Have you heard of the Hygiene Hypothesis? It describes how our obsession with cleanliness and sterile homes may be causing the steep increase in allergies we've seen in recent decades. More than one in five children in industrialised countries now suffer from asthma, hay fever or eczema - children who can’t play in the long grass in spring, pat a cat, lie on carpet or go to bed without the crutches of puffers, creams, inhalers, tablets and special clothing. I know, I was one of them.
Through our paranoia of critters that may make us sick, the relative lack of childhood exposure to dirty things may hinder the establishment of immune tolerance. When the immune system is not challenged in the right ways early on, it leads to a perpetually spring-loaded state that snaps in response to the slightest provocation.
I see a parallel between the Hygiene Hypothesis and what is currently occurring on university campuses. Students are developing allergies to ideas. This could be called the ‘Safe Space Hypothesis’: A lack of early university exposure to challenging ideas and hurt feelings is causing idea allergies by suppressing the natural development of critical reasoning skills.
People go to university to mix with other people, different disciplines and competing ideas, and by doing so, develop a kind of intellectual resilience. Comparably, children from large families who live on farms are less likely to experience allergies, presumably due to mixing with brothers and sisters in an environment full of microbes. Peer groups are our large families. Campuses are our farms. It can get a little dirty at times, and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, many disagree.
Safe spaces “guard each person's self-respect, dignity and feelings and strongly encourage everyone to respect others”. How is it achieved? Too often now, by excluding unwanted facts, ideas, and, ultimately, people. The censorship imposed by safe-space-type policies have been widespread, whose numerous cases have included cancellation of talks by feminists, journalists, fighters of ISIS, political parties and authors.
Erika Christakis, Yale lecturer in early childhood education, was forced to leave her job (as did her husband, Nicholas Christakis) after sending an email to students declining to impose rules on Halloween dress-code. “I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation… [But] this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.” Encouraging adults to exercise common-sense when deciding what costumes to wear has somehow become an indefensibly controversial thing to say.
Just as a disinfected childhood may increase the chance of innocuous dusts and pollens triggering allergic reactions, intellectually sterile campuses are turning words and ideas into “triggers”. Triggers can be of great concern for people suffering from panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder, however exactly what is being triggered has seemingly loosened to include disagreement and embarrassment. As a result, the list of offending topics proposed by some students is endless, who's remedy through warnings and avoidance is intellectually stifling.
Evolutionary behavioural scientist Gad Saad searched various websites to produce a list of topics purported to pose triggers risks. As Gad rightly pointed out, “nearly every imaginable issue worthy of scientific exploration could conceivably fall under the "trigger warning" rubric”. For allergic children, it is essentially impossible to find a place to be free from a wheezy chest, itchy skin or runny nose. Similarly, there is no place for students to have a trigger-free university education, unless one confines their college life to the most delicate and pristine of conditions, like an intellectual “Bubble Boy”.
Occasionally microbes do break our defense systems - we get infected and are treated with antibiotics. But as many know, repeatedly and incompletely eradicating bacteria with antibiotics leads to the development of resistant strains. Through Darwinian survival of the fittest, microbes left standing are untouched by the drug, and we are at the mercy of what is left standing. Analogously, in a sub-culture of thought police within a larger democratic society, dissenting individuals will not be completely removed from campuses. Though not necessarily incorrect, those that remain will be the most tenacious and resistant; unrestrained by normal rules of conversation, surviving and thriving through airhorns, fire alarms and fake blood. The more amenable ideas, like more common bacteria, will be killed off in an environment where only the most dogged can survive.
Impeccable cleanliness may seem like a good thing, but letting children put dirty things in their mouths may protect them from developing a trigger-happy immune system. Likewise, exposing students to difficult ideas can help prevent overly-sensitive minds. Children who play in the mud do occasionally fall ill, and some students are indeed subjected to racism, sexism and overt psychological distress, but is excessive sanitisation the answer?
As Dave Rubin has said, “Because of the authoritarian crusade to shelter young people from ideas that might challenge them, we've created safe spaces where once we had rigorous debate and we issue trigger warnings where we once were brave enough to hear ideas that would make us uncomfortable.”
* [Note: The link between early microbe exposure and allergies/autoimmune diseases is complex and not yet sufficiently understood. The current evidence does not suggest parents forego basic hygiene measures, cleanliness and healthcare.]