Book Review: The Coddling of the American Mind
By someone who is the exact Gen Z cutoff birth year, according to the book
Today, a book by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff: The Coddling of the American Mind. I read this book via Audible, where Haidt narrates. He does a good job.
The book opens with a comical fictional anecdote involving traveling to see an oracle near Mount Olympus, and this oracle sits on an excessively comfy chair and tells our authors what are later termed the Three Great Untruths: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, life is a battle between good people and evil people, and always trust your feelings.
The first portion of the book makes the case that these ideas are bad, and their consequences are bad, and they’re increasingly prominent in Gen Z (which they define here as 1995+) and in the institutions that cater to Gen Z, specifically colleges. Much of the book makes the argument that such developments as trigger/content warnings, cancel culture, social media more broadly, and a resurrection of the ideas of Herbert Marcuse are causing harm to the mental health and development of the people in my generation and people younger than me.
This topic is of great interest to me because I lived through this exact period of cultural change on college campuses. I went to Texas A&M, a conservative university in the Brazos Valley, and saw most of this cultural upheaval play out in real time. When I arrived, I didn’t pay any of the above ideas much mind (for better or worse), I befriended some professors and worked on schoolwork with no sense of these overarching meta-events as described in the book. By my senior year, though, the Donald Trump campaign had been in full swing for over a year, and of course he won the election. The following month, Richard Spencer, noted neo-Nazi white supremacist, visited the school to make a speech.
The school responded badly. They messed up the PR, as did many schools, failing to prominently explain that, as a public institution, they were legally required to allow private citizens to rent event space regardless of the nature of the speech taking place there. Thus many left-leaning students condemned the school for failing to cancel the speech (which they weren’t allowed to do), and the speech occurred to the tune of massive protests all over campus, a general fear for our safety during and shortly after the protests, and a few attempted escalations to violence in the crowd during the speech. Thankfully none of these erupted.
This was before the 2017 Berkeley protests, but there was a sense that an eruption like what later happened at Berkeley was possible. When I was at A&M, I think it was just barely approaching political parity (left-leaning students rising in number relative to a historical right-leaning majority). By 2017, there was a slight left-leaning majority. But there was deep political turmoil on campus. It was fascinating, therefore, for me to read Haidt’s description of the escalation of what he terms “safetyism” during the exact years I went to college, at one point including a detailed list, by year, of news headlines and viral social media stories that may have helped my generation form these opinions.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s defer the definition of safetyism to Wikipedia:
The authors define safetyism as a culture or belief system in which safety (which includes "emotional safety") has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.
The idea is that young people are more inclined to believe they are fragile, that hearing contrary perspectives on sensitive issues such as race, gender, sexuality etc. may cause meaningful harm to themselves or others, that institutions such as universities should make efforts to restrict such objectionable speech on campus, and that failing to do so may “deny [certain people] a right to exist” or similar.
The view is exemplified by pushes all across the US for people to institute content warning policies, eliminate objectionable speech and speakers from campus, keep race and sexuality in mind in an expanding set of areas, and interpret administrative words and actions in the least charitable way possible on all these issues.
The authors argue that these views appeared suddenly in 2013 and reached a peak around 2017—not-so-coincidentally the exact years of my college cohort. I remember the Evergreen State College protests, also in 2017. Here’s a Wikipedia summary. I remember watching Aggie friends I’d known for years suddenly get radicalized one way or the other—either for or against Richard Spencer, for or against Sargon of Akkad, for or against Milo Yiannopoulos; make no mistake, plenty of people liked and appreciated these figures for speaking out against what they claimed were obstructions to First Amendment speech.
I mostly opted out of this in college. For brief periods of time I was receptive to particularly Sargon, but quickly realized that he had no idea what he was talking about. I thought Milo was funny and might be useful for the culture because, at least to me, it seemed obvious that he was a provocateur and didn’t actually care much about the opinions he espoused. For the entire time I was vaguely frustrated that people wanted to shut down objectionable speech—contrary to what one may expect from my birth year, my default position has always been that it’s better to let the opposition speak than to silence them. I still believe this, if for no other reason than we otherwise live in a tyranny of our own design where increasingly innocent speech is rendered objectionable. (I would argue this is happening today, at a varying pace.)
I didn’t attend the Richard Spencer speech, and I’m glad I didn’t. I was unbearably scared of conflict back then and didn’t want to walk past any protesters or be in a room where a fight may break out. I thought it was quite reasonable that someone might bring a weapon to the event hall. A&M was, at the time, a school of at least 55,000 in-person students, so there wasn’t much risk I would be recognized by other students after attending the speech, but I settled for watching the livestream instead.
It was… stupid. His ideas were obviously ridiculous to me and that made me even more confused: why is it a big deal if someone speaks if they want to literally force the mass emigration of nonwhite people from the United States? That idea is completely ridiculous, stupid and offensive on its face and it would never be possible.
I think lots of people on the left in those days thought that there was an appetite for such an opinion among other students at the University. From conversations I had, the issue at play was genuinely free speech: everyone right-leaning I spoke with told me that they thought Spencer was an idiot but he should have the right to speak. I don’t think most left-leaning student felt that way: most of them thought the students who wanted Spencer to speak were implicitly expressing support for his views. To this day I don’t think the two political sides understand each other on issues like this.
Then there was what became known as the Lindsay Shepherd affair in Ontario, which needs no introduction to people who are exactly my age but may be lesser-known to others. The story goes that Shepherd, a graduate student running a class, showed a video of Jordan Peterson on Canadian cable TV and was disciplined based on the contents of that video being potentially objectionable to students in the room. The University fabricated a complaint against her—she later realized, in a meeting with her professor and a campus administrator that she secretly recorded, that there was no such complaint. This pretty much radicalized her against social justice and in favor of free speech advocacy. Today she works for a right-wing Canadian media outlet.
That one was particularly painful to me because, unlike all prior cases (it’s hard to defend Milo’s ridiculous speeches as having any value), I just couldn’t grok what Shepherd did wrong that would’ve been worthy of disciplinary action, according to any reasonable interpretation of anything. It’s okay if you disagree with me, but I don’t see the problem with showing a clip from cable TV in a university setting.
So safetyism was pretty rampant in those days. Given that I’ve now been out of university for about four years, I have no idea whether these ideas are still so prominent. But I have some exposure to what’s happening in my local school district because my girlfriend is a schoolteacher, and it seems less severe than anything I’m talking about here.1
The usefulness of the book
Why is the book useful? Well, I think it’s most useful if you flatly disagree with the significance of the issues I summarize above, or with my own opinions presented above. I think the issues Haidt and Lukianoff bring up are worthy of attention, particularly because I do think we are somewhat entering a prison of our own design when it comes to professional cancel culture.
I’ve worked at companies where I, a center-left liberal sympathetic to some libertarian views, have felt uncomfortable speaking because of an overwhelming constant emphasis on social justice. This is a tough spot to be in when I indeed strongly support all the social issues the left cares about: I’m pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights, I think racism and sexism, including the subtle kinds, are problems, etc. I just also would prefer to not walk on eggshells around my colleagues when these issues come up. I’m absolutely terrified of saying something wrong by accident, being misinterpreted, having it decided by an HR team that my intent doesn’t matter in the face of the alleged harm, and being disciplined or fired. It’s happened to a few friends of mine at companies large and small.
I think the book is useful because it humanizes people concerned about these things. I’m, of course, inclined to advocate for others to read the book because it articulates mostly opinions I share. I think it’s probably more important to read if you don’t share those opinions. I felt that the book mostly rehashed events with which I was already familiar, but it was nice to hear them echoed by someone with such a large following as Haidt.
Another, more egoistic recommendation strategy: if you want to understand the university culture I saw develop, and that I experienced during my education, I recommend you read this book.
Caveat: anything middle school kids do is likely to be less severe than what the same kids would do in college. So, the jury’s out on the current state of education through the lens of safetyism.