Misuse of the word harm could cause social and scientific damage
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Have you ever been struck or swindled? Have you ever spent weeks in the hospital recovering from a drunk driver, or seen your reputation ruined by false accusations? If so (as many an attorney billboard reminds us), you may have suffered harm. But it might be time to rethink what that word really means.
A notorious incident on the Yale campus in 2015 demonstrated how “harm” was being redefined. After a student directive warning against offensive Halloween costumes, lecturer Erika Christakis sent a general email suggesting that perhaps people could be a little less sensitive about cultural stereotypes. She could not have anticipated the uproar, or the ordeal that her husband Nicholas would face when confronted on campus by a band of angry protesters. They complained of a hostile atmosphere that devalued their campus experience and caused mental distress. One girl screamed in his face, “It is not about creating an intellectual space—it is not! It’s about creating a home here!”
Both Christakises eventually resigned from their Yale positions. Three years later Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt published The Coddling of the American Mind, examining how fragility, emotionalism, and an us-versus-them worldview had come to dominate too much of higher education. An entire generation was being “set up for failure.”
Scoffers scoffed that these “snowflakes” would soon melt under the harsh glare of real life. But at least some of them dragged their fragility into real life. One minor example hit Twitter in August during the annual Podcast Movement convention in Dallas. The Daily Wire, the nation’s No. 1 conservative podcasting platform, had purchased a booth in the exhibit hall. Co-founder Ben Shapiro, who happened to be in Dallas for another event, dropped in to greet well-wishers at the booth. At least one attendee complained about not feeling safe, prompting the convention’s organizers to tweet an abject mea culpa: “We take full responsibility for the harm done by his presence.”
The apology was so gushy it sounded like satire, but it was for real—evidenced by the fact that Podcast Movement, after further complaints, apologized to Shapiro. Not before The Babylon Bee had some fun with it: “Thousands Dead After Ben Shapiro Casually Strolls Through Whole Foods.”
A weightier example appeared in an editorial for the online journal Nature Human Behaviour. Titled “Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans,” the editorial signaled its theme from the first sentence: “Although academic freedom is fundamental, it is not unbounded.” Scientific research must be sensitive to potential harms. Conclusions that might be taken as “discriminatory, racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic” would be rejected for publication, regardless of their scientific soundness and merit. “Harm” trumps truth.
Nature Human Behaviour is not a pop-up publication, and it’s not alone in its hedge against so-called harm: Science, Scientific American, and Popular Mechanics have all dropped a knee to woke sensibilities. From offensive Halloween costumes to deliberate self-censoring of scientific research is an amazingly short ride. Have American minds become so coddled that doubting a child’s gender confusion is considered more “harmful” than blocking her hormones? That words are seen as more violent than literal sticks and stones?
I’ve been thinking about what constitutes actual harm—irreversible damage? “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” said Friedrich Nietzsche, thereby making death the ultimate and only harm for a super mensch. But for the rest of us, David says it better. “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me? … For you have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling” (Psalm 56:11, 13).
My two great fears—of death and of failure—are already overcome. What man does may hurt, perhaps grievously, but will not permanently harm. What doesn’t kill me makes me holier. I can live with that.
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