A Harvard Psychiatrist Explains Our Social Justice 'Worriers'

Harold Bursztajn, M.D., on a Generation in Terrible Pain

We call them “Social Justice Warriors,” to poke fun at their self-seriousness. We think of them as the force behind cancel culture—of employee walkouts, “safe spaces”—and so many riots wrecking our streets. But Harvard Medical School Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Harold Bursztajn, sees them as something else: anguished and fearful proto-adults.

This is “Generation Z”—born in 1995 and after—and it has little memory of life before the smartphone. Members confess to being online “almost constantly”—over 4 hours per day. Bursztajn believes this experience accounts for this generation’s psychological frailty and its radical politics.

“Cyberspace emphasizes binary logic,” he told me, a heavy Polish-Yiddish accent sleeving his words. “This generation seems to be thinking in either/or terms. One of the things I have always loved about modal logic is you can answer yes and no at the same time. But I think in this cyberspace, everything-goes faster-age . . . people subscribe to more conventional stereotypes and dichotomies, rather than being able to go ahead and take the time to consider complexities; that you can feel both ways about some things.”

Tech lovers often present social media as a creative medium for connecting human beings, but Bursztajn points out that the opposite is true: it is, by definition, utterly defined. He believes that young people are picking up habits of intellectual rigidity from the adamantine nature of their online world.

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Harold Bursztajn, M.D., in his office in Cambridge, MA

I met Dr. Bursztajn for the first time almost two years ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he has treated university students for decades. Last fall, I interviewed him again, over Skype and the phone. He has the gentle manner of a doctor who treads lightly with patients—and the rapid, discursive speech of a scholar whose articulation can barely keep pace with his thought.

Bursztajn was born in Lodz, Poland, to two of a handful of Jewish survivors of the Lodz Ghetto, which at various times housed 200,000 Jews. When they were still teenagers, his mother, Miriam, lost her father and a brother in the Holocaust, and his father, Abraham, lost his parents and all seven of his siblings. Bursztajn is no stranger to the notion that life can be cruel, privations can sting, and that adolescence can be both painful and confusing. But when he describes his parents’ heroic efforts to find each other and cling to life, to make their way to America—he has not pity but admiration.

By contrast, this generation seems helpless and hopeless. Why — I asked him — did this generation possess the highest recorded rates of anxiety, depression and suicide—and the lowest rates of sex or physical intimacy? These young Americans may be as radical as Flower Children, but they seem incapable of organizing a Woodstock or hosting a “Love In.” Where was their Kumbaya? What put the damper on their “Good Vibrations”?

Based on his thousands of hours administering psychotherapy to university students, Bursztajn believes it is the online life they lead which renders them anxious, unhappy, and emotionally malnourished. Social media trains them to divide humanity into allies and enemies. It offers them little basis for hope. Their online world is not a new-age vista of possibility, but rigid series of high-stakes social contests, in which players rack up “likes” and form alliances, but never actual friendships. “To the extent that you’re dealing with a culture of algorithms, not all things are possible—only the things in the algorithms,” he explained.

He is struck that so many among this generation are quick to offer up clichés in place of their own thoughts and feelings, and to identify as being a member of this or that ideological tribe. “I think it’s terrifying for people to be a work-in-progress because in your family if you are a work-in-progress, they won’t kick you out of the house probably. . . But in cyberspace, if you are a work-in-progress, you get kicked out.” You are ridiculed or blocked. Your friends don’t merely tease you or refuse your calls. They make you disappear.

Real intimacy requires “transitional space,” explains Bursztajn—perhaps what we used to think of in a romantic context as “flirting.” A dozen low-risk encounters that help you get to know someone in a casual way, free from mass observation. But social media, with its structural absolutism, does not allow for that. Since anything you say or write can now be permanently memorialized on the internet, there’s little margin of error and certainly no forgiving and forgetting. “You have to get very defensive,” he says. “If you can’t say something stupid to your intimate partner and then say, ‘Oh, yeah, that was kind of stupid’”—and have it be your private experience, and the two of yours alone, then you’ve never allowed yourself the vulnerability real relationships require.

Bursztajn believes the online experience of GenZ kids is not unlike that of Marsyas, the great flutist of Greek mythology, who challenged the god Apollo to a flute playing contest. Confident he would win, Marsyas agreed that if he lost, Apollo could flay him alive. Marsyas played beautifully, but of course, he was no match for a god. In some sense, Apollo defeated him, but in a more important sense—Bursztajn emphasizes—he defeated himself, by competing with a divine standard no human can achieve.

Social media is “just driving the anxiety way up, and then compounding the suffering of being human. If everything is do or die—if there’s no room for play, no room for irony, there’s no room for making mistakes, everything is absolute perfection,” he said. Emotionally-speaking, we all end up flayed alive.

Time, says Bursztajn, is the missing dimension of online life. “I think for the older generation, there was some time. Some time to reflect. And I’ve written about extreme personality changes after catastrophic experiences—even with those, there was some opportunity for people then to be able to recover.” Time allows for deeper relationships, as it enables people to reflect on their experiences and feelings and reconsider their actions without immediate consequence.

But when we ‘get to know’ people online—as so many in this generation do—the technology requires an immediate reaction (likes or reaction emojis or comments) often with dramatic results (sarcasm, “dunking,” or unfriending). We are asked, constantly, to “vote” in binary ways on “friends” with whom we have barely developed any depth of relationship or rich feeling. And how could we? What real relationship can develop while constantly being publicly evaluated through an endless rigmarole of real-time polls?

Online existence teaches us to be tightfisted with our time, demanding immediate and permanent reaction. If someone offends you online, your response is swift and resolute. There is no time for a remark to soften or a hurt to mellow, as it might when less publicly borne. “Today the demand is for everything to be faster, faster, faster. There’s no time. And when there is no time, then everything seems do-or-die. There is no time to reflect, no time to do over, no time to make a mistake and recover from it. It’s a huge amount of pressure.”

This is the digital root of cancel culture—the one that exists even among groups of “friends” on social media. And it does not truck with moderation. Punishment for dissent or misstep is swift and decisive. Failure to please or conform is met with banishment. “You begin to see everyone as whether they will add points to you or subtract points from your overall score,” he said. “And if they’re going to subtract points from your overall score then, as with these single-shooter video games, your object is to destroy them -- if not physically, then at least by humiliating them.” As online personas, young people are no more than the sum of their allegiances, and thus the fungible members of any group. Their identities are thus predictably fragile. And of course, any “community” that would banish members for considering a dissenting view, isn’t much of a community at all. Online political life, for this generation, is often performative—driven by fear of mass rejection or cancellation.

One might be inclined, at this point, to object to Bursztajn’s assessment. Yes, sure, there’s social media, but there’s also the pandemic, lockdown, joblessness, and economic insecurity. These kids have more than one thing to be anxious about. All true. Then, again, Bursztajn knows more than most about hardship and privation. And he knows that the relationships that nourish us, can help us flourish in even the direst circumstances.

At 24, his father, Abraham, began work as a fekalist, or sanitation worker in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland. He was beaten, tortured, and shot in the leg. A Jewish doctor in the ghetto removed the bullet one night with a hanger fashioned into a probe. At night, Abraham and others dug a tunnel beneath the sewers, smelly enough to avoid detection by dogs. Of the more than 200,000 Jewish members of the Ghetto, Abraham and another Ghetto occupant, Miriam—who would become his wife—were among a handful of its survivors. After the war, they never rioted or looted or burned businesses. They remained in Lodz, where they had a daughter and then Bursztajn. When he was nine, they boarded a ship for America.

A photograph taken in 1945 of Miriam Briks Bursztajn and Abraham Bursztajn shortly after the liberation of the Lodz Ghetto at the restoration of the gravestone for her mother.

Abraham worked in a carton factory and, at night, altered clothes out of a rented flat in Patterson, New Jersey. Miriam took care of the home and the children. Their life was materially modest; they had few living relatives. But they were rich in memory. They raised three children in a world of complexity. They told their children of a German soldier who confessed to Miriam’s father his shame at the cause he served. They spoke of a Jewish doctor in the ghetto who, lacking any medicine or bandages with which to treat Abraham after his beatings, supplied him with hope. They took heart in Jewish ritual and in the simple miracle of each other.

“As a kid, my earliest fantasy was to do time travel,” Bursztajn said. The son of a man with little formal education who never mastered English, Bursztajn headed to Princeton to study physics. “Because my fantasies were that I could go back in time and rescue the people from Auschwitz and all that. That ain't going to happen, right?” He decided to study medicine.

When he talks of his parents, he sometimes becomes choked up, touched by the loss. And this, of course, is the tragedy of intimacy and of love—that the people to whom it attaches us will leave us. We retain only their memory. But, he insists, it is far more frightening to exist in a world where you never formed these attachments at all.

Pursued by social media’s pitiless Star Chamber, today’s young adults scramble for “safe spaces.” But if they can extricate themselves from the bottomless bogs of online rage, the psychological rewards of actual in-person attachments are endless. Among its many blessings, the simple truth that most of us are neither monsters nor saints. Life may come to seem more complex but also more bearable. And the prospect of turning the country over to them, less disquieting to the rest of us.