a tiny minority of people might so evil as to manipulate the good nature of decent people like yourself into false beliefs and actions that aim at goodness and kindness but sadly might turn out to harm people. How does it make you feel? Does it make you feel a little uneasy, unsafe, not quite right? Try not to push any such feelings away or deny them straight up, but acknowledge them, question them, explore them. Why do you have such feelings? Don’t feel that you need to reply here or tell anyone else about it – just give yourself the luxury of a few minutes to contemplate and reflect. Hope that helps.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

If I may:
1) Counterfactuals are the only thing that matters – we are discussing whether we would have been better or worse off if we had followed different policies. It is not particularly accurate, but counterfactuals are the only game in town. As for the model calculations, they may not be particularly accurate either, but the article shows that you can explain the difference in mortality simply and fairly accurately by reasonable assumptions about the disease, coupled with the difference in lockdown (etc.) policy. That is quite suggestive – it means that there is a reasonable mechanism where the policy differences would cause what we are seeing.

2) Overall mortality may be more important, but unfortunately explaining overall mortality requires understanding all deaths and non-deaths from all causes in society, which is an order of magnitude harder than understanding deaths from one cause only. And anyway, The Economist estimates 21.5 million COVID deaths worldwide as of November 2021 – four times the official figure – just counting exactly overall mortality figures.

3) So you are saying that it does not matter if a lot more people die, because that is not what public policy is about?? As in ‘there were no additional deaths, and anyway it would not matter if there had been‘? One might almost suspect that you think lockdown is wrong and remains wrong no matter how many people it might save?

4) and 5): even a 20 second look at those web sites show that they highly partisan anti-COVID. As you say “I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination” to look through them in detail – I already know that if you are partisan, willing to cherry-pick and do not have a professional reputation to uphold you can find evidence for anything. If your cause is so certain, surely you can find some serious, professional research work that supports your point?? Personallly I would assume that if you have a disease that spreads by human contact, measures to reduce human contact would do something to reduce the spread of the disease. But if I am clearly wrong there will be some solid evidence to show it, surely?

6) So are you saying that Vyomesh Thanki (and anyone else who disagrees with you) are mentally disturbed and need some meditation to reconnect to reality? Which would be rather offensive, actually. Or is it just that you get your arguments from meditation rather than scientific research articles and think others should do the same?

B Davis
B Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Life is risk; death is inevitable.
The question is not how we avoid the unavoidable, but rather how do we live until that unavoidable end.
You ask, “So you are saying that it does not matter if a lot more people die, because that is not what public policy is about?” The answer, of course is yes — it does not matter, not really — at least not until you calculate BOTH sides of the lockdown equation with equal diligence.
Public Policy — when it works — is not about preserving lives as a be-all / end-all aim but optimizing outcomes & minimizing negative impacts for the population, for the society, for the economy as a whole. Death is but one part of that equation.
If we could prove (as we can) that highway deaths could be cut by 50% if we reduce the speed limit by 50%….would you support such a reduction? If we could further prove we could virtually eliminate all highway deaths if we mandated all vehicle speeds to top-out at 20mph…would that be a good idea?
No one would agree (save the odd fanatic) because we all recognize that our personal convenience (as mundane a thing as that is) trumps the death of others (since we always assume that Other is not us!)
As for overall mortality, heck, 7000 human beings die, worldwide, every single hour. How many of those were preventable? (OK, none, but how many might have been delayed?) And how many more (how many others) might have died while acting to delay this hour’s 7000? For most of us the fact of 7000 family tragedies every single hour is completely inconsequential (thank God!). For us, for now, life moves on.
And yes, we’d like to think that ‘counterfactuals are the only thing that matters’ because we’d all like the guaranteed ability to look backwards in time and project all kinds of different outcomes given different decisions — (it is a fun game to play, no doubt) — but it’s impossible. We can’t know the counterfactual answer because such answers are unknowable. Even when we play the What If Game with big, sophisticated algorithms which are plugged into bigger and even more sophisticated forecasting models, what is spit out at the end is only and always what the models and algorithms are programmed to spit out. It tells us nothing of any real value because by nature, it cannot.
The bigger the what-if, the more impossible (and less credible) the outcome projected.
In any case, Public Policy is at its best when those crafting it are not frozen into any particular, one-sided paradigm…especially a ‘risk avoidance’ paradigm loosely based upon the apocryphal declaration that ‘even one death is one death too many’.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  B Davis

We can agree about many things here. We do have to calculate the costs on both sides of the equation. We do – and have to – accept that we chose to let some people die in return for other benefits like traffic flow or convenience or freedom of action. We could have avoided a lot of influenza deaths over the years if we had taken the same measures as for COVID – and I do not feel that we were wrong in not doing that.

But doing that calculation is a step into the unknown. The future is just as unknowable as any counterfactual. Yet the whole purpose of science, of common sense, of rational thought, is exactly that: to know the (likely) future consequences of our actions, so we can decide what to do now to make our future better. If you throw away COVID modelling because ‘it cannot tell you anything of real value’, ordinary common sense goes with it. After all you do not know that anything bad will happen if you make a habit of running across motorways, or invest every penny you can borrow in lottery tickets.

Rational behaviour means getting the best information we can about consequences – including the COVID modelling data. Keeping a realistic evaluation of the uncertainty in that information – in the absence of certain truth we are forced to deal with varying degrees of uncertainty. Making an honest balance sheet, without selecting the data to fit our desires. And finally being open – including to ourselves – about the cost we are willing to impose. Andrew Horsman fails on those counts. He choses to dismiss good but uncertain data on the excuse that they are not perfect. He cherrypicks the data that support his preferred conclusion, without trying to check them for uncertainty. And he refuses to face up to the (potential) cost – in additional deaths – of letting the virus rip and simply pretends that they do not exist and anyway they do not matter. If he had been an honest man he could have proved it by 1) listing specific harms, with evidence and uncertainty estimates, of the cost of lockdown. And 2) saying, openly, that an additional 20 million deaths worldwide is a price worth paying for avoiding those harms. Who knows – if his information were good enough he might even be able to convince me?

B Davis
B Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Indeed. We do agree about many things.
But a few quibbles, some significant.
The future IS just as unknowable as counter-factuals, the difference being, of course, that our actions/inactions do have an impact on that future but large-scale counter-factual speculation does nothing except — in most cases — work to reinforce the narrative path chosen. “Knowing what we did at the time, it was the BEST thing to do!” Hogwash, sez I. But it is convenient & soothing to play that rationalization game.
As far as Post-Covid Lockdown Analysis goes, it seems (just scanning a few of the countless sources out there) that we are spending way too much effort on justification and not nearly enough effort ‘acid-testing’ the What If’s of taking a different course. No one likes to investigate, let alone admit, that their ‘best judgment’ was wrong…but unless we’re willing to entertain that possibility (Andrew and I both might say probability), we’ll learn nothing.
I’m not suggesting we throw away modeling, only that we recognize the inherent & significant limits in modeling. We overly rely upon what the computer (any computer!) tells us. We imbue it (the programmed model) with the same level of sacred reliability that we used to give the Oracle at Delphi. And if the guys in the white lab coats asked us to sacrifice a chicken or two on the MousePadAltar, most typically we’d rush to do just that. After all it’s what the Experts say.
[I’d recommend reading William Briggs on the Expertocracy…and Covid, for that matter. https://www.wmbriggs.com/ His insight is unparalleled.]
RE: “Keeping a realistic evaluation of the uncertainty in that information – in the absence of certain truth we are forced to deal with varying degrees of uncertainty. Making an honest balance sheet, without selecting the data to fit our desires. And finally being open – including to ourselves – about the cost we are willing to impose.” Totally agree.
But I would add, a point in passing, everything you ask for is, indeed, that ‘acid-test’ I noted. But you’re not going to find that here. As Andrew says, no one here has “the time, energy, or inclination right now to elucidate on the many and various measured, unmeasured, and immeasurable social, economic, physical, mental, development, environmental, political, and societal harms from lockdowns.” But that work begs to be done. He provides some links to that effort, but you dismiss them as ‘highly partisan’. I would question that.
In fact that kind of dismissal, which itself is common, creates a kind of chicken & egg dilemma. Consider this a bit more abstractly:
1) You say the lockdown was the right way to go
2) We suggest that it caused more harm than it prevented
3) You ask us to lay out that case in gory detail
4) We provide a series of links to efforts focused on doing just that
5) You dismiss the content so linked because it is partisan
6) How do you know it’s partisan?
7) Because it suggests the lockdown caused more harm than good.
Hard to make an argument against X if every argument against X is dismissed because it’s against X, don’t you think?
As you said, we need to make an “honest balance sheet” and I would suggest that a good beginning towards building that ‘honest balance sheet’ is looking at the 400 studies noted by the Brownstone Institute, et al.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  B Davis

Yes, a lot we could agree on. Not least that there is an exaggerated confidence in a lot of scientific results, models or not, and that both people at large and the scientists themselves are not good at dealing with uncertain data. So, yes, those Ferguson models were given exaggerated credence. But, as per the classic quote “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. I’d say his were, as a realistic estimate of how badly it could go.

Funnily enough, I concluded from the whole shebang that when we are dealing with high-stakes decision making under uncertainty, scientists suffer badly from overconfidence in their own ideas. Politicians, at best, may be better placed. Or entrepreneurs, maybe. Not surprising, really, you become a scientist because you really like to find deep and correct explanations, and the field in general works by trusting the best theory available until it is proven that something else is better. But my main example is exactly the Swedish epidemiologists, and the colleagues in Denmark and elsewhere who thought like them. After many years working on flu they thought that had this epidemiology stuff down pat. And by the established theories there was no need for lockdowns or particular precautions, because the theories said that there would be no particularly bad consequences. The problem is that they did not consider the risk that their theories just might be wrong for a new disease, or what precautions that should induce you to take. The same goes for the various luminaries, Nobel prize winners or not, who chose to go with their intuition and pronounce on how they were sure things stood. Many were against lockdowns, btw. I have a lot of respect for Nobel prize winners and their intuition, but when the stake is a deathly epidemic, outside their area of expertise, and not the best explanation for dark matter or polymer-supported synthesis they (and we) really should consider the risk attached to getting it wrong.

I would say that the Nature article is actually a pretty good example of an ‘acid test’. You try to evaluate different lockdown policies by checking them against real life, and seeing what would have been the most likely difference to the epidemic if the policies had been different. And they came up with some non-trivial conclusions, such as the final severity being pretty similar across the countries, but the main difference in outcome arising from faster reduction of contacts in Denmark, for instance.

As for ‘How do I know those links are partisan’? Well, I looked at the first page, where it said

The great body of evidence (comparative research studies and high-quality pieces of evidence and reporting judged to be relevant to this analysis) shows that COVID-19 lockdowns, shelter-in-place policies, masks, school closures, and mask mandates have failed in their purpose of curbing transmission or reducing deaths. These restrictive policies were ineffective and devastating failures, causing immense harm especially to the poorer and vulnerable within societies.

And I conclude that this is not someone who is trying to find out what happened, but someone who is looking for support for a pre-formed agenda (much like the dossiers that were used to justify the Iraq invasion, if you like). After that I have no desire to make a critical analysis of their surely biased selection of 400 articles – plus all the other articles one would have to find to serve as a counterweight,
Looking at the Nature article I see is starts

The UK and Sweden have among the worst per-capita COVID-19 mortality in Europe. Sweden stands out for its greater reliance on voluntary, rather than mandatory, control measures. We explore how the timing and effectiveness of control measures in the UK, Sweden and Denmark shaped COVID-19 mortality in each country

[…]

Our analysis shows that small changes in the timing or effectiveness of interventions have disproportionately large effects on total mortality within a rapidly growing epidemic.

And I conclude from that (and the journal it is published in) that these people were actually looking for new information, and their article is likely to reflect what their data are saying, and not just their own prejudices. Or that, at a minimum, there will be enough information to check.

B Davis
B Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

These columns get skinnier and skinnier. I will keep this very short to avoid being reduced to a single word string.
Yep. I agree. For the most part.
But I would quibble that the preface you argue is partisan is seen that way by you because you are evidently pre-leaning in the “they’re probably wrong’ direction. You may be right. I, on the other hand, and Andrew too, I’d guess, are leaning more in the “they’re probably right direction”. I’d read the preface less as partisan and more as summary of results generated NOT by the people summarizing.
Perhaps I lean that way because I hate, as much as I hate anything, what our Pandemic/Lockdown response did to the world.
As cruel as it undoubtedly sounds, give me higher death counts (to a point) rather than the mewling, screwed-up, hellish mishmash the ‘experts’ made of our lives.
The question, always: what is that point? How many are too many? What are we willing to sacrifice to gain what? I’m glad I didn’t have to make those decisions for the world, but if I’d been asked I would have taken different paths. Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20.

Peter Lorenzo
Peter Lorenzo
1 year ago
Reply to  Vyomesh Thanki

Cumulative excess death rates would beg to differ.

Peter Lorenzo
Peter Lorenzo
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

And yet in the long run, both countries ended up with roughly the same rate of cumulative all-cause excess deaths. One country front-loaded it, while the other one dragged it out.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

As usual, a fine article by Mary Harrington. Nonetheless, I very much hope her thesis is wrong. If she’s right what does that mean for the future of the generation currently in its late teens and twenties? Do people ever outgrow such early emotional deprivation or does their hysteria and longing for emotional security carry on throughout their lives? How will that generation assume positions of responsibility in the workplace and in politics? How can they be emotionally mature parents?
It’s a clichĂ© that older people tend to criticize the younger generation and wonder if they’ll ever grow up. Things tend to work out in the long run, though, but I wonder if that will be true this time? Maybe you can terminally cripple an entire generation.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

As is often the case a very interesting article from Mary Harrington. Clearly something useful for further research.
The important question is how should authorities treat these outbreaks of meltdown when students meet others that have upsetting ideas. Simply to accede to the hysterical demands does no favour to the regressed students in meltdown instead they should set up sessions where students can try to discuss conflicting ideas rationally while being encouraged to accept different ideas do not in fact affect their safety.
At the moment authorities all too often act like inadequate parents that instantly agree to the demands of their children so fostering a generation of intolerant brats that can’t stand any contradiction. Institutions are like bad parents that fail to control their children to the detriment of those around them.
Confidence is built by facing your fears. Students need to be able to tolerate differences of opinion if we are not to descend into a dystopian world where dissent is suppressed. Unfortunately perhaps there are all too many who would welcome such an authoritarian world.

Dominic A
Dominic A
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

“At the moment authorities all too often act like inadequate parents that instantly agree”
Thank you Jeremy – it’s surreal to me that this essential element is so often overlooked. An axiom of child psychology is that to understand a child’s psychological distress, look to the the parenting, schooling, environment . Much more often than not, psychological problems are not based in trauma so much as in the ‘drip drip drip’ of everyday unmet needs.
It stuns me to observe how quickly we have gone from a ‘love thyself’ mindset in which cosmetic surgery is seen more as a minor failure of character – a niche, naff indulgence for aging Hollywood stars struggling with the decay of their natural beauty, to a ‘radically change thyself’ view that it is a life-saving treatment for teens and young people (who apparently cannot deal with the prime-of-life bodies they have).
Similarly, away from an understanding that growth and strength is profoundly related to failure, frustration, suffering, difference and dialogue, with the self as the ultimate, essential source of support….to the exact opposite.
This is an almost perfect inversion – perversion – of the learnings from modern psychology and ancient wisdom, into – ‘your nature is not acceptable, so radically change it with surgery and drugs’, ‘others are responsible for your feelings and problems – they must change if you are to be ok’; and ‘avoid your fears’.

Jim Jam
Jim Jam
2 years ago

I don’t think it’s a grand conspiracy (though having heard some Herbert Marcuse, especially ‘An essay on Liberation*’ I’m not completely sure), but it does nonetheless seem a rather ‘happy accident’ that the downstream effects of years of leftist ideas – the fragmentation of the family, absolution of notions of personal responsibility, obsession with dangerous ‘oppressive’ forces and other ‘harms’ etc etc – has created an ever more angst-ridden, fragile and scared series of generations. The perfect precondition for rolling out yet more of the same to a desperate society practically begging for ever more authoritarian socialist control in the name of safety and harm reduction.

* I would highly recommend these podcasts which throughly explore the essay and its implications:

https://newdiscourses.com/2021/06/biological-foundation-socialism/

In this four-part series, James Lindsay presents “An Essay on Liberation” with his commentary. In this first part of the series, he reads through the introduction to the essay and its first of four parts, “A Biological Foundation for Socialism?”, in which Marcuse makes the case that to achieve a liberated utopia, man will have to be changed at the level of his fundamental needs, his instincts, and his biology

Jon Barnes
Jon Barnes
2 years ago
Reply to  Jim Jam

I’d argue that the “the fragmentation of the family” is a consequence of the modern world, regardless of ideological standpoint. The suppression of wages compared to cost has seen families send both parents out into the working world, something which disappeared as the 20th Century reached its peak. I just don’t think that you can pin a lot of this on left/right ideology easily given the parallels between polities which adopted extremes of either over the last century. Early Communist Russia put most of the proletariat to work: as the century went by, staunchly capitalist America saw women re-join the workforce. It’s exactly the same outcome. I’m also not sure it’s a socialist notion that we have a “desperate society practically begging” for socialist control: much as the users and purveyors of self-help might seem to be left-leaning in their philosophies, they’re using the products of, to use a lazy term, capitalist companies (such as social media) and, in conveying their message, getting rich off brand control and their own entertainment or medical businesses and careers.

Richard Abbot
Richard Abbot
2 years ago

My experience is precisely the opposite: the more molly-coddled and protected the child the more woke they are likely to be.
Maybe wokeness is less of a reaction to something (or a lack of something) than it is the continuation of a trend. All must have prizes, parents deferring to their 9 year old on important life decisions, the lionisation of ‘lived experiences’. the worship of feelings, two decades of political correctness. All those things and more have led us to where we are today.

michael harris
michael harris
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Abbot

Perhaps, Richard, coddling and protecting is not love at all. And is perceived by the child as the absence of love, whatever the coddling protector likes to name it.

Jim R
Jim R
2 years ago
Reply to  michael harris

One of my favourite Buddhist expressions of this: “Because I cannot bear to see you suffer and struggle, I deprive you of your opportunity to grow”. The coddling parent in reality is only protecting themselves from discomfort.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jim R

Providing love and security to a child is not the same as coddling. A loved child is willing to try new things, to grow, and even to fail, secure in the knowledge that its parents are there to support it.

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Abbot

A child needs to grow out of childishness – tantrums, sulks, ‘I wants’ – it’s a vital part of becoming an adult and part of a complex society. To do that requires learning that these things don’t work in peer-relationships, only to adults and parents. But through parents pandering and coddling, a child (particularly as we have more single children families) never learns the self-discipline of placing their needs in the context of other people, and how to negotiate relationships – they just get, and if they don’t get they scream until they get.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 years ago

A very considered essay from Mary as usual. An interesting comparison, would be with, youth attitudes and behaviors in say Russia, or other Eastern countries which have had contemporaneous institutionalized child care and female work participation.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 years ago

“she routinely checks an author’s biography for politically disagreeable views and discards “books written by anyone with whom she disagrees politically or philosophically”.”
I’m increasingly not in a position to be judgemental about this. There are times when I simply can’t bring myself to read the Guardian, and whenever I encounter the capitalisation of “black” and the non-capitalisation of “white”, I immediately stop reading.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

‘…One pupil, Andrew tells me, goes even beyond the algorithmic hygiene of her filter bubble to create her own, proactively: she routinely checks an author’s biography for politically disagreeable views and discards “books written by anyone with whom she disagrees politically or philosophically”….’

Let us hope she isn’t studying Electronics, because she will discard everything originating from William Shockley, Nobel Prize winning Physicist and one of the founders of Silicon Valley, and certainly fail her degree as a result.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I think its millions:1 that this specimen is studying electronics! or any other subject where there is testable learning and knowledge.

Chelcie Morris
Chelcie Morris
2 years ago

This is very insightful and has possibly hit the nail on the head for where the origin of wokeness came from.
I grew up in an abusive home and, during history in secondary school back in the mid-2000’s, we were learning about capitalism and communism. The teacher asked us to raise our hands if we agreed with capitalism or communism and I was the only student to raise my hand for communism.

When I became homeless at 17 (after making a conscious decision to leave my abusive home), I still had the “woe is me” mentality, mostly thanks to crappy jobs that barely paid me enough to survive, but since I had actually experienced the true feeling of being insecure and unsafe, and got myself out of that situation on my own, I became a conservative at 24.

There is most definitely a link there between ones early development and their need for someone to save them.

Last edited 2 years ago by Chelcie Morris
Jim R
Jim R
2 years ago

Many of us have to deal with these issues on a very personal level. I have a 21 year old daughter who abruptly stopped talking to me nearly 3 years ago without explanation. She just “ghosted” me. Over time and with the odd text exchange I learned that essentially she decided i was not safe for her. It’s difficult for any kid growing up with a really successful parent – I experienced that myself. I always tried to engage her – test things that she said, present the counter arguments and alternatives. And being a right-of-center white male educated in western philosophy, nothing I said accorded with the world as she experienced it through activist school teachers, media and social media. In the end, I was simply “cancelled” and it seems like that is the fate of our society. There is no more argument and debate – we will all simply take our toys and go home rather than learn to play in the sandbox. As for causes – my daughter was not in daycare and her mother stayed home until she went to school. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other “attachment” issues.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jim R

How sad. I often disagreed with my parents, it could sometimes deteriorate into shouting matches, but no arguments could make me want to cut myself off from them; they may have been wrong (in my teenage opinion formed from my vast knowledge and experience) but I still loved them.

Chris Hollins
Chris Hollins
2 years ago

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Commencement address –
“ Even biology knows that habitual, extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism. Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious mask.”

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

Hugely important article even by Mary’s standards. RenĂ© Spitz established the fact that infant neglect can cause permanent harm to individuals as far back as the 1940s, and this was further confirmed by large studies of Romanian orphans in 1980s. Sue Gerhardt’s ‘The selfish society’ (2010) is an excellent book exploring the effects of neglecting infants in a more modern context. It might be a reason why things are slightly better in UK than US, as even with her earlier work Sue’s been quite influential on our post natal care etc. Still, no matter how good the advise parents are given, it doesn’t help if the pressures of modern life force them to expend all their energy on paid & unpaid work, leaving them too exhausted to be affectionate with their young children. According to the Gerhard book, as far back as the 50s even relatively affluent parents have often been too time poor to give the optimal amount of attention & affection, and this has long been reflected at all levels of society, including politics. Still, if the neglect really is a major factor behind the rise of the woke, at least the Tories have a strong incentive to do something about it.

Jennifer O'Brien
Jennifer O'Brien
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

I’ve mentioned this already in a separate comment, but we also have to throw divorce into the mix. A significant number of the young people now coming of age have had to navigate constantly shifting family relationships – divorce, remarriage, the arrival & departure of official or unofficial step siblings, blended families, reblended families. Even when the parents do their best post-divorce it must be very unsettling. And smaller families & a highly mobile populations mean relationships with extended families are weakened. I don’t think it’s surprising that a lot of kids hit their teens with no real handle on who they are, so latch on to the kind of identities you can express with a flag and a hashtag in a social media bio.

F K
F K
2 years ago




Last edited 1 year ago by F K
Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  F K

A start. Require social media companies to provide more buttons than ‘like/dislike’ and ‘upvote/downvote’. ‘Made me think’ ‘Made me laugh’ ‘well-reasoned’ ‘well-written’ — we need a whole set of nuance here which social media has removed from normal human discourse.
After we have had that for a while, we can let escape one of the great heretical truths of the modern secular age…. Love is not Enough. People are treated badly by people who love them all the time but most people willfully ignore this fact with every inch of their being. ‘If you treat me badly, you mustn’t really love me’. ‘If you really loved me you would do as I say’. There is no such thing as being overly-protective or overly sensitive, because that is just being loving. And if you are unhappy it is always because you aren’t being loved enough, or by the right person or ….
Right now we have a culture where the young are actively trying to be loved, liked and admired. But not respected. And what has worked out even worse, is that too many of these people were never respected by their parents, or taught how to respect each other. Just how to care about each other, which is in no way the same thing.
If you cannot command respect but are only at the mercy of other people’s liking, then no wonder you want safe spaces. Life without respect is dangerous. But until people come around to facing the truth that there are loving and abusive relationships, and that people who are hungering for respect shouldn’t have to settle for being loved and liked we aren’t going to make much progress. How to respect other people is something that needs to be taught, and learned, and it most emphatically is not the same thing as not doing things that make others feel ‘unsafe’.
But I don’t even know how to get the conversation started that this is something important.

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
2 years ago

When did parenting become a thing? My parents were raised by the Edwardian generation. Either you were poor and the emphasis was putting bread on the table, or you were rich and the emphasis was on how to behave and hook a suitable husband. The offsprings’ feelings were never a consideration. Then the war came and survival was till top of the agenda. By then dysfunctional families proliferated and the psychological damage was beginning to show. Many folk went into “therapy” and took pills. Valium shares soared. I think what we see here is the pendulum swinging too far the other way. Life is an eternal Goldilocks story.

Robert Hochbaum
Robert Hochbaum
2 years ago

I think Mary is on to something (including being a bit more sympathetic towards the wokesters, perhaps). My second-earliest memory is of learning that my mom was going to die some day. She told me. I must have been asking questions, as kids eventually do, that she could not get easily around anymore. I was only three or four, but I clearly remember where we were, me on the floor, her on the couch, the color of the carpet and couch, the size of the windows in the room. It was a moment that clearly affected me. It’s still with me 50+ years on. Not in a bad way. More as a bit of evidence that, as a young child, moments of learning unsettling things about life may stick with you. She still remembers a year or so later when I asked her to walk behind me as she was taking me to kindergarten because I was a ‘big boy’ and was kind of embarrassed. We laugh about it, but, yikes… I don’t remember that one, but it clearly stuck with her! I used to wonder if it bothered the career couples that I’ve known that someone else was likely seeing their child’s ‘firsts’ – first steps, first words, etc. But, I never really thought about it the other way around. It’s probably impossible to know how moments of discovery that are truly unsettling or frightening or deeply saddening for a child (let alone any abuse which I never experienced) may affect them. I can’t claim that moment had a specific effect on me. But, I sure do remember it.

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
2 years ago

All children sorely need two things: warm abundant love AND discipline.
The hedonist materialist generations since WWII have provided these necessities ever less and less. (Think of all the broken homes, or the alcoholic and drug-addled parents…!)
So yes; students need hugs and now, after years of mooning around in a bubble of fantasy, some serious kicking up the backside.
All this pink and green hair, rings through noses (like pigs), and screaming are yells for just such treatment.

Douglas Clark
Douglas Clark
2 years ago

I very much enjoy Mary’s articles and respect her analyses and insights but I feel I must comment for the first time on this one. As a general principle I believe that psychological explanations of social phenomena are inappropriate: we are in Margaret Mead territory here. The current culture of victimhood and all the other various aspects of “woke” culture seems to me to represent a response to the intensification of competitive individualism in the wider culture resulting in the retreat into what would have been small egalitarian enclave groups but with the advent of the internet these small groups have now become extensive. They still police their boundaries assiduously while resisting any attempt to form internal hierarchies resulting in an inherent factionalism. My model for this derives from the ideas of the anthropologist Mary Douglas around cultural bias originally known as grid/group theory. One of the most succinct expositions of this in her occasional paper for the Royal Anthropological Institute entitled “Cultural Bias”. She is probably better known to a wider audience for books such as “Natural Symbols”.

Jennifer O'Brien
Jennifer O'Brien
2 years ago

Another likely factor would be divorce rates. If the first home & family we ever experience fails and fractures relatively early on, we’re probably predisposed to flail around looking for a ‘home’ and a ‘family’ in places which just aren’t meant to function that way (ideologies, institutions, fandoms, whatever). And when those ‘homes’ and ‘families’ are seen to ‘fail’ too, young people experience the original trauma all over again.

Marco Furlano
Marco Furlano
2 years ago

Again an other example of Chesterton’s fence. As brain development is to be considered critical, 80% of neuronal connections before the age of 4, there has to be some long term influence in the way we treat young human beings. Yet I am afraid our societies tend to treat them as things. Children are however considered as obstacles and costs.
Anyway an other great article by Mary Harrington that should have consequences.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
2 years ago

Reminds me of the comment by the Dalai Lama, who was surprised to discover widespread low self-esteem when he started coming to the West.

It showed up to him because in Tibetan culture there’s no concept of self-loathing or self-deprecation, which has been linked to parenting traditions.

I think his comments must have applied to generations before those Mary H is discussing. But maybe unsafety is linked to a prior unsteadiness.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago

Fascinating. There is reason for optimism though. I wonder what happens when these kids collide with the brick wall of reality: They will have to recalibrate I suppose.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Well, you’d think so wouldn’t you… but what if, as appears to be happening, the ‘reality’ they are meant to (healthily) collide with has somehow been corrupted, in the sense perfectly summed up by the phrase “the post-truth society”?
If reality sucks and they can’t cope, change what reality means through an ever-increasing culture of victimhood and appeals for ‘safe spaces’. The ultimate in reality is, of course, the threat of war – of having to engage in combat to enable the continuation of the Western way of life. It might appear as if these versions of reality (i use that phrase without agreeing with it’s premise!) are diametrically opposed. One could argue that Putin is doing Western society a favour, as horrendous as the reality of his murderous onslaught is.
How we respond to the threat from the East in general, in terms of physical, economic and religious conflict, is the defining battle of the 21st century, or the first half at least. Will our “woke” generation(s) be up for it? What occurs to me is that we only really hear from those with the education to express themselves, on a university campus for instance. But higher education students are still a minority. How do those not predisposed to higher education fit into the narrative which Mary has elucidated so well? Will they become the foot soldiers of the future, in a physical conflict?
Perhaps the generation so adept at online gaming will find a way of using it to bring the ‘intelligence’ aspect of modern warfare to bear to good effect? But one wonders how much notice those who feel the need for trigger warnings before engaging with a work of literature or television programme actually take of the real-world conflicts in Ukraine or elsewhere.

Last edited 2 years ago by Steve Murray
Mark Velarde
Mark Velarde
2 years ago

There could be a range of causes as to how they became so emotionally triggered, but it’s reasonable to view it as a psychological condition – it’s not healthy behaviour.

Last edited 2 years ago by Mark Velarde
Dana Immertreu
Dana Immertreu
2 years ago

Totally incoherent argument. You’re conveniently overlooking the fact that the ‘safety’ minded students you’re talking about at Yale and similar institutions are upper and upper-middle class (practically exclusively). They were not in institutional childcare as tiny babies. It could not be clearer that safety discourse is most prevalent in the privileged classes, which completely destroys your argument. Also, you start out in the UK and then you move to the US to make this absurd claim, because the US has the poor maternity leave conditions for middle class mothers that you require for your argument. What a cheap move.
It’s problematic to write an article where you have not the slightest shred of evidence for what you’re suggesting. But the pieces don’t even fit together in a logical way here.

viv loveday
viv loveday
2 years ago
Reply to  Dana Immertreu

The “safety-minded students” at the heart of the Christakis affair at Yale were predominantly black female students who would, I assume, not appreciate your assertion that they are “privileged”. see https://palladiummag.com/2019/08/26/letter-to-the-editor-your-freedom-of-speech-is-a-threat-to-my-safety/
I would also suggest that if you are going to call someone else’s argument “absurd” and “a cheap move” you are really obliged to provide a better repudiation of their thesis than “its a totally incoherent argument”. This is especially true when you provide no counter-argument than your obvious dislike of her premises, and when the argument does hold together pretty well, despite your vitriol.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
2 years ago
Reply to  viv loveday

No, it is indeed incoherent. It’s a string of possibly’s’, ‘perhapses’, ‘unlikely to’s’, and ‘have some effects’, almost all culled from single sources, leaping from one assumption somewhere to another somewhere else. And the most likely source of the problem, manipulated mass hysteria, is overlooked entirely.

viv loveday
viv loveday
2 years ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

Compare and contrast “incoherent” with “wide-ranging”, I think you may be surprised. & if you genuinely feel that the problem is simply “manipulated mass hysteria” then why not write a think piece like Ms Harrington did and let us all assess the explanatory power of your perspective.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago

About twenty years ago, I remember being incredibly shocked by the reaction of a young mother who was returning to work when I shared the findings and conclusion of some research I had read with her. The research had concluded hiring a nanny was better for the emotional well being of the baby because babies need consistency of carer and care, and the turnover in nurseries is high. I also commented, as an aside really, the down side would be the baby’s primary attachment figure would be the nanny. I assumed her baby’s well being would be of prime importance to her, but I was wrong. She opted for a nursery because she wanted to be the primary attachment figure for her baby and high turnover in nurseries would ensure that was the case.

Last edited 2 years ago by Aphrodite Rises
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

It could also be that she couldn’t afford a nanny.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago

In this case, money was not an issue. I would have mentioned if it was as it would have been a contributing factor. The return to work was not financially driven.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago

I heard the exact same fear articulated by a woman in relation to her dog. She preferred to place her dog in kennels whilst holidaying rather than lodge the dog with a dog loving family who lived close by, and adjacent to a beautiful park which adjoined a canal and woods. The family would walk the dog and treat it as a well loved family pet. The owner of the dog feared the dog would not want to return to her.

Last edited 2 years ago by Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago

the woman who opted for the nursery stated her reason for doing so was not to jeopardise her position as primary attachment figure.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago

Feminists are just like the transgender lobby, denying any inconvenient truths.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago

I wouldn’t be surprised if the positive and negative effects of the feminist movement on the lives of women and children were objectively evaluated, the negatives would far outweigh the positives. I do not include in the feminist movement, those women who have worked towards equality whilst respecting and understanding difference.

Last edited 2 years ago by Aphrodite Rises
Anna Clare Bryson
Anna Clare Bryson
2 years ago

I usually like Mary Harrington’s work but I find the theory she proposes here very unconvincing. I don’t have children, but many of my friends do – now in an age range of late teens to young graduates, and some are shocked by the illiberal “woke” political opinions of these children, especially knowing they never got them from parents! Among these mostly rather affluent, and highly educated young people, I see no correlation whatsoever been some emotional deprivation – in the sense of early institutional care – in childhood and their views now…Some of the most “snow flakey” had devoted stay at home Mums in first years, or even Dads. From a historical point of view, if the theory is right then the whole of the British upper-class should for centuries have been “snowflakes”, and much of the working-class too, in families where women had too much domestic work and too many children to offer undivided care, and quite often worked long hours too.
If I had to characterise anything distinctive about trends in parenting and childcare in the last few decades, at least in the middle-class, it would not be parental neglect – but the rise of childcare doctrines (in parallel with educational doctrines) that stress the imperative of child-centred upbringing and schooling, and the terrible potential consequences of frustrating or thwarting the child’s expressed needs in any way, or of any kind of authoritarianism. And it would be a well-intentioned but maybe unfortunate double tendency arising from it. First, compared to my own upbringing by what were fairly liberal parents in the Sixties and Seventies, more recent liberal parents (as soon as is safely possible), treat their children as sort of pals and equals and don’t like to pull adult rank. But second, rather paradoxically, they are far more protective and anxious and do the helluva lot more for their older as well as younger children – organising activities, making sure they are safe, ferrying around, checking where they are via phones etc, and now expecting to accommodate and help children well into adulthood…than earlier parents. One result of this is a lack of personal rebelliousness…(my generation was terribly keen to gain freedom from adult authority, but when parents are chums, always helpful, not disapproving of a sex life, trying to like the same music etc…and also offering help and protection, why rebel?). Another result is a very much enlarged expectation of continuing support and protection and a lack of experience of being challenged. A desire for all the privileges of adulthood as well as the (unacknowledged) privileges of the child. I fear a lot of these kids simply don’t know how to grow up, because they have never needed to do so and are decreasingly encouraged to do so…and so their rage – where it is genuine and not politically stylised and merely fashionable – is an adolescent rage, and not based on any infant experience.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago

Very interesting piece. When you say “American women have no right to maternity leave,” I think you’re saying it wrong. What you’re probably trying to say is “American women don’t have government mandated, subsidized, or provided maternity leave.” Using the term “right” is clumsy and, in my opinion, flat-out wrong. If you’re claiming, however, that paid maternity leave is not a “right” enshrined in our constitution, you are right.

Jane Hewland
Jane Hewland
2 years ago

Sorry this is nonsense. Many children had far harsher upbringings in days gone by. Upper classes handing care to wet nurses and nannies from birth. Lower classes having to survive enormous families where adequate care was impossible or having mothers die
In childbirth and seeing brothers and sisters sicken and die of a huge variety of infant diseases. Think of all those sent to be raised in workhouses. I put it meltdown culture down to the disintegration of a shared system of values and beliefs. Human beings have religions because they can’t function without them. We threw ours away. I understand why. We wrongly assumed it was meant to be believed literally and of course scientific advancements made that impossible. Climate worship, self worship etc unfortunately turn out to be a less comprehensive and meaningful philosophies than teachings evolved over thousands of years.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Hewland

There are those, however, who try to make up for the lack of time and attention spent with material compensation. So mum and Dad works Mon-Fri 9-5, child from the age of 6 months is in nursery and then school and after school clubs for their formative years and only spend a few hours in an evening before bed and then weekends with parents. The weekends are spent doing activities or buying things to compensate for this. Many grow up attention needy and materially spoilt. Hence Mary’s theory is sound. It might not equate to every child as we can add the “not all” to many arguments.

Last edited 2 years ago by Lindsay S
Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
2 years ago

Interesting but not enough, because (in the US, at least) the trend of more working women having babies and returning to work after short maternity leave started in the 1970s and was society-wide by the mid-1980s, while the current pathology only became evident in around 2013, for people born around 1995. So, it appeared about 15 years too late, and a lot of kids born to working moms between about 1975 and 1995 got into adulthood without exhibiting these extreme problems.
Lack of early bonding as descried here may very well be part of the puzzle for many people, but something else happened to complete the pattern–social media, the fear of child abduction that led to over-protective parents denying their kids childhood lives of their own, adults who cater to and reinforce the bad behavior, &/or other things.
Personally, I think there is something to each of the 3 things I mention, and the best immediate answer is for the “adults” who are supposed to be in charge to act like adults, and treat people who act like children, as children. That does not mean being callous or brutal, but literally treat them as immature youngsters in our care, who need firm, compassionate guidance if they are to mature. We cannot recapture mistakes made in the past, but we control what we do going forward.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
2 years ago

Leaving home for the first time can be a vulnerable time for young people. When I was at uni back in the seventies, quite a few students felt unable to cope and dropped out or had mental health problems like drug taking and eating disorders. It’s nothing new but universities are addressing the problems rather than ignoring them.

KJ Strand
KJ Strand
2 years ago

Some interesting ideas and in some ways they ring true. But there’s another element missing, dysfunctional social dynamics. This can be understood by looking at cultic phenomena. People often express the idea that those who “join” cults are in some way mentally ill. Far from it, because cults need well-functioning members (except if someone has a big trust fund and is mentally ill).
How do you explain Germany leading to Hitler, the psychological dynamics of which can be understood in terms of cultic processes? Robert J. Lifton studied and described these processes, for those interested. In Germany, at least some of the citizens who went along had stable childhoods not unlike the ideal ones described by Mary.
I remember reading studies of people who join cults and it’s not what you’d expect. Having a strong current belief system is somewhat protective, and a social network is also somewhat protective. That’s why college students are often recruited, or people undergoing other life changes (death, divorce, etc.). We all have such life crises and are more or less vulnerable during those times. Being creative is another factor correlated (open to new ideas). So is being somewhat shy and naive.
I’d love to see Mary incorporate such an idea into her thinking, since her thesis looks sound in part. But the current irrationality has a social influence underpinning as well, the social influence/undue influence of teachers who are woke, along with peers who are woke, can go a long way toward explaining this without the individual psychology explanation. It may be that the most visible of these young people, those having the meltdowns, do have the shaky background Mary describes, but it is not sufficient to explain what we are seeing overall.
There has been something cultic about much of it well before the public meltdowns. At least some of these are self-serving, attention-seeking and not always genuine. The fact that “influencer” is now a career path should be taken into account.

Last edited 2 years ago by KJ Strand
Mike MacCormack
Mike MacCormack
2 years ago

The puzzle for someone of my age, in their seventies, is how growing up today – in a world far safer than the one we grew up in – is producing such anxious and fearful children. I’m not sure that the author is giving enough attention to the effects of the digital culture, a nod to the impact of social media is barely beginning to acknowledge the depth of change, how the new age has changed not just what we think but how we can think, not just what we ‘know’ but how that ‘knowledge’ now comes about. How rational evaluation of incoming perceptions by comparing them to a bank of received impressions is impossible if you don’t trust the source. Glad I don’t have to sort this out; puzzled that my sexist, racist, class obsessed, often violent upbringing, with nuclear fears hanging over us all, somehow produced a calmly confident and, mostly, a liberal minded openess to ideas and challenges.

Jon Kilpatrick
Jon Kilpatrick
2 years ago

Thank you Mary for drawing attention to what I think is a demographic factor every bit as worrying as the the increasing number of pensioners compared to the number of people in work. Common sense would suggest that the emotional impact on an infant resulting from being separated from its mother at a young age for long periods might result in insecurity later in life. More and more, our leadership class comes from a background of emotional inadequacy. The problem is compounded by an economic environment that breaks up extended families and results in childcare by strangers. Ultimately, emotionally fragile people become parents and feel the need to use “professional childcare” because of work commitments and worry that they are not up to the challenge of child rearing. Factor in the steady erosion of cultural and community identity along with the exposure to the internet at increasingly young age and it’s no wonder children feel vulnerable. I am afraid that we have a rocky road ahead of us.

B Davis
B Davis
2 years ago

“We should take student claims of distress and trauma more seriously.”??
Nooooooo!
The more we indulge childish panic & tear-stained meltdowns (literally ‘shaking & crying’) the more we encourage the tantrum-prone and adult-incapable. The more we engage with Professional Soothers, Counselors, Therapists, and, of course, a truckload of Pharmacists to allow some imitation-version of ‘coping’ to occur…the more we enable the Child to terminally disengage from even a semblance of adult responsibility.
To validate their ‘fear & trembling’ is to reinforce the fundamental belief that the State and its Institutions (in all their forms) bears the burden of making the world ‘safe’ and warm and cuddling…forever. (Hey, Bud, want some PlayDoh and Legos to go with that warm milk?)
This begins, of course, with parents who long ago bought in to that nonsense, fundamental to the Post-Tech World, that RISK absolutely must be eliminated in order for living to proceed. ‘Even ONE (risk) is one too many!’ [“Is that a dropside crib I see before me???”]
“I saw the best minds of that generation destroyed by madness, convinced that rocking horses kill…and sugar destroys….dragging themselves & their frightened toddlers through the padded playrooms at dawn looking for an appropriately healthy, protein-rich mug of almond milk and cinnamon-flavored tofu bars. Angelheaded hipster Moms burning for the adult-led, hip-to-hip connection on the T-Ball field to make sure Johnny never has to deal with a ball which is not gently handed to him by a Guardian Intervener. (the horror!) The starry dynamo in the machinery of night, is always, in such a place, the Glow of Pre-digested Disney. What else!” Toddle-On, Sweet Pea; time to toddle-on!
No! This shall not pass. This is when — if we can get an adult somewhere in the room — we say, GROW-UP! Life is hard; figure it out — rub some dirt on it and move on! You fell down, get yourself up. Your feelings were folded, spindled and even mutilated? Get over it. Toughen-up. Run hard. Play hard. And when the ball bounces wrong and hits you in the nose and MAN IT HURTS, buckle-up Winsocki, buckle-up!
And any weepy toddlers who somehow, at the age of 20, find themselves ‘shaking and crying’ on Yale’s Quad when they saw a Halloween Costume that tweaked their well-honed sensitivities….well, they evidently did not complete the graduation requirements of PreSchool. Send ’em back!

Last edited 2 years ago by B Davis
Bill Tomlinson
Bill Tomlinson
2 years ago

Here’s a solution:
Make it a prerequisite for university entrance that the applicant has to log ten parachute jumps – and I mean solos, on static line, not tandems.

Any university that refuses to comply loses all taxpayer funding.

(Thirty years ago I dealt with my own stroppy teenager that way. And, I assure you, it works.)

Nell L
Nell L
2 years ago

Gee, thanks for giving the far right in America yet another reason for opposing spending any money on high-quality day care: it will create even more “woke” radical young people!