After three seasons with little flu activity, the dreaded illness came back with a fury. In the last few weeks, almost every family I know has been hit by either the flu, Covid-19, RSV, or some combination of them, leaving people feeling as sick as they have ever been and taking weeks to recover their strength and shake their cough.
Why are people, particularly children, getting sick with every virus, all at once? According to many experts, we are paying back a collective “immunity debt.”
Though far from accepted by all, according to many, the result of the locking down, distancing, masking and sterilizing surfaces is an immune system that isn’t primed, engaged, and ready to fight what comes its way. That isn’t to say those weren’t correct policies at the time, rather it is to recognize that there was an unintended consequence, immunity debt that was incurred when we essentially pampered and protected our systems so they were unprepared or primed to withstand the viruses that came their way. Paying off debt is never fun and it especially hurts when the currency is viruses and respiratory diseases.
When I read about this phenomenon, I thought not about the flu or Covid, but about its implications or analog in the world of our emotions and mental well-being.
In December, Stanford University’s IT department introduced the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative with a long list of words and phrases it considers “potentially harmful” and suggestions of an alternative word or term. “Guys” is considered “gender-based” and it groups people into gender binary groups and recommend using “folks,” “people,” or “everyone,” instead. “American” is discouraged because it “refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas (which is actually made up of 42 countries)”.
Stanford’s committee recommends instead to use “U.S. citizen.” At Stanford, you can’t “master” your subject, as “historically, masters enslaved people.” Studies should never be “blind,” they should better be described as “masked.” Don’t write a “white paper,” since it “assigns value connotations based on color, an act which is subconsciously racialized.” Stay away from “war room,” which represents the “unnecessary use of violent language.” Ironically, it suggested not using “trigger warning” because “the phrase can cause stress about what’s to follow.”
Not surprisingly, the list generated significant backlash and pushback causing the university to take down the website a few weeks ago, almost immediately after it had launched. Steve Gallagher, Stanford's chief information officer, wrote: “The feedback that this work was broadly viewed as counter to inclusivity means we missed the intended mark. It is for this reason that we have taken down the EHLI site.”
It turns out that cancelling the use of trigger warning was triggering for those who want to be able to speak freely. This episode and this failed attempt are a great illustration of the challenge to find the careful balance between promoting and pushing for sensitivity, while not creating an environment with an unintended consequence of over-sensitivity.
On the one hand, we should be intolerant of abusive, inconsiderate, and insensitive language that unnecessarily hurts and harms people. But on the other, we need to build people’s resilience and toughness to not be so sensitive to the point they are harmed or injured by words that had no negative intentions. We have made enormous progress in promoting more sensitive language but at the same we must not create such a regulated and sterilized world in which the slightest insensitivity will trigger victimhood and injury.
Are we unintentionally creating an emotional immunity debt that paradoxically puts the very people we are trying to protect in greater danger of being harmed?
Prominent NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently argued that Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012), has been set up for failure due to a confluence of social media, bad parenting, and a culture that emphasizes victimhood. Gen Z’ers are "fragile," he says, unable to cope effectively with the normal stresses and challenges of adulthood.
In their book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Haidt and co-author Greg Lukianoff coined the expression Safetyism. “Safetyism refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people are unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.” They argue that all this protection, hypersensitivity and “safetyism” is in fact breeding anxiety, depression and the danger of significant mental health challenges.
When it comes to allergies, the thinking used to be the more precautions the better. More and more schools went nut-free to protect those with dangerous allergies. But it turns out, studies showed that allergy-free zones were not only ineffective in keeping people safe, they were often counterproductive because allergy sufferers developed a false sense of security. Researchers noticed that Israel has a relatively low rate of allergies in general and one allergy in particular, peanuts, which is strange considering that not only do Israelis not shield children from peanuts, they bring them up eating them in the form of Bamba. Ultimately, a study found that 1.9% of children with allergy risk factors who were fed peanuts developed an allergy by their fifth birthday while among children not given peanuts, the figure was 13.9%. In other words, they found if you don’t want your children to develop a peanut allergy, don’t create an environment free of peanuts, feed them peanuts early and often.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we expose children to hurtful and insensitive language early or often so that they don’t later have an allergic reaction when they hear it. It should be a universal belief that people should always take care with the words and language they use and certainly avoid saying anything to intentionally harm or offend. People must also understand that sometimes their words can genuinely harm even if they did not intend to.
However, I do believe that our effort to create an environment preventing exposure to anything “triggering” can have the unintended negative consequence of lowering our “immunity” and heightening our “allergic reactions” when something is said or written. We must not raise an overly delicate and fragile generation who can become emotionally injured or paralyzed too easily.
When Man is created, the Torah tells us, וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה, “God blew into Man’s nostrils a Soul of life, and he became a living creature.” Targum Unklus explains “living creature” means “a speaking spirit.” What differentiates people from animals is our power of speech. Indeed, Shlomo HaMelech (Mishlei 18:21) warns us: מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁוֹן, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
Classically, this is understood as a caution to be vigilant and careful in our use of words and to ensure we don’t harm others with them. Perhaps, though, it is also a warning not to allow our life or death, or happiness or sadness to be determined by the words of others. Our job is to both be sensitive with how we speak to, and about others, but also not be overly sensitive regarding how others speak to us.
We must condition ourselves and our children towards sensitivity while also building our resilience and tenacity. We must not relinquish our happiness or well-being to the comments or even actions of others. Let’s not create a collective emotional immunity debt or coddle those around us in a way that unintentionally harms the very people we are committed to protect and keep safe.