Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Book Review: The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

This highly recommended book addresses an extremely important issue: why the current climate we have in the States is characterized by increased and pathological polarization between various groups and subgroups, with each group vilifying the others. The authors also focus on a cultural shift on college campuses that has often led to an environment characterized by political correctness rather than free and open debate between opposing viewpoints. Groups can even turn on their own members for deviating ever so slightly from a “party line.”

The book is almost a textbook about certain processes that are characteristic of groupthink. Groupthink is when a group of people, in an effort to demonstrate harmony and unity, fail to consider alternative perspectives and ultimately adopts a shared narrative about the world which actively tries to keep out opposing viewpoints. 

Haidt, in a previous work reviewed here, pointed out that when groups of people who know each other share goals and values, this enhances “our ability to work together, divide labor, help each other, and function as a team is so all-pervasive we don’t even notice it.” He adds that “Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by prolonged movement in unison that drilling involves.” 

However, sometimes groupthink goes way too far. Even supposedly objective scientists are not immune from overdoing it, which will be the subject of an upcoming book on groupthink in science I am co-editing for Springer.

Group process, in human psychology, is often at odds with our own brain’s ability to be selfish and think about what we want and believe instead of what others want us to want and believe. There is a war between individualist and collectivist tendencies within all of us. This idea is at the heart of my own therapy model, unified therapy. Its roots, in turn, are found in the model of family systems therapy formulated by Murray Bowen. 

His was the first, and is still seemingly the only other, therapy model that recognizes this basic conflict, which is found everywhere in nature. We are biologically programmed to, under certain environmental circumstances, sacrifice our own needs and beliefs – and even our very lives – for our kin or ethnic group.

The book discussed here looks at not only political correctness as an impediment for finding truth in the universe, but what they see as a related issue: why the rates of depression, anxiety, drug abuse and suicide have been rapidly increasing in college aged kids and others over the last few years. He attributes this to the adoption by large numbers of people in the Western world, particularly in the States, of what he calls “three great untruths:”

1.      The untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
2.      The untruth of emotional reasoning: always trust your feelings.
3.      The untruth of Us versus Them: life is a battle between good people and evil people.

When I was growing up in the 1950’s, all of the children I knew were out riding their bicycles in the neighborhood, wandering freely over significant distances, and spending much of their time engaged in free play. Many of them walked or rode their bikes to school, and baby sitters hired by parents at night could be as young as 12. What a difference from today, when someone might call the police or child protective services on you for letting a 9 year old walk home from school without adult supervision! 

Ironically, the rate of child abductions and crimes against kids was no different then than it is today, but partly because of pictures of missing kids on milk cartons and also because of widespread illiteracy about probability, today’s parents are downright paranoid.

The effect is disastrous. Human beings are, in many but of course not always, what the authors term anti-fragile. Of course, if trauma is severe or frequent, children often become more fragile and fall apart emotionally more easily later on. However, as the authors point out, if they are not exposed to a certain amount of stressors and challenges, they do not seem to learn to tolerate adversity, adapt to stressful circumstances, and grow up. They get weaker. Some stress is good for you! 

This is a good illustration of what I call the “principle of opposite behaviors.” Two opposite but extreme approaches to life and parenting lead to the very same problem. In this case, people who act fragile. Parents who over-protect their children end up harming them and driving their emotional problems.

My view about the interpersonal processes involved here differs somewhat from that of the authors. I do not think these folks are usually as fragile as they might appear. I think they act that way because they believe that their parents need them to be that way so the parents can feel good about themselves.

Over-protective parenting has become epidemic in society. The authors go into several revealing reasons for this phenomenon, although they do not mention as one of these reasons what I believe to be a major contributor: Over the period from 1965 to today, the change in gender role expectations and the need for two career families has led parents to feel guilty about not being there as much for their kids. They make up for it by being overly solicitous. These guilty feeling are exacerbated by today's culture wars.

One of the odd things going on in college campuses lately stems directly from the parenting changes: the absurd emphasis on “triggers,” “microaggressions” and the need for “safe spaces.” What this means is that both the kids and the adults running the schools think that a kid can be literally traumatized by hearing someone’s conflicting opinion. Not just upset, annoyed or even angry about it, but literally traumatized. Scarred for life!

The professors who don’t believe this to be the case feel intimidated and fearful for their jobs if they challenge this belief, and so they usually remain silent. This has led to something akin to a “speech police.” Speakers are prevented from coming to campus by occasionally violent protesters, and well-meaning professors and administrators have been fired for using the wrong word in something they wrote. The authors give several truly frightening examples.

This culture is completely the opposite of the culture that led to the “free speech movement” at the University of California in Berkeley in the mid 1960’s. Human knowledge advances by the free exchange of ideas as well as challenges to those ideas. That idea used to be at heart of the philosophy of higher education in the United States, but in many cases it seems to have disappeared.

Particularly enlightening – and frightening – is the book’s chapter on witch hunts. These occur when “A community becomes obsessed with religious or ideological purity, and believes it needs to find and punish enemies within its own ranks in order to hold itself together” (p.99). If someone offers any kind of differing viewpoint, they become the enemy. Everything starts to reek of “Us versus Them,” and the idea that people are either good or evil, and everyone seems to assume the worst about almost everyone else.

1 comment:

  1. Here's an article written by a grad student who has pilloried by the SJW mob for using the term "witch hunt" in her research proposal for witch hunts.