“The Coddling of the American Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

“The Coddling of the American Mind”: fragile youth (safetyism), social media echo chambers, and resurgent emotional tribalism

“The Coddling of the American Mind”, fall 2018, by Jonathan Haidt (NYU Business Professor) and attorney Greg Lukianoff (FIRE) expands on the pre-Trump 2015 Atlantic essay of the same name by the same authors.  The subtitle expands: “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure”.

I approached this book as dealing with a problem that seems a bit bifurcated.  The book has four sections: (1) Three Bad Ideas (fragility, trusting feelings, Us v. them (2) Bad Ideas in Action (3) How Did We Get Here? (4) Wising Up   Much of the book indeed focuses on radically restrictive campus “speech codes” and what led to ideas like “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions.”

That is to say, since 2016, domestic politics has seemingly become very tribal and antagonistic and polarized.  Now we hear from Sebastian Junger and Amy Chua and other scholars that tribalism is hard-wired in our genes and inevitable.  We didn’t start hearing that until 2016, although the behavior of young men (and women) drawn to radical Islam previously showed the same ideas. Back in the simmer of 2011, remember how angry and partisan the debt ceiling issue became?

But, Haidt and Lukianoff argue, we’ve introduced new influence onto our social and political system: overprotected largely upper class and privileged teens.  This complicated the entire picture of education, which a decade ago (when I did substitute teaching) the emphasis had been on “no child left behind” and dealing with special education and systemic disadvantages (which include race and immigration).

Two major developments explain this:  One is safetyism, which started creeping into parenting by the 1980s (the publicity over the AIDS epidemic then could have added to it; then the public attention (as Trump has exacerbated) to terrorism and groups like MS13 and now bar, shopping mall and school shootings (Pulse, Sandy Hook, Parkland) added to it, even as the overall crime risk dropped) and then, starting in the or late 1990s, the Internet and devices.

The physical safetyism deserves some detailed attention.  When I was growing up, we (around 1957-58) became inventive with outdoor play, inventing a form of softball that could be played as individual contests, and even made up a “league” or backyard whiffleball and softball, even typing manually a little newsletter with standings.  The phrase “what a tender little baby” would tease kids who didn’t keep up physically, because the culture took the eventual responsibility for future families (women and children) seriously then. Kids learned to take some risks.  Recently, the problem has become complicated by a medically well-founded concern over brain concussions in football – but that ethical concern (as raised by Malcolm Gladwell and others) still feeds safetyism. The vaccine refusal controversy could be seen in terms of safetyism.  This goes along with extreme protectionism from germs and allergens; kids need to grow up developing normal resistance. The authors mention Nicholas Taleb’s book “Antifagile” (June 13 review of “Skin in the Game”).

On tech, Haidt draws a cusp: Kids born after 1995 (with those from 1994-1995 on a cusp) tended to become much more damaged by overuse of devices and social media than those born earlier. Girls are more vulnerable than boys to this sort of depression and anxiety. But remember that the Web 1.0 world (the dot-com bubble) encouraged searching for information on your own, and it’s debatable how much Myspace changed things, but Facebook and twitter changed the game completely.  By the time Facebook was open to the public, a teen might be turning 13 or so.

My own view is that the smartest kids really leveraged technology, ranging from becoming successful music composers and performers, to science wonders (Jack Andraka was born in 1997).  But these kids tended to have a lot of real-world experience first.  Jack was an avid backpacker and kayaker as well as science nerd and developer of a new cancer test. The Internet was a tool to augment an already developed real-world interest.

The last section, called “Wising Up”, reminds me of a church play “Wise Guys”, which a teen born during the cusp produced and directed as a teen at a local church.  Again, real world activities come first, but success in “real” stuff doesn’t come easily for all teens, as it never did.

There’s a Harvard undergraduate, John Fish, with a YouTube channel, seeming very engaging on many student topics, and yet he has one video about overcoming panic attacks and anxiety disorder at age 10 or so, which he outgrew, partly through athletics (track).  Again, born after the cusp.

The same for David Hogg, whom the right wing found out they couldn’t attack without being put on the ropes themselves.  Hogg was born in 2000 but is one of the most antifragile publicly visible teens ever.

But the “bad ideas” really relate to the stoking of tribalism.  The authors talk about identity politics, which can be broadened (as they were by Dr. Martin Luther King) to become “common humanity” i.p.  Or they can be “common enemy”.

After Trump’s inauguration, we saw several big shocks against free speech from the “intersection” left: heckler’s bannings of Milo Yiannopoulous and Charles Murray, and later a “witch hung” at Evergreen College.  Then would come Charlottesville, from the “alt right”.  The tribal and group-level emotion (“trust your feelings”) behind all this heckling and violent intimidation is quite striking.

You have to look where the protesters wanted to head (intersectionality). In a late chapter, the authors talk about constructive social justice as composed of distributive (rewards proportional to contributions) and procedural (due process whenever there is a problem).  Distributive justice can focus on the individual, as to what he/she/they can do to make their own situation more deserving (call it community engagement, voluntarism, social credit if you like).  But “equal outcomes” justice confounds all this by trying to remedy past group injustices with specific outcomes.  Affirmative action is one example.

The authors talk about equal outcomes in sports.  It would be impossible to get equal outcomes by gender or gender identity in most major league sports, because of testosterone. (It might be possible with regard only to cis gender sexual orientation, and it is for race and religion, of course). They mention crew and rowing – a healthful real world sport undermined at UVa by the way it is funded.

But it’s in the speech area that I am concerned.  Especially with regard to race (and possibly sometimes gender identity, though not sexual orientation) activists demand reparative measures to restore desired outcomes, and particularly to protect members of their intersectional groups from expected harms (starting with police profiling).  This, as we have seen, can lead to unprecedented pressure on tech companies and payment processors to shut down (“gratuitous”) individualized speech that even two years ago would have been seen as acceptable – because the speech does arguably increase the risk born by members of the oppressed groups. We should remember Flemming Rose, author of “Tyranny of Silence”, who had warned us about this based partly on the 2005 Jyllands-Posten Cartoon Controversy.

Author: Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Haidt

Title, Subtitle: “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure“

publication date: 2018

ISBN 978-0735224896

Publication:  Penguin, 4 parts, 13 chapters, intro and conclusion, hardcover (also ebook)

Link: publisher    sample review

(Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2019 at 8 PM EST)