Sticks, Stones and Words

How We Can Agree to Disagree

coddling of american mindHas a new generation of Americans lost their ability to confront and debate tough issues? That’s the premise of Jonathan Haidt and his co-author Greg Lukianoff’s newest book, The Coddling of the American Mind.

Haidt and Lukianoff cite one example among many that is driving such a grim, polarized framing of our times. Consider the case of Milo Yiannopoulos at U.C. Berkley in February 2017. Yiannopoulos—an alt-right columnist and arch-provocateur known for making un-nuanced, cutting remarks about everything from abortion to pedophilia as a means to generate outrage that, in turn, generates money—was scheduled to speak on the campus of U.C.B. Opposition to his talk in advance of the lecture manifest itself in failed attempts to both “no-platform” him and have the event shut down through university channels. Intensifying this opposition amongst students were the spread of unverified rumors that Yiannopoulos was going to release the names and addresses of undocumented immigrants attending the school. Fifteen hundred protestors surrounded the venue where Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak. A riot ensued, the talk was canceled, and by sunrise the next morning $500,000 in property damage littered the campus and streets of Berkley, with scores of people hospitalized for a variety of injuries, many of which were obtained through armed assault.

In the aftermath of this awful event two causes came in for heavy criticism as the catalysts of these riots: free speech and social justice advocacy. While the political left blamed the former and the right blamed the latter, Haidt and Lukianoff blame neither. While it is no stretch to imagine that the head of a campus free speech organization would not blame free speech for the riot, many that have scanned reviews of The Coddling of the American Mind might be surprised to learn that both its authors are very much in favor of social justice. In fact, it is one of the primary reasons they wrote the book.

“What we tried to do in the book is to say that if there is a moral or political movement, they’re almost certainly right about something. They’re onto something, there’s something that they’re objecting to. And so, what we did with social justice is we really took it apart and said ‘Okay it’s very hard to define, and students don’t really define it…[However] social justice is a real thing—there are social injustices based on identity…’”

Beginning in 2013, both authors began to notice a marked deterioration in discourse on college campuses that alarmed them. They realized that this breakdown of communication seemed to have a connection with social justice advocacy. As they started examining precisely why university campuses—traditionally held up as exemplars of open-discourse in the pursuit of truth—were becoming more divided and censorious, both authors came to the conclusion that a shift in conceptions of social justice was intersecting directly with a mental health epidemic. The newest generation of college students (labeled ‘iGen,’ and extending from those born in 1995 up to the present) were—at the exact instant colleges became more socially fractious—experiencing sharply increasing levels of depression and anxiety.

The Coddling of the American Mind is Haidt and Lukianoff’s analysis of this convergence of increasingly narrow approaches to social justice and rising levels of mental distress, and their hypothesis of how this confluence affects not just academic culture, but increasingly the whole of society. Their work points to a pair of root causes to these converging phenomena. The first: as a result of well-intentioned Americans attempting to protect their children from virtually every form of danger, parents have shorted an entire generation of psychological resilience as well as moral agency. Working hand-in-glove with this phenomenon, the second factor states that in smartphones loaded with social media apps exacerbate these aforementioned deficits—along with a political climate in the U.S that has been steadily increasing in polarization since the 1980s—and leave members of iGen even more vulnerable to psychological distress.

The immediate consequences of this approach is that it has made, and is making, iGen members “more fragile, anxious, and prone to seeing themselves as victims.” Using the metaphor of the human immune system, the authors argue that “children must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits, and in age-appropriate ways), or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions.” This approach, short-handed in the book as “safetyism”, has been adopted by many parents and has unintentionally propagated what Haidt and Lukianoff refer to as the three great untruths—The Untruth of Fragility, The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning (Always Trust Your Feelings), and The Untruth of Us Versus Them (Life is a Battle Between Good and Evil People). This trinity of psychological attitudes are the primary sources of the mental health epidemic among students and young members of the alt-right confronting them on campuses.

“Paranoid Parenting” is the chief source of the Untruth of Fragility. From creating an adult-epidemic of allergic reactions to peanuts by depriving children of them for fear of choking (a trend beginning in the 1990s), to refusing six and seven year-olds the opportunity to walk a few blocks to the store or a friend’s house for fear of abduction, young people have been unintentionally imprinted with a view of the world as an exceedingly dangerous place (even if, in the case of abductions, recent FBI statistics indicate “99.8% of the time, missing children come home”).

Potentially the most damaging aspect of this no-sharp-corners approach is a decrease in unsupervised play amongst children. A lack of unsupervised play, the authors assert, denies children the ability to work out conflicts on their own. For children that have learned to interact with peers under the unceasing, officiating gaze of adults, it is no surprise if their own transition into adulthood can be marked by a need to turn towards an authority with seemingly absolute power during the course of even the most trivial conflicts—a constrictive approach that impedes children from independently developing conflict resolution skills.

As for the second untruth, that of “Emotional Reasoning,” one of the hallmarks of its insistence to always trust one’s feelings is the over-application of “microaggressions.” Microagressions, according to Haidt and Lukianoff, “refers to a way of thinking about brief and commonplace indignities and slights communicated to people of color (and others)” that can be useful, but, they add, “because the definition includes accidental and unintentional offenses, the word ‘aggression’ is misleading.” Noting that the distinction of intentional and unintentional is crucial in defining an act of aggression in the context of harm, the authors use the example of one person attempting to poison another (even though he fails), and another kissing someone (unbeknownst to her) allergic to peanuts immediately after eating peanut butter and killing them—the second scenario, though someone died, was bereft of aggression, though the first, even if no one was harmed, is not. Students that misuse or over-apply the concept of microagressions to the point of cognitive distortion, the authors note “may be…setting themselves up for higher levels of distrust and conflict” later in life.

Thhe third item in the authors’ trio is: “The Untruth of Us Versus Them.” Haidt and Lukianoff point out that the “human mind evolved for living in tribes that engaged in frequent (and often violent) conflict; our modern-day minds readily divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ even on trivial or arbitrary criteria.” They emphasize that this inborn human tendency towards tribalism can potentially be accelerated as students encounter “intersectional theory” on campuses.

“A popular intellectual framework on campuses today” intersectional theory, or at least particular varieties of it, “teach students to see multiple axes of privilege and oppression that intersect.” While both authors are quite clear that “there are merits to the theory,” both note that “the way it is interpreted and practiced on campus can sometimes amplify tribal thinking” and encourage students to adopt the polarized worldview that “Life is a battle between good people and evil people.” Intersectionality tends to produce what has become termed “identity politics.” The authors identify two types of identity politics. The first, “Common-Humanity Identity Politics,” is characterized by the work of those such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pauli Murray, and encourages “its practitioners humanize their opponents and appeal to their humanity while also applying political pressure in other ways.” The second, “Common-Enemy Identity Politics”, attempts to “unite a coalition using the psychology embedded in the Bedouin proverb ‘I against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.’”

And yet, there is something else, something exacerbating the authors trio of “Untruths” to a dangerous degree. Citing a number of studies chronicling rising rates amongst those in iGen for depression, anxiety, non-fatal self-inflicted injuries, and suicide, Haidt and Lukianoff identify a disturbing trend. The authors indicate an unsettling chronological pattern tracking practically side-by-side with the sharp rise of these alarming conditions. In 2007 the first smartphone was introduced. Just one year prior the grand-dame of social media, Facebook, removed its age requirement for establishing an account. Both authors hypothesize that, “Part of what’s going on may be that devices take us away from people.” Humans are social animals and love to participate in group activities and socialize together. While social media can make it easier for people to form large groups virtually, the authors stress that these “‘virtual’ groups are not the same as in-person connections: they do not satisfy our need for longing in the same way.”

All of which brings us back to Milo Yiannopolous and the events at Berkley. To quote the authors, the “‘Milo Riot’ at UC Berkley on February 1, 2017, marked a major shift in campus protest…people were injured, and there were (as far as we can tell) no costs to those who were violent. Some students later justified the violence as a legitimate form of ‘self-defense’ to prevent speech that they said was violent…two surveys conducted in late 2017 found that substantial minorities of students said it was sometimes ‘acceptable’ for other students to use violence to prevent a speaker from speaking on campus.”

According to Haidt and Lukianoff, the origins of this hyper-charged form of tribalism that exploded at U.C.B are to be found in a disastrous, if well intentioned, epidemic of paranoid parenting stretching back to the 1990s that fostered an insistence to trust one’s feelings that amplified depression and anxiety in young people, both of which have been intensified by ever-present social media. These factors have primed danger-obsessed young adults to construe all disagreement into a threat of mental and physical security of such intensity they were perceived as an imminent existential crisis which must be halted by any means necessary.

Has a new generation of Americans lost their ability to confront and debate tough issues?

If things are this rough, then what is to be done to help both social justice and the mental health of those attempting to achieve it? What is not to be done, and what Haidt and Lukianoff do not suggest—not even for a moment—is the lazy, divisive, finger-pointing accusation of ‘These kids are a bunch of unaccountably frightened, childish, entitled, snowflakes.” Not only would this approach not help the problem, it simply isn’t true. What they do advise in the final two chapters is a recommitment to social justice based on common-humanity identity politics.

From Milo Yiannopoulos to the ethno-nationalist that killed a peaceful protestor in Charlottesville, Virginia, those most opposed to the cause of social justice have at least one thing in common with many of these increasingly depressed and anxious teenagers: they practice common-enemy identity politics. They see “Life as a Battle of Good Versus Evil People”—and possibly for some of the same reasons (a general fear of the world around them fostered in childhood, a refusal to question their feelings, overbearing parental-supervision leading to impaired conflict resolution skills, and the psychologically poisonous effects of excessive social media use) as those on campus.

The authors claim speech is not violence. However, people like Yiannopoulos grow stronger when it is treated as such—they receive more press and more money—and as this happens it becomes easier for them, in moments of doubt to tell themselves that what they do is just on account of the ends they seek necessitating the means they employ.

In a representative democracy, disagreements are not a by-product of the system, they are a central feature—and as much as human beings are thoroughly disagreeable creatures, any system without them is very likely totalitarian. As such, the true danger posed to those in a representative democracy is not the conclusion which someone reaches, but the means which that person puts forward to achieve that end…and the means which someone opposed to them will employ to silence their opinion. Invective, slander, lies, intimidation, calls for violence, acts of violence—these are what one puts forth as a rebuttal to opposing positions when they have so little faith in their own position, or in themselves, that they see the existence of a contradictory idea as threat to their very being.

Haidt and Lukianoff want social justice, but they believe that is possible only if we have enough faith in ourselves that we do not short someone else’s humanity so that we may avoid facing our own cognitive dissonance and overall psychological discomfort. Or, as they put it, “Your Worst Enemy Cannot Harm You as Much as Your Own Thoughts, Unguarded.”

Bennett Elliott is a freelance journalist living and working in Washington, DC.

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