Jonathan Haidt describes his new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, as “a mystery story”. Something strange and significant started happening on campuses around 2015, he and his co-author Greg Lukianoff believe, which can be summed up in the word “safetyism” – and they want to know why.
Take the striking case of Rebecca Tuvel, assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2017, she wrote an article in the feminist journal Hypatia called “In Defense of Transracialism”. This compared the largely positive response to reality television star and former Olympic decathlon champion Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition with the “ridicule and condemnation” that greeted the news that civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal had admitted that she was not herself black but a white woman who “identif[ies] as black”.
Tuvel, suggests Haidt, Thomas Colley professor of ethical leadership at New York University, was doing “something philosophers have been doing for thousands of years: [saying] here’s one case; here’s another. They seem superficially similar. Why do we treat them differently?”
Yet the response to the article was a furious open letter asking for it to be retracted. A critic on Facebook claimed that it “enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways”. Among her startling offences were that Tuvel “talks about ‘biological sex’” and “uses phrases like ‘male genitalia’”.
This episode can only be understood, claims Haidt, once one takes account of “the culture of safetyism, which says that a single word can cause a feeling of offence, hurt or marginalisation, and therefore a person who uses such a word has committed an act of violence and must be punished. This would have made no sense to anyone five or 10 years ago. Now this morality is held by large numbers of young people.”
When Haidt and Lukianoff first wrote about these issues, Haidt recalls, “many professors were sceptical. They said we were cherry-picking, we were making a big deal out of five or 10 well-known anecdotes from around the country. But now when I speak to a small group of professors, most of them will have a first-hand story themselves – of when they used a perfectly ordinary word and someone wrote a letter to the dean or accused them of something in class.”
Yet Haidt also sees faculty as very much part of the problem. While acknowledging that the vast majority of professors “go to work in the morning trying to figure out what the truth is”, he suspects that “in schools of education and social work, in departments of media studies, anthropology and many of the literary fields, the goal of fighting oppression is at least equal and sometimes superior to the search for truth. This is a small minority of the university, but they have a lot of influence on what can be said publicly, because they come down savagely on people in other departments who violate their sacred values.”
As an example of how discussion can get shut down, Haidt cites “a social psychology lunch” he attended when “someone was presenting research on why men were more likely to go into math and engineering and they were looking at implicit prejudices and biases. And I said, ‘Sure, that could be possible, but might it not also be the case that there’s less desire or interest? We know that prenatal hormones affect the play preferences of children.’ There was shocked silence and nobody would engage with that. There was visible discomfort…The influence of prenatal hormones on ability is small, but the impact on enjoyment is gigantic. And this is clearly at least relevant to gendered occupational differences. But it is very dangerous to say that, even more than it was 10 years ago; you could be fired for saying that.”
In his own classroom, although he mainly teaches older, MBA, students, Haidt has decided that it is prudent to modify his persona. “I no longer tell jokes or show videos that might offend anyone in the class. I’m a much less interesting teacher! There are many cases of people taking offence at something meant as a joke. Many comedians say they won’t perform on college campuses any more.”
Here, then, is the “mystery” that needs to be elucidated. There is something about students born after roughly 1995 – sometimes known as iGen or Generation Y – that makes them different from earlier cohorts. So, Haidt explains, he and Lukianoff decided to ask, “Why did this new moral culture come in so quickly? Where did it come from?”
As he has form in writing about “moral cultures”, it is worth looking back to his powerful 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, which sets out to “help us to get along”.
Subtitled “why good people are divided by politics and religion”, it argues that our moral arguments are “mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives”. While the human race has at least “six [moral] taste receptors…secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of [them] – either concerns about harm and suffering, or concerns about fairness and injustice…[People from different traditions rely on] many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.”
The book incorporates some striking examples of people struggling to rationalise their intuitive feelings of disgust about actions – such as eating a dead family pet or having sex with a frozen supermarket chicken – that appear to cause no harm. We are all, to some extent, trapped within our own moral universes and vocabularies.
Exploring how different people rely on different moral “taste receptors”, Haidt reports, “made [him] a political centrist philosophically”. He is still a committed Democrat (“the Republican Party has gradually lost its mind, its heart and its soul”), yet when he “look[s] at the philosophical traditions and ordinary citizens and voters, I now find a lot to like and respect on both sides”.
Although The Righteous Mind was well received, according to its author, “people on the far left generally dislike it, because I don’t demonise the right”.
Such “demonisation”, in Haidt’s view, is counterproductive. “Hating someone and understanding them are mutually incompatible. The more you hate someone, the less you can understand them. The less you can understand them, the less effective you are in your political activity.”
Many of the themes of his earlier book – “getting along”, blinkered moral thinking, the dangers of demonisation – are also central to The Coddling of the American Mind.
So what has gone wrong?
Lukianoff and Haidt’s book points to a number of factors. Politics in the US has become so polarised that “Americans are now motivated to leave their couches to take part in political action not by love for their party’s candidate but by hatred of the other party’s candidate”. Many parents have adopted a paranoid style of child-rearing “wildly out of sync with the actual risk that strangers pose to children”. The middle classes prioritise music lessons, team sports and other supervised activities that might look good on an application form for an elite university over the kind of unsupervised free play that lets kids “enjoy a healthy amount of risk” and learn life skills for themselves. All this has had a major impact on the “fragility” and lack of openness to alternative perspectives of students now attending universities.
There is also evidence for a significant “rise in rates of depression and anxiety among American adolescents”. Lukianoff – a lawyer who serves as president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire) – himself suffered for many years from severe depression, which was relieved only when he discovered cognitive behavioural therapy. This taught him to recognise, but not succumb to, various negative patterns of thinking such as “catastrophising” and “overgeneralising”. It was precisely because of this, we read, that he “was troubled when he noticed that some students’ reactions to speech on college campuses exhibited exactly the same distortions that he had learned to rebut in his own therapy”. The belief that we should always trust our feelings, common among students and certain kinds of academics (as well as in the White House these days), can only make things worse.
Many things have gone wrong in the world since 2015, so why should we give undue attention to the seemingly minor problem of a culture of fragility among students? Moreover, some US educators wonder if the crusade against the student “cry-bullies” of “political correctness” is actually being driven by those with a more insidious agenda. While Fire’s website emphasises that it is studiously non-partisan, it has received large gifts from several Republican-supporting foundations – including one organisation run by the strongly conservative billionaire Koch brothers.
At a time when he feels “extremely pessimistic, almost to the point of panic, about the future of American democracy”, Haidt would dearly like universities to assume their role as “the pre-eminent institutions preparing students to encounter political differences and work with each other in a democratic framework. Right now, I think many universities are making things worse, not better.”
So what is to be done?
Haidt puts much of his faith in the seemingly unexciting ideal of process (“I don’t think in terms of left-right, I think in terms of process. If there were a party devoted to process, I would join it”).
The pursuit of knowledge, as he sees it, depends crucially on process. “Human reasoning is so flawed because it was designed for social manipulation and tribal success, so it’s a miracle that we can get scientific thinking out of our brains. We can’t do it as individuals, we can only do it when we have a good process…If there’s a diversity of views and people are free to challenge each other, then you have a good process. But if people are afraid of social consequences for saying what they believe is true, then you have a bad process.”
Haidt is a central figure behind OpenMind, an “interactive platform designed to depolarize communities and foster mutual understanding across differences”. He is also closely involved in the Heterodox Academy movement, “a politically diverse group of more than 1,800 professors and graduate students who have come together to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement”. Since 2011, he has been “collecting data on the decline of political diversity” in the academy. Initially, he thought the answer was to “find more conservatives, so we get the ratio back down to maybe four or five to one”, since “20 to one is not fine”. But this turned out to be a forlorn hope, because “there are not many conservatives in the pipeline”.
More recently, Haidt has come to see that “there is diversity in the academy, but it comes from libertarians and centrists – not everybody is on the left. And that is enough to provide viewpoint diversity.” The challenge is to activate this through the right form of process.
“Process” is also the key to dilemmas about controversial speakers on campus. Although Haidt does not believe that universities have “an obligation to invite provocateurs”,
anyone willing to “play the game of pursuit of truth by presenting ideas and responding to counterarguments should be welcome”. For example, when the conservative political scientist Charles Murray – often criticised as a racist for his co-authored 1994 book The Bell Curve – was invited to Middlebury College, Vermont, in 2017 to speak about “the white working class, which had just voted for Trump”, he should have been vigorously debated rather than subjected to violent protest.
Finally, while Haidt welcomes the fact that “this generation cares a lot more about diversity and inclusion than previous generations”, universities’ orientation processes need to face up to the difficulties and “emphasise that diversity is hard, that we all have to give each other the benefit of the doubt if we are going to live together, that we have to work out our problems and not go accusing each other of aggression and violence”. Only such an approach can help to create “a healthy, cooperative, supportive community”.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind has just been published by Allen Lane.