In his runaway bestselling book, The Coddling of The American Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes his experience attending pre-school orientation for his oldest child. He and his wife were informed of the school’s strict policy on classroom snacks, especially nuts.
Because of potential peanut allergies, peanuts were completely forbidden in the classroom, as were all other kinds of tree nuts. On top of that, just to be extra careful, anything that was made in a facility with tree nuts could not be brought to the classroom either.
Haidt had the audacity to ask a simple question: “Does anyone’s child in our classroom have a peanut allergy? He was swiftly admonished for potentially putting other parents in an “uncomfortable” situation with his question and was told it was beside the point.
In fact, Haidt was very much on point. The well-intentioned strategy of proactively removing peanuts from classrooms has likely resulted in more kids becoming allergic to nuts, according to data from a landmark study called LEAP, or Learning Early About Peanut allergy.
The LEAP study followed more than 600 children who were at high risk for developing peanut allergies, for more than four years. Babies in the LEAP study were split into two groups: one that avoided peanut foods, and another that was given age-appropriate peanut foods several times a week. Only three percent of children in the “consumption” group developed a peanut allergy by the time they reached 5 years old, versus 17 percent of the children in the “avoidance” group. In other words, a child in the “avoidance” group was five times more likely to develop an allergy!
I’ve experienced this firsthand, as my father is severely allergic to peanuts. However, we always had peanut products in our house as kids; instead of removing them, we focused on being careful to not expose him through cross-contamination. Today, none of his three children or nine grandchildren are allergic to nuts, despite a potential hereditary predisposition.
As I wrote in a recent Friday Forward, there is a growing trend in society to conflate physical danger and emotional discomfort, resulting in a movement to limit exposure to anything that may cause either. The data on peanut exposure is a powerful metaphor for why this is well-intentioned, but often counterproductive.
Nowhere is this more evident than the ubiquity of content warnings today. In many cases, these warnings are appropriate. For example, a television show that depicts self-harm or sexual abuse might warn audiences in advance so that someone who has personally experienced those types of deeply traumatic events can choose to avoid exposure in an unmonitored environment.
But there is a difference between subject matters that some people should avoid entirely and topics that should still be discussed or depicted, just with care and nuance. This relates closely to a growing debate about the use of the word “trigger.” In the past, it was more of a medical definition related to a limited set of circumstances. Today, the word is far more ubiquitous and increasingly used to define anything that makes a person uncomfortable, according to the person’s own definition.
Just as the anti-nut policy Haidt described has probably created more nut allergies, frequent content warnings or avoidance of anything that might be considered objectionable, or “triggering,” from culture or classrooms is discouraging dialogue and weakening a whole generation’s emotional resilience.
Interestingly, I have several friends who have used exposure therapy for their children with severe allergies. While this doesn’t always cure the allergy, it reduces its severity, making it safer for the children to eat in public. Along those same lines, one of the most common forms of treatment for trauma survivors is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which aims to modify the patient’s reaction to trauma triggers, rather than avoid exposure altogether.
Discomfort is an essential part of life and is especially important to our emotional and physical development. Too many organizations and institutions today have decided that anything that makes you uncomfortable should either be eliminated or avoided. This is perhaps most acute in higher education, where there is a growing intolerance for exposure to ideas or perspectives that threaten a preferred narrative.
This resistance to emotional discomfort creates an intellectual allergy to new ideas and different perspectives. It has also led to people to become intolerant of, and disrespectful toward, people whose perspective they disagree with, resulting in a demonstrable impact on public discourse.
Avoidance of peanut exposure has created a generation with more peanut allergies than ever before. If we don’t begin to increase our exposure to other perspectives and mild discomfort, another generation will set records in both physical and emotional intolerance.
Quote of The Week
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
–University of Chicago Letter to Incoming Freshman, 2016