There has, in recent years, been a significant change in the way in which many left-wing activists—especially student activists—express their complaints against their ideological opponents on the right. In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff attempt to characterize this change, to trace the shift in discourse on campus and to suggest underlying reasons for it.
Certain social and moral issues have always been close to the hearts of those of us who lean left. There have always been idealistic students, passionate about their political causes, a passion which can lead to stridency. And most politically engaged students, for as long as I have been alive at least, have been concerned about traditionally liberal and leftist causes, such as inequality, racism and sexism. What is new, however, is their medicalization of these political topics. Whereas adversaries were once depicted as wrong, selfish, even evil, now their opinions are classed as harmful, as dangerous to the mental health of their psychologically vulnerable opponents. “What is new today,” Haidt and Lukianoff argue, “is the premise that students are fragile. Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe that others are in danger and therefore need protection.”
Victimhood Culture: An Alternative Model
Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have suggested that this development is the result of a shift in our value system: which has gradually changed from an honour culture, in which bravery is the primary virtue; through a dignity culture, which values resilience and self-reliance and the ability to brush off insults and slights with ease; to a victimhood culture, in which a person’s moral worth is predicated on how strongly he is oppressed.
In The Rise of Victimhood Culture, Campbell and Manning point to the ways in which the prevalent campus culture incentivizes people to seek out examples of oppression. They show, for example, how the idea of microaggressions has led to a redefinition of what constitutes harm, which is both subjective and catastrophizing, since it encourages people to scrutinize seemingly harmless interactions for nefarious hidden—or even subconscious—motivations. (For an in-depth account of these ideas, see this interview with the two scholars, on this magazine’s accompanying podcast, Two for Tea.)
This twisted form of status anxiety has led to a number of otherwise hard-to-explain phenomena among some on the social justice left, One is the concern about cultural appropriation, which can be seen as a kind of application of sumptuary laws. If your perceived virtue depends on your membership of an oppressed minority, such as, for example, Indian-Americans, then you will not take kindly to a person who is not from that minority seemingly staking a claim to that victim prestige by, for example, wearing a sari or cooking up a mutton biryani. It’s a badge of honour which the oppressors (for example, white people) are unworthy of sporting.
Another instance of this is the hostility which greets more optimistic viewpoints, such as those outlined in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which musters an impressive array of statistics to show the decline of violence, bigotry, hardship, hunger and war over the course of recent centuries. To be optimistic about the future of humanity is to reveal that you feel insufficiently oppressed.
To question whether life on Western college campuses is an oppressive dystopia for minority groups is to attract the ire of some of the more extreme among the social justice student activists. As Laura Kipnis puts it, “the climate of sanctimony about student vulnerability has grown too thick to penetrate; no one dares question it.”
Haidt and Lukianoff dare. The two writers are in agreement with Campbell and Manning that there has been a noticeable change in student culture since 2013, when the first members of Generation Z (sometimes called iGen, a term coined by sociologist Jean Twenge), born in 1995, matriculated. Rather than emphasizing the status which victimhood can bring and the social rewards implicit in claiming victim status, the authors of Coddling focus more strongly on why students might genuinely feel more anxious and vulnerable than in the past and how this harms the affected students themselves.
Despite its rather condescending title—about which the authors express ambivalence and which makes it sound as though they regard the students involved as spoilt brats—the tone of the book is overwhelmingly compassionate and empathetic. In fact, the term coddling is a misnomer for what Haidt and Lukianoff describe, which is neither a privilege nor a choice. The authors’ main concern is with the detrimental effects on the well being of the coddled themselves.
Why Do These Students Feel So Fragile?
The book’s central question is why this generation of young Americans are so much more likely than previous generations to view themselves as mentally ill or vulnerable. Why do so many feel oppressed and discriminated against, particularly “at schools known for progressive politics in the most progressive parts of the United States?”
The authors ascribe this to a wide range of phenomena, interacting to create a perfect storm, beginning with the students’ probable early childhood experiences.
While violent crime towards children has declined over the past decades, parents’ perception of risk has grown. Together with well-intentioned but overly draconian laws designed to prevent parents from neglecting their children, this has led to what the authors call a culture of safetyism. Add to this the increasing competitiveness of school and university entrance requirements and the decline in unstructured playtime, even at pre-school and kindergarten level, and the result is children who are under academic performance pressure and constantly supervised and who therefore never have the opportunity to learn to confront and manage risk and or to resolve conflicts among themselves, without adult assistance. These children, who are used to relying on adults to structure and oversee their time, grow up to be students who demand that university administrators regulate every aspect of their on-campus lives: even such non-academic aspects as what they are permitted to post on social media and how they are allowed to socialize with each other.
Generation Z is also the first group of people to grow up using smartphones from childhood onwards. In the most convincing part of Haidt and Lukianoff’s thesis, the authors outline the impacts caused by intense social media usage in the early years of life. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat and other sites have radically changed the experience of childhood. Generation Z have grown up with less face-to-face socializing and more interactions with the sanitized, curated versions of people’s lives offered by social media.
Over two hours a day of screen-based leisure activities, the authors argue, is correlated with a greater propensity to depression and suicidal ideation, particularly among girls (whose rates of depression have increased far more than those of boys). Jealousy, FOMO, insecurity and vulnerability to cyberbullying are all likely contributory factors. In the book’s most moving chapter, the authors describe how the arrival of these students on campus has overwhelmed the university’s mental health services. Far from being mere posturing, as some cynical commentators on the right have suggested, an unprecedented number of students really are struggling with depression and anxiety.
The political culture in which the students have grown up has also played an important role in their tendency to view themselves as vulnerable. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that current American undergraduates have lived through an extraordinary series of dispiriting events, almost guaranteed to leave them especially pessimistic and sensitized to perceived injustices. The events marking Generation Z’s political coming of age included repeated instances of police brutality towards young black men (including the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott and Philando Castile); the suicide of Tyler Clementi as a result of homophobic bullying; the Flint water crisis; white supremacist Dylan Roof gunning down African-Americans; repeated school shootings; the women’s march, the #MeToo movement; the Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville and the death of Heather Heyer. Perhaps most important of all, the students witnessed the election of arguably the most callous, boorish, openly bigoted, misogynistic, racist and scornfully selfish and spoilt president in American history. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that the fact that these events followed a time of relative optimism during the Obama administration may have made them even more upsetting.
Widespread coverage on social media has also magnified the implied scope and prevalence of racist and sexist attacks. Footage of a single incident of racist bullying—such as a Ryanair passenger’s recent boorish tirade against his black seatmate—can circulate worldwide within hours, in this age of smartphones, in which everyone is a potential reporter. The thousands of retweets and shares can make the event seem omnipresent: as if such incidents happened all the time, posing a constant threat to our peaceful co-existence.
The anger and sense of embattlement among left-leaning students is also fuelled by America’s increasing polarization. Drawing on Bill Bishop’s research in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, Haidt and Lukianoff chart American society’s segregation by political allegiance: a segregation in both physical and virtual geography. Conservatives and liberals increasingly live in different neighbourhoods and consume different media. While people used to get their news from the same few TV channels, now each side has its own cable news programmes and pundits. Social media, again, exacerbates this: we seek the dopamine hits of like-minded people pressing the little thumbs up or heart buttons, while search algorithms feed us ever more of what the providers and advertisers already know that we like to consume.
Waiting to fan the flames on campus, we have right-wing provocateurs promoting a cheap and nasty own-the-libs culture. Right-wing channels like Fox News and associations like Turning Point USA feed on campus craziness. Dependent on spectacles of student insanity which they can use to discredit the left, many encourage confrontation, delighting in causing gratuitous hurt and upset in the service of their partisan cause. Some even train up student volunteers, who they hope will capture screechy blue-haired harridans and whiny libtards on camera for their delighted audiences. (NPR recently produced a fascinating report on this phenomenon and on how both sides contribute to the escalation of conflict.) Some far right groups have also targeted individual campuses, leaving them littered with ugly, racist propaganda.
Haidt and Lukianoff also point to the corporatization of the American university. Colleges are increasingly focused on avoiding litigation and preserving their brand image. The authors cite Eric Adler, who argues that campus intolerance is not the result of student political lunacy at all, but the logical consequence of “a market-driven decision by universities … to treat students as consumers.” Colleges are happy to employ administrators to prevent disruptions and quick to kowtow to the demands of the loudest and often most extreme students, just to keep the peace since, after all, the students are their source of income and the customer is always king.
The book’s greatest weakness, for me, is its failure to investigate the socioeconomic aspects of this phenomenon more extensively. I would like to know whether there is a correlation between parental income and a perception of fragility. To what extent are the fear and vulnerability students feel connected with pessimism about their life chances in a crowded job market and the fact that so many of them will enter that market saddled with obscene amounts of student debt?
How Does the Perception of Their Own Fragility Harm Students?
The part of the book which most strongly resonates with me is Greg’s description of his own depression. I confess, I have been through similar vicious cycles of thought on many occasions. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which the authors recommend strongly throughout the book, teaches us to recognize the ideas we have about ourselves, our capacities, our situations and our worth, as just that: ideas and opinions, not facts. This is not to minimize the damage done by genuinely traumatic experiences. But to think of yourself as too vulnerable, damaged or mentally fragile to cope with the stresses of everyday life is liable to prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even in the case of students who have experienced genuine trauma, the most effective path to healing is not complete protection from anything that might prompt a painful memory, but gradual, controlled exposure to triggers, within a safe environment. University is the ideal place for this.
Students’ belief that they will be harmed by certain forms of speech hampers their ability to learn. It leaves them unable to truly engage with and effectively rebut their adversaries’ strongest arguments and blinds them to the weaknesses in their own arguments. It leaves them without the opportunity to practise and master what Haidt and Lukianoff call “the essential skills of critical thinking and civil disagreement.”
Moreover, this interferes with the main purpose of a university: to seek out truth. Individual members of a university may be biased, blinkered, partisan or ignorant: but the structure of the institution as a whole is designed to put individuals’ ideas to the test. Only when ideas have been challenged, vetted, tested, can we find out which are true. This process mirrors the scientific method, in which hypotheses are tested by attempts to disprove them. Haidt and Lukianoff call this mechanism institutionalized disconfirmation.
If we shield ourselves from the views of adversaries—such as conservative, right wing and even far right thinkers—we will never know if our own ideas are both accurate and framed as strongly as they can be. If everyone within it shares the same political views, the university threatens to become a forum for politicking and activism, or even—at worst—a venue for witch hunts against everyone who doesn’t toe the line—not a place in which to explore and hone ideas. This is especially important in the social sciences, which influence policy. Effective social policy must be based on a clear understanding of the facts of the situation, not on wishful thinking.
Also, how can students effectively challenge conservative thinking in the wider world if they have never been exposed to it at university? Haidt and Lukianoff draw on Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s idea of antifragility—some things grow stronger through challenges and are tempered by fire—and Van Jones’ image of the university as an ideological gym to underline their point that confronting ideas makes us more adept at combating them. Minds can be strengthened, just as bodies can.
Some elements of social justice leftist culture have an especially chilling effect on students’ own freedom of speech. The Implicit Association Test—still in wide use, despite its own authors’ statement that it is not a reliable indicator of personal prejudice—encourages us to believe that we may be subconsciously bigoted even if we don’t realise it. The concept of microaggressions, which includes the idea that a person can commit a microaggression without even intending to, strengthens this belief. Diversity training—with its painstaking focus on how not to give offence and its implication that racially diverse environments are potential social minefields—can also lead some to become self-conscious and awkward. Together, these ideas imply that we cannot trust ourselves not to say the wrong thing. And, if saying the wrong thing would cause real harm to a vulnerable interlocutor, it is surely better to keep one’s mouth shut. The scrutiny of everyday interactions in search of racist/sexist/homophobic, etc. undertones causes some to feel they are the objects of constant discrimination—a belief which naturally leads to resentment, anger, depression and even despair. At the same time, for others call-out culture makes the social costs of an unintended faux pas enormous. Students are not usually confident, fluent speakers and are easily intimidated: most have to be coaxed and encouraged to speak their minds. The result of this toxic combination of factors is likely to be paranoia on the one hand and timidity on the other.
The belief that speech must be carefully monitored and policed to prevent harm has wider ramifications too: the withdrawal of basic protections, such as freedom of speech, leaves us vulnerable to dictators and tyrants. As Timothy Snyder warns in his book On Tyranny, we should never give up our freedoms in advance because, once relinquished, we cannot trust those who may be in power in the future to treat us fairly or well. The power to voice dissent is the most important tool we have.
Haidt and Lukianoff ascribe some of the more extreme authoritarian leftist views to the influence of Herbert Marcuse, whose 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance” argues that freedom of speech and tolerance are only useful once complete equality has already been established in society. Marcuse argues for the imposition of a temporary moratorium on freedom of speech and assembly until his perfect society has been realized. However, like the blandishments of a dictator who claims he will re-establish democracy once conditions are calmer, this is a hollow promise. And, if equity is defined as equality of outcome, it is a chimera. Different groups will always have different priorities, interests and skills and will never be equally represented in every field in proportions which precisely reflect their population share.
Finally, this demonization of opposing viewpoints as harmful increases the polarization of American society. It prevent students from empathizing with those whose ideas differ from their own. It does not encourage giving others the benefit of the doubt. This philosophy is, Haidt and Lukianoff argue, “encouraging students to interpret the actions of others in the least generous way possible [thus] … setting themselves up for higher levels of distrust and conflict.” Taken to extremes, this leads to a blindness to other people’s individual circumstances and character, a tendency to generalize people based on broad-brush ideological tendencies (such as left versus right) or innate characteristics like sex or race and to divide them up into good and evil, friend and enemy.
What Are the Solutions?
The most impressive thing about Haidt and Lukianoff’s work is the number of clear guidelines and concrete solutions they offer. Give your child some measure of age-appropriate independence; choose a pre-school that values free unstructured play, not a completely regimented academic schedule; perhaps let her cycle to school or send her to summer camp; restrict his screen time and encourage him to play with other kids unsupervised at least sometimes. Use CBT to tackle your depression and anxiety. Go on a gap year before university, to be exposed to a wider range of people in a new environment. Choose a college which values free speech: “judge a university, or an academic field, by how it handles its dissenters.” Hone your skills in argument at debate club. Seek out people from the other side of the political aisle. Organize joint Democrat/Republican college events. Support organizations like FIRE and Heterodox Academy, which protect students’ and professors’ free speech rights. Don’t allow yourself to be held at the mercy of the heckler’s veto or an online rage mob. The action points suggested in the book range from personal advice to policy suggestions—these are just a few of them. They deserve your sustained attention.
Above all, we need to distinguish concern from catastrophizing. Students are not powerless against the society in which they live: they are part of that society. In fact, they are the future of America. It is heartening to see that so many of them are deeply concerned about equality and strongly opposed to discrimination, bigotry, racism, sexism and xenophobia. It is fully in their power to work to change things for the better. But only if they see themselves as strong, resilient, capable and independent. Our job is to help them believe in themselves.
Note: Haidt and Lukianoff will be appearing on Areo’s associated podcast, Two for Tea, in a few weeks’ time. You can subscribe to the podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play and on most podcast apps.