To put it in Victorian terms, 2014 had a case of the vapors. It was all aflutter. It needed smelling salts and a fan, and a good rest on a fainting couch to restore its bearings. It was a year when the national pastime of taking offense and of fearing that someone might be offended reached such parodic levels that Kim Jong Un got in the act.
It used to be that, of all the groups and nations that one had to worry about offending, for politically correct or commercial reasons, the North Koreans simply didn't rate. The "Red Dawn" remake a couple of years ago featured cruel North Korean invaders. In last year's "Olympus Has Fallen," the White House is attacked and occupied by dastardly North Koreans. But 2014 was the year, thanks to the hack of Sony Pictures in retaliation for the spoof movie "The Interview," that even the North Koreans made the "do not offend" list.
It was the year that a scientist made an abject apology for wearing a shirt that offended feminists in a TV broadcast; that Amazon Prime put a label warning of racist content on "Tom and Jerry" cartoons; and that various news outlets refused to say the name of the NFL team from Washington on grounds that even uttering it made them complicit in rank offensiveness.
It was a year when the nation's colleges and law schools cemented their reputations as places where easily offended children go for a few years to become slightly older easily offended children. Colleges canceled appearances by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condi Rice (who technically pulled out of her scheduled Rutgers commencement) and George F. Will for fear students might hear something they disagree with from a figure they object to. The University of California at Irvine offered grief counseling ("in a constructive space") for students upset at the grand-jury decision in the Ferguson case, and Occidental College brought in a religious counselor to comfort students who had volunteered for losing Democratic Senate campaigns.
An open letter from law students at Harvard upset at the nonindictments in the Ferguson and Eric Garner cases captured the spirit of the year, and deserves an honored place in the history of the rhetoric of plaint. Its opening included the stirring declaration "We are in pain. And we are tired." It went on to speak of how "traumatized" the students are (multiple times), and of their "distress" (multiple times). It charged that the school's indifference to "the mental health" of its students violates the Harvard Law School Handbook of Academic Policies.
The upshot was that the aggrieved students wanted the administration to offer them a collective pacifier. "We call," the letter thundered, "for faculty to hold special office hours and for the administration to make culturally competent grief and trauma counselors available in the final weeks of the semester." It demanded more conversations about injustice "in safe spaces created by the administration." And it expected students to be permitted to delay their exams -- because what are the exertions of studying compared with satisfactions of wallowing in a precious self-pity?
The response to these students and their brethren at other elite law schools who made similar appeals should have been "Please, get a grip. If nothing else will buck you up, at least show a little self-respect." If this had been the mettle of the civil-rights movement, it would have collapsed in a puddle of helplessness not long after Rosa Parks was asked to give up her seat.
But that, for all its tragic failings, was a different era. It was before so much time and energy were invested in taking offense and coddling the offended. It was before the nation needed a fainting couch.