Jonathan Haidt on a fragile generation of students

Matthew Reisz learns about the social and intellectual trends that are influencing a new campus culture

September 6, 2018
Source: istock
Has a culture of 'shouting people down' replaced open debate on some university campuses?

At a recent party hosted by a leading social science publisher, much of the talk was about the psychologist Jonathan Haidt. His 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion received particular praise. So I went home, worked out how to spell his name, bought a copy and immediately saw why it had made such an impression.

Most of our moral arguments, Haidt claims, are really just rationalisations of intuitions designed to “advance…strategic objectives”. We can struggle to explain why brother-sister incest, for example, just feels so wrong. But different people rely on different moral “taste receptors”. Secular liberals such as myself (and no doubt most of the people attending that party) generally focus on issues of “harm and suffering” or “fairness and injustice”.

We may acknowledge the importance of “liberty” and “loyalty” but seldom appeal to “authority” or “sanctity”. Others put the emphasis elsewhere. Conservatives, Haidt suggests, draw on a more multifaceted (and, arguably, richer) moral toolkit than liberals – a salutary point for liberals to reflect on.

I was genuinely intrigued and challenged by the broad argument of The Righteous Mind. But I have to admit that I was also struck by a passing comment about the Hua of New Guinea, who apparently base much of their morality on notions of “purity” and “pollution” deeply unfamiliar to the average secular Western liberal. “In order for [Hua] boys to become men,” reports Haidt, “they have to avoid foods that in any way resemble vaginas, including anything that is red, wet, slimy, comes from a hole, or has hair” (it’s interesting to speculate whether some people’s phobias around oysters and other bivalves are a distant version of the same thing).

In any event, I was delighted to learn that Haidt had co-authored a new book with the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education,Greg Lukianoff, called The Coddling of the American Mind. I Interview him about the book in a feature in this week’s magazine.

Lukianoff and Haidt are hardly the first people to call attention to what they see as a new culture on campus, where students are far too easily offended and make exceptionally binary moral judgements. Several major campus protests have, they claim, begun as “reactions to politely worded emails, and led to demands that the authors of the emails be fired”.

Yet they locate these phenomena within much broader social and intellectual trends, citing some powerful examples. One concerns objections to a first-year humanities course that was accused of putting too much emphasis on the Ancient Greeks. One professor apparently “shared with [noisy activists] the fact that she has PTSD and asked them, out of concern for her health, not to protest in her classroom”. Far from giving her any sympathy, the students “complained in an open letter that her request ‘creates a hierarchy [of traumas] where your traumas matter more’” and accused her of being “anti-black”, “ableist” and engaged in “gaslighting”.

Another incident reported by Lukianoff and Haidt featured a philosopher who raised the question of whether it was legitimate to discuss “transracialism” alongside “transgenderism”. This led to calls for her article to be retracted (rather than just rebutted), and critiques that attacked her, among other things, for references to “biological sex” and “male genitalia”.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but I can’t imagine a society that refuses to acknowledge the existence of penises – and surely, for 99.9 per cent of the human race, the term “male genitalia” is both useful and self-explanatory. (One of the subtexts of books such as Lukianoff and Haidt’s is how debate within the academy has become increasingly divorced from anything that goes on outside of it).

So, quite apart from discovering when not to mention willies and what not to eat in New Guinea, I have learned a great deal from Haidt’s work. There are, of course, arguments that the image of the “snowflake” student, willing to take offence at almost anything, is a caricature. But The Coddling of the American Mind certainly makes a powerful case and it would be foolish to ignore Lukianoff and Haidt’s insights into what has gone wrong and how we might try to put it right.

Matthew Reisz is a reporter and books editor at THE.

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