How cable TV and sensationalized crime reporting led to ‘cancel culture’


A curmudgeonly Baby Boomer and I were discussing the explosive rise of “cancel culture” on college campuses when he blurted out, “These kids are too fragile. I used to play outside for hours without my parents constantly hovering over me.”

As it turns out, my Boomer friend was on to something.

Parenting in America underwent a profound change in the 1980s. The meteoric rise of cable television and a relentless, crime-obsessed news cycle fueled the perception that violent criminals lurked around every corner. Missing, abducted and murdered children became the topics of breathless news coverage. Parents, consciously or not, embraced a mindset of “That could happen here, to my child.”

Guided by good intentions and a warped, media-driven perception of risk, a generation of hyper-protective “helicopter” parents refused to let their children out of their sight.

The culture of “safetyism,” which overestimates danger, fetishizes safety and allows for zero risk, came to define parenting in America. Parents with more realistic perceptions of danger were shamed into joining this cult of overprotection. Others were forced into conformity by absurd local laws and regulations.

As a result, kids stopped playing outside. Fewer and fewer “free range” children ventured out and scraped their knees exploring the world around them.

The sharp decline of free play also meant that kids stopped resolving conflicts by themselves, without a parent to sort things out for them.

As New York University professor Jonathan Haidt and co-author Greg Lukianoff argue in their groundbreaking book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” the rise of overly protective parents led to a generation of extremely fragile young adults.

University administrators, struggling to cope with mental health epidemics on their campuses, confront this reality on a daily basis. Depression, anxiety and emotional distress have skyrocketed among college students. Perhaps most alarmingly, youth suicide increased 56 percent from 2007 to 2017, surging 70 percent among girls alone.

Of course, the reasons for these disturbing realities are complex. Social media use, academic pressures, staggering student debt and unfulfilling post-college job prospects are undoubtedly contributing factors. But Haidt and Lukianoff are on to something.

By shielding children from all conceivable forms of harm or discomfort, “helicopter” (and now “bulldozer”) parents damage their kids’ ability to surmount adversity, cope with challenging circumstances and – with particular relevance to “cancel culture” – process uncomfortable thoughts or feelings.

In the 1980s, parents sought to protect their children from crime and other forms of physical harm. But a new generation of parents seeks to insulate and isolate their kids from emotional discomfort. Moms now swoop in at the first hint of teasing, insulting or exclusion; circumstances that kids used to navigate without constant intervention by authority figures.

According to Haidt and Lukianoff, exposure to uncomfortable ideas and situations makes young adults resilient, wiser and more independent. Parents’ aggressive infantilizing, on the other hand, destroys their kids’ innate antifragility, fostering emotional and moral dependencies that are tremendously damaging.

When overprotected children reach college, their parents are no longer close by to rescue them from challenging situations and stimuli. The university experience, which – rightly – bombards students with new and often uncomfortable ideas and experiences, becomes intolerably painful for the fragile mind.

This extreme fragility, Haidt and Lukianoff argue, gave rise to trendy concepts such as “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions,” all meant to minimize emotional discomfort on campus. As President Obama noted, such “coddling” is in direct conflict with a fulsome higher education.

Heightened psychological fragility is also likely at the root of an explosive increase in speech policing and shouting down of speakers – sometimes violently – at American universities.

These developments, in tandem with distorted perceptions of “oppression” and a belief that words can amount to physical violence, lie at the root of “cancel culture.”

Also known as “vindictive protectiveness,” cancel culture is best described as “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a binding moral certainty.” Unsurprisingly, it has its detractors, from President Obama to Noam Chomsky.

Haidt and Lukianoff also make a compelling case that “cancel culture” is contagious, with the most coddled young adults spreading their fragility among their peers. Many university administrators amplify and encourage this phenomenon by fostering “safetyism” on campus, setting students up for a catastrophic reckoning with the post-college world.

Importantly, Haidt and Lukianoff note that a significant rise in anxiety disorders and student-driven “disinvitations” of invited speakers began in 2009. A particularly significant spike followed in 2014.

While they emphasize the role of the media in shaping the cultural zeitgeist (and, by extension, behavior), Haidt and Lukianoff appear to have missed two critical developments that are likely linked to the post-2009 spike in fragility among America’s young adults.

Before cable television, national newscasts rarely, if ever, devoted time to individual murders or one-off crimes. But the dawn of the ratings-driven 24-hour news cycle blasted sensationalized media coverage of violence, especially against children, into millions of American homes.

Relentless national media coverage of two gruesome child murders – the 1996 death of JonBenét Ramsey and the 1994 killing of Polly Klaas – very likely affected American parents.

In a supreme irony, CNN reported in 1997 that news watchdog groups ripped the media for “over-emphasizing the Ramsey case” and challenged outlets to “focus on more substantive issues.”

The Wall Street Journal, for its part, published an opinion piece titled, “The Ramseys vs. the Media.” Fox News alluded to a media “feeding frenzy” and “public obsession” with the Ramsey case. Other news outlets echoed these observations.

Interestingly, students who entered college in 2014 – when fragility surged on campus – were born the same year that Ramsey was murdered. Moreover, young adults who were Ramsey’s age when she died began entering college around 2009, the year that “disinvitations” of speakers began gaining traction at American universities.

The theory, therefore, is that relentless, sensationalized media coverage of the Ramsey and Klaas murders led to a spike in parental hyper-protectionism in the mid-1990s. This infantilizing led a generation of fragile young adults to demand that universities protect them from uncomfortable and challenging ideas, a disturbing development that fueled “cancel culture.” Of course, this hypothesis could be wildly off the mark. That is precisely why such ideas should be subject to vigorous, free and open debate. (For what it’s worth, I grew up in a house with no cable TV until I was in high school.)

Ultimately, parents must be reminded that abductions of children by strangers are rare. Violent crime, as a whole, has dropped dramatically over the last three decades. Indeed, there has never been a safer time to be a kid in America.

And yet, 82 percent of mothers cite crime and safety concerns for tightening the reins on their children. The stubborn persistence of myths and fears among America’s parents are a testament to the outsize influence of ratings-driven media and the 24-hour news cycle.

Unless it is actively exported, “cancel culture” appears to be a uniquely American phenomenon. Perhaps this is because homicide rates are five times lower in Europe and Asia than in the United States, and our international peers benefit from an array of widely respected public broadcasters not driven to sensationalist news coverage for the sake of ratings and profit.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.

Tags Barack Obama Cancel culture CNN Fox News Greg Lukianoff Human behavior Jonathan Haidt Microaggression Noam Chomsky the coddling of the american mind Wall Street Journal

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