Whether You Call It Awfulizing or Catastrophizing, It’s Not Healthy

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Photo credit: Karl Dedolph Photography. Used with permission.

Years ago my brother, a psychologist who got his PhD at Temple, used a word I’d never heard before: awfulizing. I immediately liked the word because it was so descriptive of what we do when we are tyrannized by our emotions. “If I don’t pass this test I’ll fail the course and not get into college and never get a good job and my kids will grow up in poverty and be nibbled on by rats and I couldn’t handle that.”

It’s a variation of “worst case scenario” thinking, which Garrison Keillor did a memorable schtick on about two decades ago where a harmless thing escalates through a series of accidents into you dying on the way to the hospital.

There’s a sense in which our minds do this when we fail to control our thoughts and little things become matters of life and death.

All this was triggered by an article from The Atlantic in which the word “catastrophizing” appeared. (Put the accent on tast.)

The article was titled The Coddling of the American Mind. The subtitle reads, In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education — and mental health.

It‘s become one of the most read articles in the history of The Atlantic. The authors lament that as a society we’ve become over-protective and are thereby creating a generation of thin-skinned young people who will likely have a fairly difficult time adjusting to the hard knocks of life.

Here’s the opening:

Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law — or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia — and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said.

To give you an idea how out of hand things have gotten, there are students now calling for “Trigger Warnings” to let people know in advance that something they have been asked to read may have something disturbing. And by disturbing we’re not talking about a descriptive torture scene. We’re talking about The Great Gatsby because it portrays portrays misogyny and physical abuse.

To borrow a line from Dylan, “People are crazy, times are strange.” And when you read this article it will be apparent that things have changed.

It’s ironic because in the Sixties the Free Speech Movement prevailed on many campuses. Today the pendulum seems to have swung the other way, so much so that I fear we’ll soon be getting warnings from the Thought Police.

The article, and book by the same title, was written by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. The subtitle is different though. How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. I only just started it, but the premises strike me as solid.

Feminist critic Camille Paglia blasted the #MeToo movement last year as counter-productive. It reinforces the message that women are fragile instead of strong. #MeToo may have stemmed from good intentions but has had unintended consequences.

All this to say that the article, The Coddling of the American Mind, is worth the investment of your time. And if you read it, I’d like to know if you think the authors are on point. Or are they themselves simply engaged in awfulizing?

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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