One recent night, in the midst of classic midnight dorm room discussion, my good friend Jonathan brought up the knotty topic of mental health: how much can one blame outside encouragement, to put it lightly, for things like suicide? More generically, to what extent is the mind controlled by influences beyond our reach?
To understate it, suicide is a touchy issue. It’s tragic, heart-ripping, and often unexpected and incomprehensible. For many developed countries, it is the scourge of our time, and it goes far too unnoticed until it becomes politically expedient to notice it. Lately, the Left has seized upon mental health issues, a trend that had me initially confused. We continue to see the general social campaign tactics, like raising awareness and fighting stigma and so forth, but there’s little about those things that conservatives should argue with. Indeed, conservatives should hold dear the intrinsic value of every life. There should not be political disagreement over mental health issues, and there really hasn’t been; it’s a new phenomenon. But why? Especially on university campuses, why are so many progressives digging subterranean battle trenches under this rare spot of accord? Why make mental health an issue?
I ended up conversing heatedly with my friend Rohan, an ambitious and passionate future neuroscientist, about a subject I knew very little about: the brain. Being an English major but a champion bullshitter (the two actually tend to go hand in hand), I wasn’t about to back down from a battle, one-sided though it may have been. Biological influence came into play after Rohan held that conditioning could influence the brain beyond one’s control. Eventually, so the argument went, one develops an obligation, like Pavlov’s dogs, to simply respond. Suicide is only an extreme example, a result of perhaps years of such ‘conditioning’ that could assumedly cause other mental illnesses.
Although rohan may not have known it, he made a great case for the safe space. The battle for free speech right now is being fought in academia, but it’s not being fought well. Leftist professors and pseudo-academics are increasingly churning out support for the argument that language can present clear and present danger. After all, if we are nothing more than the product of some haphazard chemical processes and the oppressive shaping of our society, blame gets shifted around a bit. Safe spaces have borne their fair share of ridicule over the course of their recent intrusion, but few conservatives get to the core of why they’re so fundamentally wrong. It’s more than just pampered elitists getting easily offended; after all, the contemporary Left brands itself as dangerous, nonconformist and hard-hitting, breaking socially constructed oppressive barriers with a judo chop of some kind that isn’t an appropriation of East Asian cultures. In their own eyes, the radical Left is all about invading traditionally “safe” spaces like the church or the academy or the Boy Scouts. The campus safe space issue goes deeper than just a liberal double standard. While conservatives have correctly gone after safe space’s repercussions against free speech, they tend to fall short of attacking the root of the problem. Repression of free speech in the academy springs from the idea that a person is the result of his (xis?) environment. Whether that environment is of nurture or nature (is not the body an environment of the mind?) is of little difference, and both arguments are utilized and interlinked; the main point is that the onus of personal responsibility is shifted from the actor to some other source, a trigger, if you will. The Left causally links trauma, PTSD, anxiety, and other mental disturbances to external factors, typically the great boogeyman of oppression. Take, for example, ReAnn Pickett’s Time Magazine article: “Safe spaces can have powerful therapeutic purposes for those who enter them. . . . A lack of safe spaces can compound the mental toll of racism, even subtle racism. . . . A critical phase of healing involves reclaiming power and control in positive ways.” (http://time.com/4471806/trigger-warnings-safe-spaces/) A more thoughtful, less identity-based article by Ashutosh Bhagwat and John Inazu likewise supports the idea of a safe space on psychological grounds, additionally comparing safe spaces to socially important places of association like taverns in pre-Revolutionary America or gay bars in the 60s (https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/03/21/easily-caricatured-safe-spaces-can-help-students-learn-essay). Anywhere you look, whether the author has “owner of ten cats” or “Nelson Mandela Fellow at Yale University” after their name, the argument will remain much the same: safe spaces are necessary for psychological healing and social change. For the critical Left, it’s about more than just exposure to different ideas: it’s about first establishing the right to exist, about preventing psychological issues that lead to grade slippage, rage, obesity, death, you name it. Conservatives should not diminish the value of these issues. Instead, we should examine the faulty logic of the safe space argument.
The state of modern academia leads us to leave the dubious link between white guy dreads and impending mental illness alone for right now. Additionally, no one could reasonably dispute that conditions like PTSD are indeed externally triggered. Like I said, conservatives should take mental health issues seriously. However, taking an issue seriously doesn’t mandate the acceptance of liberal thought. More fundamentally important is the thesis that the actions of another person and one’s own psychology can force one outside the realm of their own judgment. Marxism always requires a victim, double entendre intended, and thus requires an oppressor, too. Arguably, it may just be human nature to want to foist personal responsibility on something else, like fate or astrology. Our postmodern age is no different; maybe we’ve just traded the sidereal for the biological or societal. I am, and thus I think—that sums up the leftist principle of personal decision. Many once thought we were controlled by stars, and now the enlightened understand that it’s actually dopamine and white Christians. Conservatism should be a lone voice crying out in this historical wilderness, a little pinprick on the timeline of civilization reminding the world that, tragically, it’s just up to you. Words have power—of that I am intimately aware. However, to claim that someone’s speech can render others unable to control themselves is to rob individuals of their agency. If human thought is but driftwood buffeted by society and biology, the individual cannot steer himself.
I recall how just before Trinity’s NSO Diversity Lecture, all of the speakers were sitting in an empty Laurie Auditorium, giving their prepared speeches for practice. Before I presented mine and received a lot of very gentle suggestions to maybe take out all that stuff about race being unimportant, my friend Camila told the story of her grandmother’s tenacity in the face of discrimination and familial responsibilities (responsibilities, I might add, that present-day feminists would urge her to abandon). One professor said, “that’s great, that’s inspiring, but remember you don’t want to send the message that just anybody can lift themselves up by their bootstraps, or anything like that.” Inspiring indeed. Yes we can! . . . But no, you can’t.
Just as personal responsibility is the cornerstone of conservative economic thought, so must it be for the mind. The implications of materialism—also called historicism, the belief that all ideas and people can only be understood through historical or material processes—are hollow and horrifying. Free will becomes a weakling myth against to the ineluctable forces of one’s status or physiology. Although the concept in its purest form really only enjoys influence in university dissertations, it’s spread its tentacles into the public. We see it on the news every time a terrorist strikes and it had to have been his parents, his hometown, his mental health, anything but his choice of belief. We see it in the courtroom when people are convicted for encouraging suicide—a despicable thing to do, to be sure, but it doesn’t rob someone of their own personal agency. Life itself to the modernist becomes nothing more than the result of chemical luck.
Je pense, donc je suis. I think, therefore I am. I won’t go so far as to embrace Descartes’ sentiment as down-the-line conservative thought, but as far as free will goes, conservatives should embrace the idea that individuals control themselves, not that their state of being predicates their thoughts and actions. We should reject the materialist idea that we think because of what we are. Otherwise, the societal enslaves the individual. A person who is at the mercy of their society thus loses all control. That is true oppression.
Interestingly enough, my friend Rohan has a devoted interest in Stoic philosophy, which is all about overcoming the forces that seek to conquer the pure will. Just as a little prophecy of Isaiah, somewhere down the line that belief will clash with his self-professed materialism—but then again, he can choose to ignore that.