Mary Gaitskill, a novelist who teaches creative writing courses as a visiting professor at several universities, made the observations in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Gaitskill said that despite constant efforts to make campuses “safe,” students in her classes, especially white males, are writing violent and degenerate fantasies, and many students have spent time in mental institutions.
“Anyone who isn’t living in off-grid isolation is aware of the tireless efforts by hyperconscious campus administrations to create classrooms where everyone feels safe and as few people as possible will be made ‘uncomfortable,’ let alone unhappy,” Gaitskill wrote, citing “trigger warnings” and training modules about rape and sexual harassment as examples. The college she wrote about doubled down on these practices: including fewer white male authors on syllabi, more training modules, more anti-racist teacher trainings, and more language rules.
Most people, even those affected by real incidents of hate and discrimination, “might fairly mock the corrective apparatus” as “ridiculous” or “dictatorial,” Gaitskill added. “The deeper trouble is that it is ineffectual and confusing.” She pointed to an instance where a white male student used the phrase “toxic masculinity” without knowing what it meant; the student told her that he learned it at freshman orientation, and to him “it meant entitled men treating women badly.” This student did not take issue with the idea of “toxic masculinity.” But “less confident, less sophisticated young men — those with the most vulnerable self-esteem — might find it disconcerting to be told, no matter how sensitively it was put, that the trait that they have grown up considering desirable, their most basic default identity, is now toxic,” she wrote. “This does not seem to me a minor side effect.”
Gaitskill then recounted the stories of several students in her class. One student, Luke, approached her for permission to write a story about violent rape, murder, and necrophilia, in the first person. She rejected the idea because such horrific material would get administration involved, and she didn’t want that. But moreover, she told the student that it was hard to empathize with such violent individuals. “You’re completely wrong,” the student replied. “They do understand why they do it.”
That student eventually wrote a story with graphic depictions of self-harm. Another student wrote an account of an attempted suicide that turned out to be autobiographical. In all, four of the eight students in her class wrote about suicide: two wrote about their own suicide attempts; two wrote about friends, one of whom died; one was written by a girl who had known four people in her home town who had attempted or committed suicide, and she was trying to understand them. In all cases, Gaitskill recounted that the stories were filled with despair, either directed at a particular social issue, or simply personal, but “vivid” and “intense.”
Gaitskill talked with a counselor who had been working with Luke. During their conversation, the counselor said that “mental-health issues were ‘through the roof,’ that a number of students had already been sent home in that calendar year to receive care; in some cases, their parents had to be persuaded to accept them back.” The counselor also said that mental health had been declining for years. Gaitskill then provided a disturbing email Luke had sent to her. The counselor said the email wasn’t enough to act on. So Gaitskill offered to forward her the email. The counselor said no, “[b]ecause if I see it, I’ll have to do something.”
Gaitskill concluded that the students feel this way because they are constantly exposed to large-scale social issues, such as mass shootings, climate change, police brutality, disinformation, and others. Instead, they are looking for a sense of safety by fixating on problems they can control, such as offensive words, gender ideology, and toxic masculinity, even though the apparatus built around solving those problems offers no safety. “The only thing I can say for sure is that the young deserve better,” she wrote.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free hotline for individuals in crisis or distress or for those looking to help someone else. It is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.