Tough Enough: Resilience in Academia

Part of what’s behind the disagreements over freedom and security in academia that we’ve been seeing a lot of lately (over things like political correctness, trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc.) are two different attitudes.

What two attitudes?

Before I tell you, let me state up front that this is opinionated armchair sociology of the profession, informed by a popular press article about some likely controversial findings in psychology, in the form of a blog post. This is me throwing some ideas out there for folks to consider, so relax, get yourself your coffee or tea or (shudder) diet coke or whatever and let’s see if it is too early in the day for me to be making sense.

So what two attitudes? This is bound to be an oversimplification, and there are of course other ways to cut up the terrain, but enough with the disclaimers already.

We can call these two attitudes Tough and Enough.

The slogan for the tough side is “toughen up and shake it off.” We see the tough side in action in complaints about “snowflake students”, those coddled kids who need trigger warnings and safe spaces to protect them from offensive ideas and views they object to, and in more general complaints about political correctness. The letter from Dean John Ellison to incoming students at the University of Chicago exemplifies this attitude.

The slogan for the enough side is “we’ve suffered enough, so don’t put it on us.” In other words, approaches to conflict which ask the already victimized and vulnerable to solve the problem of their victimization and vulnerability—by, say, toughening up—is to misplace responsibility. Better to take proactive steps in advance to avoid the harms, rather than have to take reactive steps to cope with it. An example of the enough side in action, in a somewhat different context, is this widely circulated list of rape prevention tips (most of which pretty much say: “don’t rape”). Or see this comment on a recent post here about online harassment.

The conflict between tough and enough is not necessary, but the loudest voices in recent academic disputes do seem to be attracted to one side or the other.

There are some complications, of course.

There seem to be difficulties in non-arbitrarily identifying and categorizing complaints. Suppose Pat, a white person who doesn’t take herself to be a racist, is criticized by Terry for saying something that is subtly racist; Pat then complains about this criticism. What I’ve observed is that in cases like this, the toughs will target Terry’s charge of racism, and claim that Terry needs to toughen up and shake it off. They will not say that Pat, who is complaining about being accused of saying something racist, needs to toughen up and shake it off.

An example of this difficulty in the philosophy profession recently concerned offensive remarks about gays and lesbians made by a keynote speaker at a conference of the Society for Christian Philosophers (SCP). The apology offered by the SCP president for any hurt these remarks might have caused was loudly condemned by some as kowtowing to oversensitive academics and disrespectful to the speaker and other conservative Christians. Yet this barrage of condemnation (a mild example here) was not itself seen as evidence that those issuing it were also oversensitive and needed to toughen up.

There are times when it is unclear whether a complaint is evidence of the kind of oversensitivity that the toughs complain about, or evidence of the kind of toughness they endorse. This is a point I’ve touched on elsewhere. When I was asked, “I’ve heard philosophers who are concerned with the same issues you are concerned with—such as the diversity problem—who have suggested… that we need to toughen up a bit. Is that a mistake, you think?” I responded as follows:

Where is this lack of toughness? Consider the restaurant diner who sends back his overcooked steak, the person in line who speaks up when another person tries to cut in front, and the neighbor who threatens to call the cops because a party is too noisy. Do these people need to toughen up? We usually do not think so. Rather, these people show they are sufficiently “tough” by complaining out loud about the problem. The diner breaks social norms about congeniality at dinner, the person in line confronts the cutter, the neighbor risks the hostility of the party’s hosts—and we say: good for them. So I find it strange that when people complain out loud about sexism or racism or unprofessionalism or hostility or public mockery or whatever, this is taken as a lack of toughness, rather than evidence of toughness. And further, if we take such complaints as a lack of toughness, why, then, isn’t complaining about this lack of toughness itself evidence of a lack of toughness?

Sometimes what looks like “enoughness” is really “toughness.”

I’m prompted to revisit these thoughts in light of an article by Maria Konnikova, recently brought to my attention, on research aimed at figuring out why some people who experience extremely adverse events not only don’t seem negatively affected by them, but turn out to be relatively competent, confident, caring, and successful.

It turns out that the harmfulness of potentially traumatic events can be decreased by framing the events positively, as opportunities to develop or learn. Conversely, the harm can be increased by thinking of the events as negative and damaging. Not all of the badness of the experience is “inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal.”

Stoics be pleased (but don’t get carried away).

Resilient people—those less negatively affected by difficulties—construe the events more positively than the non-resilient. They “meet the world on their own terms” and have a “positive social orientation.” Konnikova writes about a study of children who had experienced potentially traumatic events:

Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates. In fact, on a scale that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations away from the standardization group…

“We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” [Columbia University psychologist George] Bonanno said.

And here’s the good news: we can train people to think about things in different ways, to be more resilient. Positive construal of bad events, the tempering of “hot” emotional responses, and various changes to people’s “explanatory styles”—the ingredients of resilience—can be taught.

But resilience can also be weakened:

“We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient,” Bonanno says. “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.” Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

Now I haven’t had a firsthand look at this research, and that I’d be surprised if it was entirely uncontroversial. But suppose there is something to it. What, if anything, does it add to our understanding of tough and enough and the conflicts we’ve been seeing in academia?

I think it helps to provide a more sensible basis for tough. When I see the tough attitude deployed, it usually strikes me as a combination of callousness, cognitive biases (e.g., status quo bias, just world bias), and prejudice—for example, white conservatives don’t see that their complaints about lack of representation are structurally identical to many complaints they dismiss as “PC whining”. But there could be altruism involved: it could be that the toughers think that we’re making things worse for the vulnerable and victimized by making a big deal about the bad things that happen to them. We should pipe down and be less sensitive, and emphasize the silver linings we can find—for the sake of the least well-off. Otherwise, those we’re worried about will become less and less resilient, and more negatively affected by the bad experiences they’re likely to have.

So we should toughen up? Let’s not move too fast here.

Even if we assume that when some bad stuff happens to a person it may be worse for that person if we make a big deal out of it, it doesn’t follow that we ought not to make a big deal out of it. Why not? Because making a big deal out of the bad stuff may be the best way to reduce incidences of it in the future.

Keep in mind that the findings about resilience do not say (nor do they imply) that people become more resilient by undergoing more bad stuff. So even if we think that resilience is wonderful, that provides us with no reason to think we should stop trying to reduce the quantity and harmfulness of the bad stuff. And it is hard to see how we’d get less bad stuff if said stuff is not conspicuously complained about.

To reiterate: the idea that resilience can be taught should not be confused with the idea that we ought to give people more opportunities to display their resilience.

As I’ve said before here, despite what might sell magazines or generate internet traffic or give old men something to feel self-righteous about, I don’t think academia has a major problem with political correctness clamping down on disagreement and debate. Yes there are examples of this happening, but not many in the grand scheme of things, and various distortions lead people to exaggerate them (confirmation bias, frequency illusion, availability heuristic, and the illicit influence of affect on risk perception). That said, it could develop into a problem, and since there are all sorts of reasons to preserve academia as a realm of robust disagreement, it would be good to make sure academia continues to be populated by people who are sufficiently resilient to be happy populating that realm.

With that aim in mind, we can ask whether there is a way to constructively make use of this research on resilience. And I mean ask. I’m certainly not going to tell people they should be more resilient. What do I know from that? As Louis CK says, “I’m a white man. You can’t even hurt my feelings.

It may be that there is nothing to learn here except not to take the value of resilience as an excuse to keep treating people like crap. But if there is a way to enhance people’s resilience in a way that doesn’t involve a failure to recognize the seriousness of the harms they’re undergoing, it would be good to hear about.


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