I recently had a chance to speak with Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and professor of business ethics at New York University-Stern School of Business, whose book, The Righteous Mind, discusses the emotional justification of modern-day ethical beliefs and political divides. Recently, he wrote a landmark article for The Atlantic with Greg Lukianoff, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” about the culture of oversensitivity on university campuses.
This “coddling” culture, a term coined by Haidt and Lukianoff, has been criticized by conservatives—as would be expected—but also liberals, including President Obama. According to Haidt, this is causing a quietly growing rift: between the liberal Left and the “illiberal” Left.
The big surprise for me in publishing the article with Lukianoff is that we were expecting a lot of controversy, a lot of pushback, a lot of anger, and there was pretty close to zero. Almost everybody seemed to agree with the article.The vast majority on the left are not illiberal, and these tendencies are very illiberal. It involves the shouting-down of speakers, disinviting speakers, telling people what they can say, telling people what they can wear. The new political correctness is extremely illiberal and most liberals are uncomfortable. The liberal left is much larger, but the illiberal left is much angrier and much more vocal.
So who supports this coddling?
The great majority of people over 35 seem to dislike this coddling culture, they were not raised with it. Most of them had “free-range” childhoods where they spent time without adult supervision and were expected to fend for themselves. So the biggest divide is age. The only people who support the “coddling culture,” as far as I can tell, are under 35, on the Left, and on a college campus. There also seems to be a sex difference—women are more attracted to this view than men, perhaps because many of these ideas grew out of from feminist theory in the 1990s. But the bottom line is that we have an emperor’s new clothes situation, where a small minority of people are bullying the majority, and I am hoping the majority will stand up and say, ‘You don’t get to tell me how to speak.’
We need a reorganization of priorities, according to Haidt. He likes the framework of diversity, but instead of racial and gender diversity, he says we need to begin emphasizing “viewpoint diversity.”
I think we are due for a change in our thinking about diversity. It’s going to be very difficult but it’s essential. There was a time when racial diversity and gender diversity were the most pressing issues, when many institutions were all-white and all-male. . . . [But] with each passing year, racial diversity and gender diversity, I believe, while still important, should become lower priorities, and with each passing year political diversity becomes more and more important: our nation becomes more and more paralyzed. . . . In higher education, we have a lot of race and gender diversity and we have essentially no political diversity. In social psychology we have virtually no one, there is only one conservative in the whole field that I know of.
Fear reigns on campuses now. (See the recent essay on Vox entitled, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.”) Haidt relates his reticence to speak openly about the coddled culture:
I would not want to lead a conversation on this topic with students here at NYU. Not because NYU is more PC than other top schools—it’s not. But professors are much safer these days speaking at other campuses than on their own because it’s only on your own campus that students are going to file harassment charges and drag you before the Equal Opportunity Commission if you say one word that offends someone. So I must heavily self-censor when I speak on my home campus. I can be more provocative and honest when I’m speaking at other schools.
So how do we move forward, out of this vindictive attack culture? Think young.
A carton of eggs is fragile, if you bang it around it breaks. But bone is anti-fragile. If you bang it around it gets stronger, and if you don’t bang it around it gets weaker. Children are anti-fragile. They have to have many, many experiences of failure, fear, and being challenged. Then they have to figure out ways to get themselves through it. If you deprive children of those experiences for eighteen years and then send them to college, they cannot cope. They don’t know what to do. The first time a romantic relationship fails or they get a low grade, they are not prepared because they have been rendered fragile by their childhoods. So until we can change childhood in America, we won’t be able to roll this back and make room of open debate.
My biggest prescription is that in every hospital delivery room, along with that first set of free diapers, should come the book: Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. If everyone in America read the book Free-Range Kids the problem would be over in 21 years, when the first set of tougher kids filled our universities.
If you try to reach students when they get to college it’s already too late. . . . As we say in the essay, childhood changed in 80s and 90s, there was much more protectiveness, there were new zero tolerance policies on bullying, which was fine when bullying was linked to physical aggression and to repeated actions. But bullying has gotten defined down over the last twenty years. There’s no longer a connection to physical violence, it no longer requires repetition, and it no longer requires intent. If someone feels excluded or marginalized by a single event, they have been bullied, and there’s zero tolerance for that. So that’s the way kids are socialized by the time they arrive in college. . .
What I would suggest is that if any school has an anti-bullying policy, they should balance it with an anti-coddling policy. They need to realize they can do a lot of harm if they coddle the students. They turn them into “moral dependents,” a term for people who cannot solve problems by themselves; they are morally dependent on adults or other authorities to solve their problems for them.
The vindictiveness resulting from the new political correctness may eventually be its undoing, says Haidt.
I think emotions are going to lead a drive back to rationality. What I mean by that is when you talk to a professor who has been brought up on charges or attacked verbally for saying something innocent—they’re angry. Like a friend of mine, who teaches at a small liberal arts college and once referred to someone “going over to the dark side.” He was called a racist, and warned that such insensitivity would not be tolerated. When those things add up, and when liberal professors are constantly reprimanded or brought up on formal charges despite their good intentions, you get very resentful. And this whole vindictive protectiveness movement is only about two years old. . . . If you do a Google trend search, you see that words like “microaggression” and “trigger warnings” didn’t exist until 2012 and only really became common in the fall semester of 2013. Then Spring 2014 was the time when so many speakers were disinvited from speaking on campuses, including Christine Lagarde and Condoleeza Rice.
But, Dr. Haidt, do you think it’s going to get better or worse?
Worse. It’s going to get much, much worse over the next couple years and at that point some universities may start changing policies. By that point, many or maybe most American parents won’t want to send their children to the top universities, and there will be an enormous market opportunity for second-level universities that offer a much less coddled campus culture.
[Interview Note: This conversation took place on November 4. Over the following days, the meltdowns at Yale, Dartmouth, The University of Missouri, and Claremont McKenna College took place.]
Dominic Bouck, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph.