'Hypersensitivity' as a Cause of Violence On American Campuses
The public has yet to glean the psychological connection between the hypersensitivity studiously cultivated on campus and the inclination to commit violent acts. This point has been largely missed in the ongoing debate over whether many of the campus protesters come to college already hypersensitive or are made that way by faculty and administrators.
An example of this debate is Judith Shulevitz’s In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas, which was responded to by Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s Don't Blame Students for Being Hypersensitive. Blame Colleges.
Both Shulevitz and Bovy are largely right. American culture already makes K-12 students hypersensitive (think of how a young person accustomed to receiving “participation trophies” is likely to react later in life when finally confronted with struggle and failure).
But, once in college, the effect of safe spaces, censorship, etc., promises only to exacerbate any preexisting hypersensitivity. As Clay Routledge observes, “More and more colleges are creating ‘bias response teams’ that students can contact if they feel they have been victimized by microaggressions. There is an increasing demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings to protect students not from physical danger, but from ideas, course material, and viewpoints they may find offensive.”
In sum, think of these colleges and universities as finishing schools for those bent on spending their lives competing in the "sensitivity sweepstakes." However, much of the commentary on campus censorship suggests that the only, or worst, effect of the new “therapeutic” education is the production of “little snowflakes,” that is, weak individuals. Could it also be the opposite?
What has been missed is the role hypersensitivity can play as a cause of violence. This nexus is one of the themes of Roy Baumeister’s Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Violence. He identifies a number of individual psychological factors on whose basis it is possible to “begin to predict who is likely to be dangerous or violent... . Hypersensitive people, who often think their pride is being assaulted, are potentially dangerous.”
Turning Sensitivity Into Hypersensitivity
He goes on to explain how “hypersensitivity to insults also makes it possible to understand what might otherwise appear to be senseless violence... . Many violent people believe that their actions were justified by the offensive acts of the person who became their victim.”
The hypersensitive person can become so irrational that subjectivity becomes all: “Even when a neutral observer would conclude that no serious provocation had occurred, it is still important to recognize that, in the perpetrator’s own view, he or she was merely responding to an attack.”
From this it is not difficult to see how what is taught at a growing number of our universities can turn sensitivity into hypersensitivity. After all, these schools defend their creation of safe spaces and their prohibition on free speech on the grounds that “oppressed groups” face “institutional discrimination.”
In this light, the ideological agenda driving the rise of hypersensitivity on campus becomes clearer. It also becomes more frightening, given the demonstrated connection between hypersensitivity and violence.
In sum, sensitivity has been weaponized.