Do We Have To Be Afraid Of “Coddling Culture”?

To hear some say it, society has gone soft. People are too offended by too many things, there are content and trigger warnings on everything and there’s a growing movement telling people with all sorts of mental illnesses that they aren’t at fault for anything and don’t have to take responsibility for their actions. People are afraid of everything, but they want society as a whole to change so they don’t have to change themselves. If you listen to these arguments long enough you might start feeling afraid for the future of our country (but don’t admit to that fear publicly, you wuss).

I’ve long held that if you really want to find the most offended people in society, look no further than those who can’t seem to stop complaining that people are too offended by everything. No matter who complains about what, they’ll be there to get angry about how everyone else should be like them and not get so angry about things. Don’t think about it too hard.

Nevertheless, I wanted to offer something a little more substantive and optimistic. I don’t think that this progression is out of the ordinary, nor is it anything to be afraid of or scoff at. I think that much of what we see as “coddling culture” comes from what was, until recently, largely invisible, and that it’s an attempt to do right by as many people as possible, even if everything isn’t completely figured out just yet.

Progress happens over time, and it seems like the bar is set further with each generation, but it also seems like each generation has their limits. Current generations may agree that it’s absolutely not okay to call people of different skin colors by certain words (words that their parents and grandparents may have used freely), but start to roll their eyes once someone brings up the subject of pronouns and gender identity. “I’m an open-minded person, but this is just too much!” is a phrase that could come from just about any generation, each person believing wholeheartedly that their ideology represents the pinnacle of progress and equality, and that anything further is simply ludicrous.

So why do people suddenly seem to want all these extra accommodations? What’s with all the new warnings, all the new requests for people to stop using this word or that word? A common complaint is that it’s hard to keep up and hard to remember, and even people who consider themselves involved in it might agree.

But rather than this being the result of spoiled new generations trying to get everything their way, I see a striking new effort towards empathy and consideration. As much as some people might envision these new societal rules being drafted by an evil group of anonymous internet users laughing as they plot their next minor inconvenience for society, it’s not nearly so malicious. Instead, it’s a social exploration like any other, and it comes as an attempt to fill a gap in society that tells anyone with any problem to “walk it off, weakling.”

For communities that deal with mental illness and certain disabilities, it’s a way for people to find each other and take some comfort in knowing that there are reasons for particular thought processes and emotions. It’s also to try to help other people understand what they’re going through, and this isn’t unreasonable; many people simply don’t know. There are still some out there who think that people with depression just need to cheer up, or that people with anxiety or panic disorders just need to calm down. Asking for people to understand how that works, and to request certain accommodations for very real disorders, isn’t pointless coddling — it’s very basic empathy.

Awareness of mental illnesses and exploring the things they can cause you to think and feel also is not the rejection of personal responsibility or fault. Certain things may be beyond a person’s control during an episode, but that’s only an explanation, not an excuse.

Then come the content warnings. You’ll get more complaints that people are too weak here as well, but you’ll also hear claims of censorship, which are a little stranger. Content warnings have nothing to do with censorship; if something were censored, after all, you wouldn’t need to provide warnings for things that people couldn’t read anyway. There are some people who want to ban certain materials they don’t like, but that’s a separate issue.

But there’s nothing wrong with content warnings. We already have them on music tracks, movies and a number of websites. In no way are they dictating what can and cannot be read; it’s simply saying, “Hey, if this subject matter gives you issues, you should be aware that this stuff is in here.” This is helpful for all sorts of people who may not want to discover certain content only after it’s too late. It’s also unfair to assert that this is only legitimate for people suffering PTSD or some other major, life-altering mental issue; that’s like saying you can only ask for a heat warning on an appliance if it’s so hot it’ll burn your face off. You don’t need to hit the point of hyperventilating and crying to ask if there’s something that might make you uncomfortable.

So what does this mean for society? Are we becoming people who can’t handle anything even slightly outside our comfort zones? Hardly. This is simply a change from the way things were a few years ago, which was different from the way things were years before that, and so on. This isn’t some radical new change; it’s just natural progression, just as it always has been. The difference is that it could be going a little faster because of the way the internet has opened up communication to anyone anywhere.

This doesn’t mean it’s all perfect. Some things might seem unreasonable because they are, and some people might appear to be abusing the system because they are. But instead of seeing malice everywhere, think of it instead like people who are exploring new ground and trying to make the world a more accepting place. Instead of seeing weakness, think of it as people who are trying harder to make more people comfortable in a rough world. As much as the macho types might seem to claim it, discomfort has never been a requirement for life.

They may claim that this new culture prevents people from getting ready for the real world, but that’s more of an exaggeration than the idea that a content warning here and there will lead to the weakening of humanity. People will still be capable of understanding that life can suck even after they explain why using a certain word can hurt someone. I feel like people deserve a little more credit than that.

In my view, the idea of “coddling culture” comes from a few different places: frustration at quickly changing rules and concerns over having to walk on eggshells around people, but it can also come from a lack of empathy, or the classic “I’m not upset by this, so if you are, you’re wrong.” And then there’s the faux-psychological claim from definitely-not-psychologists who think that the answer to our world’s problems is just a healthy dose of exposure therapy for everyone.

It’s also worth noting that this covers only a few ideas in regards to “coddling culture,” so if we want to talk about banning content or removing the spirit of competition, that’s another subject for another day.

But I think we’ll be okay. I mean, if we’ve reached a point in societal development where some of us are getting uneasy because people are attempting to be too considerate of each other, I’d say we’re doing all right. It beats the whole war and murder stuff, anyway.

Photo credit: Cass Chin/Flickr


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