On comfort blankets


The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, Allen Lane, 2018, £20.

Hysteria is a taboo word nowadays. Derided for its original concept of female volatility wreaked by hormones, it also offends the postmodern elevation of emotional truth. Yet the feminist #MeToo movement, a moral panic of gender grievance, is becoming a case study of mass hysteria. Consider the reaction to the appointment of judge Brett Kavanaugh by the Trump administration. Protestors haranguing Republican senators displayed little rational argument, instead working themselves into a frenzy over the minor (and possibly contrived) allegations of sexual impropriety at a student party back in 1982.

Such behaviour may be seen as a manifestation of the Coddling of the American Mind. This book, written by free speech campaigner Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, describes three myths entrenched in the younger segments of the American populace: the untruth of fragility, the untruth of emotional reasoning and the untruth of them versus us. A victim culture has been nurtured, in which groups granted special status (on basis of ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender) might be harmed by words or ideas. Emotional reasoning has been institutionalised in university and corporate policies, and in laws against ‘hate speech’ stipulating that if offence is felt, an offence has been committed.

The younger generations have become dependent on the state and educational institutes as surrogate parents, and in consequence they been disempowered. In this ‘tell teacher’ infantilisation, any perceived slight is taken seriously and the alleged offender finds himself in a Kafkaesque status of guilty until proved innocent. Stultified universities are failing to prepare young people for the diversity of opinions and attitudes in the real world, where there is a stretching schism between conservatives and progressives. Brainwashed students cannot understand how Donald Trump was elected, having been exposed only to views diametrically opposed to the notions of white male privilege and ‘the patriarchy’

American books on the culture wars give prominence to Herbert Marcuse, who is scarcely mentioned on this side of the Atlantic. Like Michael Walsh in the Devil’s Pleasure Palace, Lukianoff and Haidt regard Marcuse as the progenitor of identity politics. Having fled from the Nazis, Marcuse taught at Columbia University, where he propagated critical theory. In the 1960s his writing inspired the New Left and radical student movements. British and European texts focus on Gramsci and his ‘long march through the institutions’, but he and Marcuse were very similar in their respective concepts of ‘positive’ and ‘repressive tolerance’. Moral relativism was licensed: rather than pursuing equality, the oppressed must rise against their conservative enemies and deny them any say.

Society is becoming more polarised, and this troubles Lukianoff and Haidt. Sometimes there is a hint of sanctimony in their sympathy for the students and their causes. It shouldn’t be so, but the authors’ professed liberal-left orientation will help to get their message heard. Haidt is a respected scholar, whose book Righteous Mind (2012) was widely praised in the left-leaning media. When the authors describe crazy campus protests, such as the witch-hunt that snared Yale psychologist Erika Christakis and the riot at Berkeley (the battleground for freedom of speech in 1964, but in 2017 for freedom from speech), they do not sensationalise for right-wing purpose.

Lukianoff and Haidt try to understand the cause of these tantrums. Having absorbed the subversive ideology of cultural Marxism, young people are conflating beliefs with rights. By attributing any differences in social outcomes to sexism or racism, with no other explanation allowed, they have taken an anti-science stance. The authors see the root of assumed vulnerability in risk-averse parenting and schooling, but overlook the destructive effects of secularism not only on tradition but also on universal values. The Christian tenet of ‘do to others as you would have others do to you’ is abandoned in the febrile atmosphere on campus.

Astoundingly, the book omits any mention of Jordan Peterson. Lukianoff and Haidt promote cognitive behaviour therapy for its application of Stoic philosophy, which can build the resilience so lacking in coddled youth. Whatever the authors may think of Peterson, he has made waves in broader culture and has freed many young people from the cultural straitjacket. Although coming from different angles, there is much overlap in the recommendations by Haidt and Lukianoff and Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life.

There is hope for the younger generations. British schoolchildren are raised with the comfort blankets of health’n’safety and the progressive idealism of state and superstate provision. Repudiation of national identity has been encouraged by the EU, but once people realise the limitations and pessimistic prospects of this flawed project, perhaps they will learn that charity – giving and receiving – begins at home.

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2 Comments on On comfort blankets

  1. In respect of emotional reasoning, whatever happened to the old saying that sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me? That saying must have been made by more robust generations. Now the phenomenon of global emotional reasoning is melting the snowflakes.

  2. It always amazed me that Marcuse, the “campus ideologue”, became so influential because, to judge from the one book of his I read (One Dimensional Man), his prose was impenetrable (unlike fellow critical theorist Eric Fromm) – the only point I recall from it was how the US leaders used the old trick to maintain social stability of pointing out how bad everywhere else was – I speculated at the time that perhaps it was because he was not an English native speaker, and perhaps because of the influence of German philosophical terms on the level of expression…or perhaps Fromm was just fortunate in having a better editor.