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September 19, 2018 | By More

In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Attorney Greg Lukianoff (founder of FIRE) and moral psyhchologist Jonathan Haidt address America’s mushrooming inability to engage in productive civil discourse. Increasing numbers of people are claiming that they cannot cope with ideas that challenge their own world view. They sometimes claim that ideas that challenge their own ideas are “not safe.” In dozens of well-publicized cases, rather than work to counteract “bad” ideas with better ideas, they work to muzzle speaker by disrupting presentations or even running the purportedly offensive speakers off campus.

There is a related and growing problem. We cannot talk with each other at all regarding many many important issues. We shout each other down and use the heckler’s veto. These maladies are especially prominent on some American college campuses, but these problems are also rapidly spreading to the country at large, including corporate America.

Consider this 2016 example featuring the students of Yale having a “discussion” with Professor Nicholas Christakis:

You would never guess it from this video alone, but this mass-meltdown was triggered after child development specialist Erika Christakis (wife of Nicholas), sent this email to students.?This incident at Yale is one of many illustrations offered by Haidt and Lukianoff as evidence of a disturbing trend. ?Here’s another egregious example involving?Dean Mary Spellman at Claremont McKenna College who was run out of her college after committing the sin of writing this email to a student. ?More detail here.?

The authors offer this as the genesis of the overall problem:

In years past, administrators were motivated to create campus speech codes in order to curtail what they deemed to be racist or sexist speech. Increasingly, however, the rationale for speech codes and speaker disinvitations was becoming medicalized: Students claimed that certain kinds of speech—and even the content of some books and courses—interfered with their ability to function. They wanted protection from material that they believed could jeopardize their mental health by “triggering” them, or making them “feel unsafe.”

The solution offered by Lukianoff and Haidt is to take a moment to stop to recognize what they call the “Three Bad Ideas.”

The First Bad Idea: The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker. People are like bones and immune systems. If they are not challenged, they weaken.

Just as spending a month in bed . . . leads to muscle atrophy, complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors. Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top- down policies and contraptions . . . which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems. This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most.

Instead of running speakers off campus because some students disagree with them, we need to teach students that they will be stronger and smarter when exposed to ideas that challenge them. Universities are great places to do this. As Lukianoff and Haidt argue, what would we think about schools that didn’t challenge their students with new ideas, many of them uncomfortable?

The Second Bad Idea: The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings.

Although we should sometimes trust our feelings, that is often not a good ideas. Sometimes our feelings are misleading us. When our feelings are substantially misleading us, we might need psychotherapy, such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). CBT has been repeatedly proven to help people who have the following cognitive distortions:

EMOTIONAL REASONING: Letting your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”

CATASTROPHIZING: Focusing on the worst possible outcome and seeing it as most likely. “It would be terrible if I failed.”

OVERGENERALIZING: Perceiving a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”

DICHOTOMOUS THINKING (also known variously as “black-and-white thinking,” “all-or-nothing thinking,” and “binary thinking”): Viewing events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”

MIND READING: Assuming that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”

LABELING: Assigning global negative traits to yourself or others (often in the service of dichotomous thinking). “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.” NEGATIVE

FILTERING: You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”

DISCOUNTING POSITIVES: Claiming that the positive things you or others do are trivial, so that you can maintain a negative judgment. “That’s what wives are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”

BLAMING: Focusing on the other person as the source of your negative feelings; you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”

The authors point out that these are the symptoms of the current dysfunction on some campuses. ?The adults of the world are encouraging this dysfunction, albeit unwittingly.

The authors also criticize the way “microagressions” are being used on campus:

By encouraging students to interpret the actions of others in the least generous way possible, schools that teach students about microaggressions may be encouraging students to engage in emotional reasoning and other distortions while setting themselves up for higher levels of distrust and conflict.

Haidt and Lukianoff point out that these types of cognitive distortions are increasingly being encouraged on campus. They urge that we need to break the feedback cycle betweeen negative beliefs and negative emotions. Doing this might open the students up to questioning their increasingly negative beliefs. They suggest we look to the success of CBT in order to do that. CBT has been quite successful in teaching people to recognize when they are engaging in cognitive distortions. ?Psych Central summarizes CBT as follows:

CBT is based on a model or theory that it’s not events themselves that upset us, but the meanings we give them. If our thoughts are too negative, it can block us seeing things or doing things that don’t fit – that disconfirm – what we believe is true. In other words, we continue to hold on to the same old thoughts and fail to learn anything new. . . .?Cognitive-behavioral therapy acts to help the person understand that this is what’s going on. It helps him or her to step outside their automatic thoughts and test them out. CBT would encourage [a depressed person] to examine real-life experiences to see what happens to her, or to others, in similar situations.

The Third Bad Idea: The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life Is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People.

Many students are increasingly seeing Life as a Battle Between Good People and Evil People. Humans are wired to be tribal, especially in tough times, and this Manichean approach to humanity brings out the worst in us.

There is the moral dualism that sees good and evil as instincts within us between which we must choose. But there is also what I will call pathological dualism that sees humanity itself as radically . . . divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad. You are either one or the other.

It is in this chapter that Haidt and Lukianoff discuss Identity Politics:

“Identity politics” is a contentious term, but its basic meaning is simple Jonathan Rauch, a scholar at The Brookings Institution, defines it as “political mobilization organized around group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality, as opposed to party, ideology, or pecuniary interest.”

The authors are not opposed to the early form of identity politics. For instance, they applaud Martin Luther King’s version of “common-humanity identity politics. He was trying to fix a gaping wound—centuries of racism.”

They urge that everyone, everywhere ought to be doing their best to tamp down tribalism:

If we want to create welcoming, inclusive communities, we should be doing everything we can to turn down the tribalism and turn up the sense of common humanity. Instead, some theoretical approaches used in universities today may be hyperactivating our ancient tribal tendencies, even if that was not the intention of the professor.

The authors oppose the new version of identity politics:

Identity . . . can be mobilized in ways that amplify our ancient tribalism and bind people together in shared hatred of a group that serves as the unifying common enemy.

Because we’ve increased tribalism on campuses, we’ve created a monster called the “call out culture”:

The combination of common-enemy identity politics and microaggression training creates an environment highly conducive to the development of a “call-out culture,” in which students gain prestige for identifying small offenses committed by members of their community, and then publicly “calling out” the offenders. One gets no points, no credit, for speaking privately and gently with an offender—in fact, that could be interpreted as colluding with the enemy. Call-out culture requires an easy way to reach an audience that can award status to people who shame or punish alleged offenders. This is one reason social media has been so transformative: there is always an audience eager to watch people being shamed, particularly when it is so easy for spectators to join in and pile on. Life in a call-out culture requires constant vigilance, fear, and self-censorship. Many in the audience may feel sympathy for the person being shamed but are afraid to speak up, yielding the false impression that the audience is unanimous in its condemnation.

Toward the end of the book Haidt and Lukianoff invoke the Buddha: “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as our own thoughts, unguarded.” They argue that what we are seeing in college is the result of problems that are occurring, unchecked, when the college students were much younger.

They urge that one way to get back on track is to teach our children the basics of CBT and to teach them mindfulness. We need to teach them to give others the benefit of the doubt, using the “principle of charity.” We need to practice “intellectual humility,” the recognition that all of us struggle with reasoning that is so flawed and prone to bias “that we can rarely be certain that we are right.” They urge that parents give their children more unsupervised play time when they are young, so that the children can learn to resolve their own disputes. Otherwise, we “breed moral dependency.” They urge that we limit the word “safety” to refer only to physical safety, in order to avoid what they term “safetyism.” They urge that parents minimize their children’s exposure to smartphones. They link to Haidt’s organization, Heterodox Academy, an organization dedicated to increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding and constructive disagreement. For high schoolers and adults, they suggest the need to read and understand Chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s class work, On Liberty.. In that classic, Mill argued that understanding the truth required grappling with arguments to the contrary. If a person cannot refute objections to her point of view, then she cannot properly be said to understand her own opinion.

If you would like to know more about Jonathan Haidt’s positions on these topics you are welcome to listen to this podcast on FIRE’s website.?


Category: Aggression and Violence, American Culture, Bigotry, children, cognitive biases, Communication, Debate, Diversity, Education, ignorance, Ingroup/Outgroup, Language, Orwellian, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Bob says:

    Yes. But how does one deal with total presidential incompetence? It does happen. I can argue impationatly for and against. But at some point after months and months of incoherent diatribes I start to wear down. It’s then I gravitate to black and white. The obstical is unmovable, self righteous, incoherent.