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Great Untruths

Controversial supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh has been relieved of his teaching duties at Harvard law school.1 His firing had nothing to do with the quality of his teaching, the significance of his credentials or his conduct at the university, but rather, according to a petition signed by over 800 Harvard alumni, because Kavanaugh is a, “privileged [man] of power” who does not “[take] sexual violence seriously.” In tandem with this petition, nearly 50 students have also filed Title IX complaints against Kavanaugh—not because he harassed them personally, but because his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding disputed allegations of sexual assault had, according to the student who began organizing these Title IX complaints, made women feel less safe.2 We, the authors of this review, did not raise this issue because we support Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. However, this example illustrates a growing tendency where people deemed “privileged” are reflexively painted as obvious abusers, obvious fascists, obvious racists, obvious sexists, and so on. A dynamic appears to be brewing, especially on elite university campuses, where people of differing viewpoints are increasingly shouted down and de-platformed by frenetic activists with no interest in articulating counter-points; the sinful, evil nature of those with whom they disagree is, to them, self-evidently due to their “privilege”.3 In many cases these individuals are bombarded with threats to their livelihood, and in some cases, physically attacked.

For Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt events like these signify a cultural turning point—a “boiling point”—wrought with a novel level of tribalism, anti-intellectualism, mental fragility, and intolerance of viewpoint diversity. Students, professors, and university administrators are quick to justify attempts to silence and/or punish those with dissenting views because such views are considered immanent threats to the safety of “marginalized” people. How and when did alternative viewpoints and offensive statements become equated with physical harm? How did we arrive at this social climate and where do we go from here? These questions constitute the core of Lukianoff and Haidt’s new book, The Coddling of the American Mind.

The Great Untruths

To make their case that American culture in general, and university culture in particular, has reached this “boiling point,” Lukianoff and Haidt outline three interrelated ideas, or what they refer to as the “Three Great Untruths.” These untruths are … corrosive beliefs that are proliferating on colleges campuses and threaten to undermine civil society. They are:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

The Untruth of Fragility is the notion that controversy, disagreement and engagement with challenging issues harms people. This idea leads individuals to avoid differing viewpoints, at the cost of not becoming resilient in the face of them. Just as a muscle requires use to prevent atrophy, human minds require social, emotional, and intellectual challenges to develop analytical thinking, along with social and emotional coping skills. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that young people are being deprived of exposure to unfamiliar ideas and experiences that would help them build these skills. […]

Read the complete review

The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning is the idea that people should always trust their feelings. The logic is thus: if Kavanaugh’s testimony, or Ben Shapiro’s campus talks, or Jordan Peterson’s views make a person feel negatively, those negative feelings are “their truth,” and indicate that the person causing those feelings must therefore be a fascist, racist, sexist, and so on. However, as Lukianoff and Haidt point out, a considerable amount of psychological research reveals the ways in which emotional reasoning distorts our interpretations of the actions and proclamations of others. Believing that one’s emotions are indicative of valid truths can lead to a lack of engagement with the ideas of other people, and consequently, to an environment devoid of ideological diversity and intellectual freedom.

The Untruth of Us Versus Them is the belief that there are only two kinds of people—good people motivated by truth, justice, fairness and equality, and evil people motivated by falsehoods, injustice, and a desire to oppress and exploit others. This overly-simplistic dichotomous categorization underlies the tendency to create two groups of people: victim and oppressor. Such tribalism is useful for enhancing within-group cohesion, but in educational settings, it can quickly create a hostile environment where persons with alternative viewpoints are at best harshly dismissed, and at worst, dehumanized. As a result, students, administrators, and professors are increasingly afraid of express differing viewpoints—something that is antithetical to the purpose of education where people should be free to challenge commonly held beliefs and think critically even when doing so is difficult and uncomfortable.

Untruths in Action

Lukianoff and Haidt provide illustrations of how these untruths have driven controversies in higher education settings via the use of intimidation, violence, and modern day “witch hunts,” all in the name of promoting “safety.” For example, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that the intimidation (e.g., destruction of property, throwing objects at police officers, physically attacking other students) used to prevent Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at UC Berkeley was defended by claiming that Yiannopoulos’ words were so violent that they justified actual, physical violence in response. This defense uses a definition of violence transformed via “concept creep”; words are now violence, and thus words could justify retaliatory physical violence. Not all attempts to control speech have been physically violent, and indeed Lukianoff and Haidt provide many examples in their book. The important point here is not who is “for” or “against” Yiannopoulos’ (or others’) views. Rather, their point is that productive disagreement requires hearing what others have to say, attending to their best points (i.e., giving them the benefit of the doubt), and responding with a more informed, logical, evidentiary counter-argument. One’s response should not be to appeal to one’s emotions, insist on a need for safety, and (ironically) retaliate with physical violence.

Explanatory Threads

Lukianoff and Haidt describe several related explanatory threads that they believe answer the question of “how did we get here?” For one, they show that political polarization has significantly increased over the last few decades, with Democrats and Republicans disagreeing more fervently on popular issues and reporting less warmth towards each other. This hostility, they argue, has contributed to the vilification, overreaction, and threats that professors and others now face from the left (and, increasingly, from the right) in response to things they say or write. Haidt and Lukianoff additionally cite (mostly self-report) data indicating a rise in anxiety and depression rates among iGens (i.e., people born in 1995 or after), and suggest that they are more mentally vulnerable because of online social media use, over-protective parenting, and because iGens are experiencing important life events (e.g., driving, dating, working) later relative to prior generations. They argue that a culture of overprotection on college campuses may be a well-intentioned response to a growing mental health crisis.

Believing that one’s emotions are indicative of valid truths can lead to a lack of engagement with the ideas of other people, and consequently, to an environment devoid of ideological diversity and intellectual freedom.

The authors also point out how increasingly bloated school bureaucracies endorse the Great Untruths through overregulation (e.g., “speech codes”) of, and overreaction (e.g., firing controversial faculty) to the behavior of students and faculty. Relatedly, Lukianoff and Haidt point out how social science and humanities professors have cultivated and disseminated an exclusivist moral community of “social justice.” This ideology of social justice, they argue, violates humans’ intuitive concerns with distributive (i.e., giving resources based on merit) and procedural justice (i.e., ensuring fair processes). Unlike distributive and procedural justice, “social justice” is an insistence on across-the-board equal outcomes (e.g., half of STEM workers must be women), with the consequent presumption that all differences in representation are indicative of sexism, racism, and the like. Lukianoff and Haidt concede that opportunity may not always be available and/or merit not always properly rewarded, yet, simply assuming that a lack of equal outcomes implies that an -ism of some sort is at work, is to reflexively infer that only bigoted and cynical motives drive differences institutional representation.4

What Now?

Lukianoff and Haidt provide a more optimistic perspective within their final chapters, as they describe four countertrends and ten general pieces of advice for individuals with a stake in the development of children and/or the functioning of higher education institutions. These pieces of advice vary in their vagueness and feasibility, but are nonetheless worth considering. For example, they encourage parents to limit the amount of time children spend staring at a screen each day (and using social media), so as to encourage young people to interact face-to-face and build relevant dispute-resolution and coping skills. Another good pair of suggestions is to encourage universities to admit older, more independent students and to avoid capitulating to mob outrage.

What’s Missing?

Lukianoff and Haidt’s book provides an important foundation for understanding the current climate on college campuses and in American culture more generally; yet we believe there are several missing considerations and emphases that may clarify and strengthen their argument.

First, scholars and students might be totally unaware of the modern arguments for cultural/human progress put forth in books such as The Better Angels of our Nature,5 Enlightenment Now,6 The Moral Arc,7 Factfulness,8 and others. It is trendy for scholars and lay people to claim to be aware of the arguments and evidence presented in these books, only to claim for themselves a pseudo-sophisticated cynicism while demonstrating that they had not actually read or understood them. It is thus possible that academics, students, and parents are genuinely unaware of the fact and magnitude of (ever-incomplete, of course) cultural progress (e.g., reduced crime, reduced global poverty). As a result, they have a genuine belief that they live in a world that has never been more bigoted and cruel, and that everything is getting worse.

Second, Lukianoff and Haidt contend that social media use and parental over-protection have made children fragile, but another interpretation is that it made some of them entitled, over-confident and skilled in using “fears of safety” as a rhetorical device to demand capitulation to their feelings. Lukianoff and Haidt seem too willing to take students at their word regarding their fragility, indeed, taking students at their word assumes a very high degree of self-awareness on the part of students. Moreover, on its face, violent retaliation, mob-like demands to destroy the career and reputation of others, and a morally righteous “call-out” culture certainly does not seem to be driven by fragility. On the contrary, claiming that one is pursuing a doe-eyed safety, while at the same time shouting others down, sometimes with physical aggression, and/or the harshest of epithets, is potentially a non-self-aware tactic by which one frames their behavior as innocuous or prosocial while, in fact, simply bullying others. Of course, it is still important to take students’ self-reported fragility seriously and investigate genuine mental health concerns. Yet, self-reported anxiety/depression/fragility may be, equally as much, a rhetorical strategy to garner capitulation and competitive advantages amidst high parental expectations in an increasingly competitive educational and occupational market.

Third and related to the points made above, it is also possible, and inadequately explored by Lukianoff and Haidt, that self-reported rates of depression and anxiety have, themselves, been influenced by concept creep. The students most expressing the apparent fragility Lukianoff and Haidt discuss are university students at elite universities coming from comfortable high-income families. For example, the median family income for students attending Middlebury College (where protestors recently shouted down a speaker) is $240,000—nearly five times the income of the average US family.9 Some of these materially comfortable students may be self-diagnosing as anxious or depressed (or fragile) because their relatively resource-rich lives have given them little else with which to garner sympathy. Progressive activists are also more likely than the average American to have an annual household income of 100k or above, putting them in approximately the top 20% of households.10 Genuine increases in anxiety and depression among iGen would be a very serious social problem, but before concluding that the rise is in fact an epidemic, Lukianoff and Haidt should more seriously consider the possible role of concept creep. If the notion of violence is commonly trivialized to include verbal comments and people one does not like, might also the notions of anxiety and depression be increasingly trivialized to include minor annoyances or discomforts in one’s life which do not, in fact, manifest so severely as to impact one’s ability to function? Simply put, it is possible that fragility is not the cause for why these students are calling for scientific articles to be retracted, academic freedom to be constrained, speakers to be de-platformed, and the like—entitlement, attention-seeking virtue signaling, and concept creep are.

Fourth, Lukianoff and Haidt do not adequately address the possibility that these emerging cultural trends might be driven by cognitive mechanisms very similar to the ones underlying religious ideation. Yet, we see some strong analogs between religious cognition and the leftist focus on privilege (i.e., sin), oppression (i.e., holiness), sacred victims (i.e., minorities and women), witch hunts and mob rule (i.e., tribal righteousness) and swift, severe punishments (i.e., purity concerns). We understand that Haidt has written extensively about tribal psychology elsewhere,11 and that it is discussed briefly in this current book, but the links to religion could have been made more directly. Christianity is viewed as an increasingly untenable ideology among young people and progressive activists, as a result, might they be seeking out a secular political substitute? Earlier we suggested an alternative interpretation to Lukianoff and Haidt’s assertion that reported rates of depressive symptomology are on the rise. However, if those rates are genuinely higher relative to previous generations, they may be causally related to declines in belonging to communities, and corresponding increases in social isolation and individualism. The creation of secular political substitutes for religion may be indicative of an attempt to allay the negative social and emotional consequences of declines in civic engagement and religiosity.12

The Coddling of the American Mind (book cover)

Lastly, a gap in the text regards an obvious, but unexplored explanation for why students and others feel the need to virtue-signal and moralize so incessantly. Why do they feel such a need to lecture others about their racist, sexist, Islamophobic, transphobic, or fat phobic immorality? It is possible that, consistent with the incredible level of ignorance regarding cultural progress suggested above, people genuinely do not understand why other humans act morally and ethically. They do not understand the mechanisms underlying pro-sociality such as cooperative inter-group contact, reciprocal altruism, reputational maintenance, or secular sources of social control (i.e., civil and criminal courts).13 People do not act ethically or morally primarily because they are shouted down or accused of being dishonorable bigots; on the contrary, research shows that this can diminish prosocial tendencies—rather, they act ethically and morally because they share goals and have to cooperate with people different from them, are offered help and feel naturally obligated to return favors, care about their reputations, and are worried about the legal consequences of their behavior. A blank slate theory of human nature leads activists to the assumption that most people are evil bigots and must be forced to be more moral.

Lukianoff and Haidt have offered a relevant contribution to the emerging discussion surrounding recent attacks on academic freedom and viewpoint diversity both on- and off-campus. For anyone interested in these issues, their book is a vital read. They highlight some very disconcerting trends in political radicalization, and the pursuit of “safety” from real and imagined threats in lieu of the pursuit of truth. These trends may point to the possibility of another tragedy for those in and outside of academia—a brain drain in American scholarship as moderates and empirically-minded scientists flee over concerns that producing good scholarship that conflicts with what others “want” to be true, can spell the end of one’s career. In having written this book and defended it publicly, Lukianoff and Haidt have put their careers and reputations on the line. Writing this book took courage in a climate where the worst of intentions are presumed and where defenses of intellectual freedom are cast as alt-right extremism. END

About the Authors

Dr. Kevin McCaffree is an Assistant Professor of sociology at the University of North Texas where he teaches criminology and research methods.

Dr. Anondah Saide is a visiting Assistant Professor of educational psychology at the University of North Texas where she teaches human development.

  3. Horowitz, M., Haynor, A., & Kickham, K. 2018. Sociology’s Sacred Victims and the Politics of Knowledge: Moral Foundations Theory and Disciplinary Controversies. The American Sociologist, 1–37. Also see, Campbell, B., & Manning, J. 2018. The rise of victimhood culture: Microaggressions, safe spaces, and the new culture wars. New York, NY: Springer.
  4. Pinker, S. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature. Viking Books
  5. Pinker, S. 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin.
  6. Shermer, M. 2015. The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Macmillan.
  7. Rosling, H., Rönnlund, A. R., & Rosling, O. 2018. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World—and why Things are Better Than You Think. Flatiron Books.
  8. Campbell, B., & Manning, J. (2018). The rise of victimhood culture: Microaggressions, safe spaces, and the new culture wars. Springer.
  10. For example: Haidt, J. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage.
  11. Putnam, Robert D. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster, 2001.
  12. Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. 2006. A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751.; Lawler, E. J., Thye, S. R., & Yoon, J. 2009. Social Commitments in a Depersonalized World. Russell Sage Foundation.; Norenzayan, A., & Gervais, W. M. 2015. Secular rule of law erodes believers’ political intolerance of atheists. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 5(1), 3–14.; Boehm, C. 2012. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York: Basic Books.
  13. Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. 2018. Why Doesn’t Diversity Training Work? The Challenge for Industry and Academia. Anthropology Now, 10(2), 48–55.

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