Friday, April 9, 2021

The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

One of the frequently cited rationales for colleges and other groups restricting speech and mandating both certain forms of speech and behavior has been to maintain or increase vulnerable people's sense of safety.

The problem, as many people have noted, is that the world isn't particularly safe and the effort to make it so approaches more and more the kind of totalitarian ideology associated with dictatorships and closed societies. Freedom and safety are not necessarily incompatible but they have a limited ability to coexist; at some point they're in a zero-sum relationship where one is gained at the expense of the other. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote about some of the causes of the struggle many institutions are having trying to manage commitments to both in a cover story for The Atlantic magazine in 2015. They expanded that article and added more current data in a 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind.

Many people's first instinct might be to dismiss a book with this title as the cranky rantings of a couple of righties upset because colleges don't make students memorize the Ten Commandments and recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. But neither Lukianoff nor Haidt qualify; the former is a liberal free-speech advocate and the latter an atheist professor of psychology who began his work in the field in order to help Democratic candidates win elections.

While they do investigate some real-world phenomena that aggravate the problems they try to describe, such as unhealthy use of social media and its capacity to magnify bullying, Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that the core of the issue is more philosophical. Too many people in society, especially in education, have embraced "three great untruths," the say, which has created the conditions for our problems. The untruths are the idea that what does not kill us -- i.e. hardship -- damages and weakens us, rather than helping his grow as we survive it. The second is that we should always trust our feelings, especially in cases where they tell us something different than our reason might and the third is that all of life is a battle between good people and evil people.

The interaction and interplay of these three ideas leads us to most of the modern ills that cause friction in our society, whether along existing fault lines like political differences or previously unremarkable ones. Microaggressions, identity politics, intersectionality and the like grow from the untruths as does the utopian vision of "safetyism." They say that people or institutions for which safety as the paramount concern can justify almost any action necessary to maintain it, no matter what rights of others it may infringe.

Lukianoff and Haidt lay out their case pretty convincingly and it's not as though every day's news stories don't provide even more examples of the problems they're trying to warn about and perhaps solve. They do offer some solutions but it's hard to see how those can take root before society simply swings so far in one direction it has to swing back or collapse. The sort of lethargic inertia that watched these matters develop doesn't seem likely to get out of the way in order for positive steps to be taken. And in the end, some of the people who might be prompted to think about where we are and how we got her might be the first ones to turn their nose up at a book that suggests their choices and actions are leading us towards even more polarization. No mind, whether coddled or otherwise, is very interested in admitting it's been part of the problem.

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