In Review: The Coddling of the American Mind

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind: how good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure, London, Penguin, 2019, 352pp; reviewed by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s book The Coddling of the American Mind is a timely book, whose title is almost self-explanatory – but not quite. It does deal with how young people are being coddled in US universities and wider society, but it makes proposals around the issue; it is not merely descriptive of a phenomenon, which though it would seem to be more extensive in the US is not limited to it and has cropped up all over the world and has seeped into the political discourse of many left groups, including some that would claim to be Marxist.

Haidt and Lukianoff describe coddling as being over-protective or, to paraphrase a saying they use, society no longer prepares the child for the road but the road for the child. Lukianoff is a lawyer who had suffered from bouts of depression and found help through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a technique that teaches you to notice when you are engaging in various “cognitive distortions,” such as “catastrophizing” (If I fail this quiz, I’ll fail the class and be kicked out of school, and then I’ll never get a job . . .) and “negative filtering” (only paying attention to negative feedback instead of noticing praise as well).  It also, gently at first, forces you to confront that which makes you uncomfortable, stressed or triggers something. The book is partly an argument for this approach. They point out that young students are not being prepared for dealing with the real world when they are at college and the authorities seek to protect them in ways they themselves would never have countenanced in their own youth.

One of the things Lukianoff and Haidt point out is that the offence, danger and micro-aggressions that students talk of, are fomented by the same universities and even mental health professionals who encourage students to see everything through the lenses of offence, aggression etc. The book deals very well with this aspect. They encourage taking a step back and looking at the reality of the situation at hand.

Jazz hands and trigger warnings. . .

The over-protective environment has given rise to phenomena that many will be familiar with: trigger warnings, safe spaces, micro-aggressions, jazz hands, which is not a musical genre but an effort not to trigger someone through the loud sound of people clapping, so the audience waves their hands in the air instead. I kid you not, this is very much a real thing and a recent video of the Democratic Socialists of America conference has gone viral, mainly on right-wing sites, where members discuss the modern version of How many Angels can fit on the Head of a Pin and then one interrupts complaining about sensory overload and asked people not to whisper to each other and was “greeted” by a Jazz Hand applause (a contradiction in terms). At least the Angels debate was a real theological debate about the nature of supernatural beings and whether they had mass or not and it had theological implications. The DSA conference just looked laughable.

How did we get here? That is one of the points that the book deals with and how over-protection is ultimately negative and actually contributes to what it seeks to prevent. It seeks to protect young people from a cruel world in which they are seen as fragile, but actually contributes to making them even more fragile still or as the subtitle of the book states “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure”.

One of the most reactionary trends across campuses is the use of Trigger Warnings. Students demand and are given trigger warnings so as they are not stressed out by harsh reality but, as Haidt and Lukianoff point out, stress, discomfort and anxiety can only be overcome by dealing with them, not by avoidance. The real world will throw up all sorts of examples in daily life, in political activism, in personal relationships, events and information that cannot be controlled, nor should it be, but have to be dealt with.

Trigger warnings are, of course, inherently reactionary in any intellectual, academic or socialist setting. It could be argued, tongue in cheek, that old man Marx was big into trigger warnings as he named perhaps his most famous work that described, analyzed and critiqued capitalism as just simply Capital. What greater trigger warning could you get? It is a book about capital, everything in it will deal with greed, avarice, murder, destruction etc. But on a serious note, how could you receive a real history class that ignored the unpleasant nature of many aspects of human existence?

Reactionary outcomes

You couldn’t even teach religion. Imagine trying to explain Christianity and ignore what Christians refer to as the Passion of the Christ, dragging a cross up a hill, being whipped and then hung naked on a cross for three days of torture. Or in literature, how could you even read Roddy Doyle, never mind Shakespeare? The idea that you must be protected from stuff, limits your exposure to information and your ability to deal with it, but is also a limiting factor on the rest of the student body as they also lose out and lecturers increasingly decide to just not deal with issues. This has real world implications, that some of the coddlers don’t seem to realise actually put their students at greater risk, as the authors point out:

“For example, writing about her experience teaching sexual assault law, Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen of Harvard Law School observed in The New Yorker that ‘asking students to challenge each other in discussions of rape law has become so difficult that teachers are starting to give up on the subject. . . . If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss—above all to victims of sexual assault.'”

How can we demand changes to sexual assault legislation and procedures if the professionals charged with applying the current legislation and any future changes are, due to the coddling of their mind, ill-prepared or not prepared at all to deal with the issue? How can they demand due process, concern and protection for victims, if the legal professionals, judges, defence lawyers and prosecutors all skipped that class or their lecturer, for a quiet life, decided it wasn’t worth the hassle? Trigger warnings are also linked to the utterly reactionary idea of safe spaces. It seems like a good idea when you first hear it, that there should be safe spaces and if you mean by safe space a setting where you are protected from sexual assault, physical violence etc., well then you are on solid ground. But that is not what is meant; they are spaces where you are protected from ideas and discussions.  (Ironically, many of the supporters of the coddling kind of safe spaces favour biological males in women’s prisons, gyms, public toilets and so on!)

A case, not dealt with in the book, is that of Maryam Namazie, an Iranian feminist and an ex-Muslim, who was invited in 2015 to give a talk on blasphemy in the age of ISIS by the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society at Goldsmiths College in London. Her talk was interrupted by the Islamic Society, who even turned off her powerpoint presentation. When she told them to be quiet, the head of the Islamic Society shouted “Safe Space! Safe Space! Intimidation!” As Andrew Anthony, writing in The Guardian a year later pointed out, it was an almost comically discordant moment. “The bearded man shouting ‘safe space’ doesn’t look remotely intimidated. Instead he seems like someone who knows exactly what the approved complaint is to make, someone who is fully aware of his consumer rights.”

It is exactly the point; here a man was able to harass and hound a woman giving a talk at a university and it was he who was protected by the safe space, not her. Incredibility, the feminists on campus sided with the Islamic Society. Sisterhood is not a concept that exists in this ultra-reactionary and individualistic world. So whose safe space gets protected and how? Given the wave of Islamophobia sweeping the west it was almost inevitable it would be the Islamic Society on that occasion. It is bound up with liberal identity politics on the one hand and who can present themselves as the most put upon, most offended or easily-offended group. That is the group that wins. And thus a debate is avoided and reactionaries won the day. Could you imagine Christian Evangelicals trying to pull this off? Well, actually, you could, because they do and this is where it leads.

The Christiakis witch hunt

One of the most mind boggling cases, to me, that Lukianoff and Haidt deal with is that of Erika Christakis, a leading academic at Yale. She had written an email questioning whether the university should impose rules on Halloween costumes and instead proposed that the students talk to each other and try and set their own norms. A reasonable proposal by all means. Her husband was dragged into the issue and the students demanded in a fashion you wouldn’t find outside of North Korea that he denounce his wife.

Students accused him and Erika of being “racist” and “offensive,” “stripping people of their humanity,” “creating an unsafe space,” and enabling “violence”. They swore at him, criticized him for “not listening” and for not remembering students’ names. They told him not to smile, lean down, or gesticulate. And they told him they wanted him to lose his job. Eventually, in a scene that went viral, one student screamed at him: “Who the fuck hired you? You should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! It’s about creating a home here. . . . You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!”

A proposal for dialogue and for students to set their own rules is astonishingly rejected by the students themselves and how a student could think that a university should not be an intellectual space but a home is beyond me. It is the type of comment which only half in jest I would suggest merits being told you are clearly not up the task you have set yourself in going to a university. Both of the Christakises stepped down. No union to defend them, the university didn’t either and other lecturers were apparently afraid to express support for them.

Fascistic

Despite the progressive clothing some of the students would like to claim for themselves, their methods are closer to that of fascism, a conclusion not drawn by the authors, though they are worried about the authoritarian streak of it all. Whilst there is an historical racist use of what is called “black face” in the US, and for understandable reasons no one really defends it, the debate around Halloween veered off into a debate on Cultural Appropriation, ignoring that Halloween is an Irish and Scottish festival that the US appropriated in the first place. But we tend not to complain about it in Ireland as, over the years, we too have accepted the mangled version created in the US. But it does show the rabbit hole you go down on most of these issues, “black face” being an obvious exception.

The authors are liberals and do miss some of the points about student protests against certain types of speakers and it is understandable as the students and the examples given seem to miss the points themselves. Nobody protested the Vietnam War because they were personally offended; they made political points about imperialism, US interests, the savagery of the war being waged and a significant section, though not the majority, were not just opposed to the war but were in support of a Vietnamese victory over US imperialism, a point and conclusion you cannot reach unless you have a discussion, which is not brought to a crashing end by someone shouting “safe space”, “I want a trigger warning” or “I am personally offended”.

There is a famous video of Norman Finkelstein being challenged by a student who stated that she had found his use of the word fascist to talk about Israel offensive because of the camps in WWII. She managed to crack her voice and get teary-eyed into the bargain. Of course Finkelstein, who is a very paused and even boring speaker in terms of tone and delivery but not content, as he once said himself, lost his composure and stuffed it to her and spoke of his family and how only his mother and father survived the camps, the rest of his family on both sides perished. He comes from just such a family and is Jewish, and he could respond and beat any moralist or perpetually-offended student. But many people have been on the receiving end of those kinds of arguments and don’t have the background that can undercut moralists and so can be more easily silenced, depending on the issue. There is nothing progressive about this practice.

The degeneration of identity politics

But, as I said, Haidt is a psychologist and it is clear that he is deeply concerned not just about the politics of it all but also the harm being done to the mental health of a generation of young people and the book deals very well with this point, as could be expected from a competent professional not swept up in the latest “intellectual” fashion on campus. But neither do they ignore the politics of it all. The coddling is the expression of a political atmosphere that it both feeds into and feeds off of. One of the issues is Identity Politics. Asad Haider deals very well in his book Mistaken Identity about the progressive nature of the original identitarians who coined the phrase in 1977 and who were merely saying that, alongside class, there were other issues that had to be fought around. They described themselves as socialists, they believed in class politics and fighting around particular issues of race, sexuality, sex etc. This is, as he points out, a far cry from modern identity politics.

Haidt and Lukianoff have a slightly different take on the issue. They are not socialists, but how they divide identity politics is also interesting and relevant. They talk of common humanity identity politics as embodied by Martin Luther King, and described it thus: “Identity can be mobilized in ways that emphasize an overarching common humanity while making the case that some fellow human beings are denied dignity and rights because they belong to a particular group.” They contrast this to common enemy identity politics, which uncomfortably for some includes the Nazis and modern right-wing groups and neo-Nazis.

They are not wrong in this; indeed, they have hit the nail on the head. But on what passes for a left in the US, identity politics and the moralism that goes with it shuts down discussion on every point: “How dare you tell me I am wrong, I am. . .”  There is no come back to it, unless you are willing and can compete in a battle for top dog in a hierarchy of suffering, real or imagined. This is an actual reality on campuses. In Mistaken Identity, Haider gives an example in the University of California Santa Cruz, where a march was being organised and it was decided that only blacks would be at the front of it, in the middle other people of colour, including Haider himself who, though born in the US of Pakistani descent, and, at the end of the march, whites. It sounded like a Nazi’s dream in reverse. Utterly reactionary.

Wising up

They finish off their book with a chapter titled “Wising Up”. A very US turn of phrase, but apt. They make a series of proposals around education, universities and rearing children, preparing the child for the road and not the road for the child. Most of them are very valuable contributions that should be read by anyone with any responsibility for children as parents, guardians, or educators.

However, these changes won’t happen in a vacuum; they are part of a general retreat by the left.  Ths retreat is not just in actual physical terms, though the decimation of left groups is not to be underestimated; but it is also an ideological, philosophical and political retreat. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortéz recently made a speech in which she invited racists to come back, that they are loved etc. This doesn’t cut it. Racism is not just a personal failing. Eugene Debbs, the legendary US working class leader of the early part of the 20th century, had said that that the person who teaches the white worker to look down on the black worker is an enemy of both. Lukianoff and Haidt would be uncomfortable with the term “enemy” and would probably fear that it feeds into precisely what they are criticising. However, class enemies are not figments of the mind, they are not the product of personal offence, but material reality.

Ending racism in the US and elsewhere requires a common political programme that embraces black and white, something the authors would agree with, but it does not embrace all. It does not embrace Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but it does or should embrace rural white farm labourers and inner city black communities. If debate is left to a comparison of personal offences taken, there is no way forward, as you end up discussing who caused greater offence rather than what the actual political proposal is and what it means and who does it benefit, objectively speaking.

Despite, some of its liberal failings, The Coddling of the American Mind is a wonderful book and a breath of fresh air. It covers psychology, politics, philosophy, conflict and makes an invaluable contribution to understanding where we are and how we got here, covering a range of topics no review could do justice to. It is replete with examples that should worry us all and some of which readers will find surprising ever happened. Some examples would have been the material of a Woody Allen film back in the 1960s: weird, strange, hard to fathom and ultimately not believable as possible, yet here we are.

What would have made a great joke many years ago, is now reality and only the right dare make jokes about it. It is a threat to academic freedom, the left and any critique of imperialism and capitalism. Can a white male criticise Hillary Clinton and Obama? The answer would seem obvious, but that is no longer the case amongst the eternally-offended brigade. It is time for a push back, a term some will find offensive but if we push back hard enough, some might come to see that it wasn’t and that is progress; nothing good can come from the moralism and personal offence atmosphere of campuses and wider society. It does not prepare the ground for socialism, or anything mildly progressive, but rather a right-wing authoritarianism. The cradle of this current trend is the US Democratic Party, hardly a bastion of light, liberty and progress.

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