I was chief researcher and in-house editor for The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. In the book, we outline three misguided principles (“Great Untruths”) that form the foundation of the new moral culture we are seeing on some college campuses:
- The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
- The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
- The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
We also trace six explanatory threads—cultural trends and practices that explain why this new moral culture, which we call “safetyism,” seemed to emerge so rapidly between 2013 and 2015:
- Rising teen depression and anxiety.
- The damaging effects of overprotection and social media.
- The loss of play in childhood.
- The polarization of the country.
- New ideas about justice.
- The bureaucratization of higher education.
While working on the book, I realized that much of the argumentation and rhetoric in this new moral culture relies on taboo and moral pollution. As we compiled story after story, we noticed that rather than making counterarguments to disfavored claims, students (and sometimes professors) seemed to focus on discrediting the speaker or writer instead. They offered many reasons why the person should not be trusted or liked, but failed to offer reasons why the person was wrong.
Anticipating that these tactics would likely be employed by those hoping to discredit the book, we included a footnote predicting that most of the negative reviews and responses would cast aspersions on the authors rather than rebutting their ideas. Here is footnote 44 from chapter 4:
44. In fact, we can make a prediction right now, while writing this book in 2017: Most of the negative reviews and responses to this book will at some point note our race and gender and then directly assert or vaguely hint that we are racists or sexists who are motivated primarily by the desire to preserve our privilege. We will then respond in the spirit of Mark Lilla, the author of a critique of identity politics titled The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla, an avowed liberal who wrote his book to help the Democrats start winning elections, responds to repeated name-calling by saying, essentially, “That is a slur, not an argument. Make an argument and I’ll respond to it.”
So far, The Coddling of the American Mind has received generally positive reviews from writers on the Left, Right, and center. A notable exception is a review by Moira Weigel titled “How Elite US Liberals Have Turned Rightwards.” It appeared in the Guardian, and illustrated the tactics we predicted.
Reading this review gave me profound spiritual satisfaction https://t.co/l5TwdFdMMb
— Tobi Haslett (@TobiHaslett) September 20, 2018
Weigel argues that the authors’ race and gender may have influenced which ideas they find attractive. (This is a reasonable point and it is equally true for everyone, regardless of race or gender.) She also identifies some lacunae in the book, such as the rising student debt crisis and the precarious nature of employment for adjunct professors. But the review fails to respond to or rebut any of our core arguments; it is not about the three Great Untruths, it does not address the six interacting threads the book delineates, and it makes no arguments to counter anything in the book.
Instead, the rhetorical approach exemplifies precisely the aspects of the moral culture we identify and criticize in the book, and the tactics are ad hominem: guilt by association, and misrepresentation.
The following paragraphs exemplify these tactics (emphasis added):
Lukianoff and Haidt go out of their way to reassure us: “Neither of us has ever voted for a Republican for Congress or the presidency.” Like Mark Lilla, Pinker, and Francis Fukuyama, who have all condemned identity politics in recent books, they are careful to distinguish themselves from the unwashed masses—those who also hate identity politics and supposedly brought us Donald Trump. In fact, the data shows that it was precisely the better-off people in poor places, perhaps not so unlike these famous professors in the struggling academy, who elected Trump; but never mind. I believe that these pundits, like the white suburban Dad in the horror film Get Out, would have voted for Barack Obama a third time.
Still, they may protest too much. In the midst of what Fukuyama, citing his colleague Larry Diamond, calls a “democratic recession,” the consensus that has ruled liberal institutions for the past two decades is cracking up. The media has made much of the leftward surge lifting Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But as this new left-liberalism gains strength, a growing number of white men who hold power in historically liberal institutions seem to be breaking right.
First, the review quotes the authors admitting that they have never voted for a Republican for Congress or the presidency. Then, in a bizarre turn, it attempts to tarnish them by associating them with people who did vote for a Republican for the presidency. (Those Trump voters are “perhaps not so unlike these famous professors.”) As if that were not enough to discredit them, the review then attempts to associate the authors with a white male character in a horror film who enslaves black people and commandeers their bodies. And what do the authors have in common with him? It is imagined that all three of them “would have voted for Barack Obama a third time.”
These two paragraphs close by indicting the authors for being “white men who hold power,” while mischaracterizing their politics as “breaking right.” There is no basis in the book for saying that the authors are moving right, and the review does not provide one. But, for those who embrace the Untruth of Us Versus Them, “either you’re with us or against us”—if you criticize the Left, you must be on the Right.
Taboo and Moral Pollution
While working on the book, I realized that much of the argumentation and rhetoric in this new moral culture relies on taboo and moral pollution. All cultures have taboos. In traditional societies, taboos prohibited certain behaviors, foods, objects, people, places, words, and so on. They did so, not because these things were physically harmful (although, coincidentally, some of them were), but because, as Haidt explained in a 2017 article in the Atlantic, they were each felt to be “an abomination, which may bring divine retribution.” Every society, he explained, “makes some things sacred, rallying around a few deeply revered values, people, or places, which bind all members together and make them willing to sacrifice for the common good.”
Violating that which is sacred morally pollutes the transgressor. This understanding operates on a deep emotional level, and not always consciously. In generations past, parents who washed out their children’s mouths with soap as punishment for saying “dirty words” were, from an anthropological standpoint, ritually purifying their children, who had violated a taboo. This cleansing metaphorically removed the pollution, restoring moral purity.
In the same way, an idea can be contaminated by proximity to something which is itself already contaminated; if an idea seems to have something in common with another that is already considered polluted, the association can provoke powerful emotions like disgust and contempt. It is exceedingly difficult to give an idea a fair hearing while experiencing those emotions, and giving someone the benefit of the doubt while experiencing powerful, negative moral emotions such as disgust is very hard to do. Instead, our biases do the work for us. This can prevent us from being able to formulate coherent arguments against positions we find contemptible because we have not really understood those positions; we have only understood our reflexive emotional reactions to them.
Our brains evolved for tribal warfare. Part of tribal thinking involves establishing which people are morally clean and which are not; who belongs to (good) “us” and who is part of (evil) “them.” The social distance we create between “us” and “them” has a certain logic because, like germs, moral pollution is contagious—if we get too close to a morally polluted person we risk contamination. Contact with moral pollution can result in banishment from the tribe—like a leper. But belonging is such a fundamental human need that many people would rather suffer tremendous pain and humiliation than become a social outcast. This powerful need to belong is why college students who “pledge” fraternities are willing to participate in hazing, which is not only designed to humiliate, but can also be dangerous and even life-threatening.
The instinct to avoid social exile is strong and universal. In our culture, children rehearse this understanding of contamination by engaging in games about “cooties,” which can sometimes be cruel and dehumanizing. Much of childhood social isolation operates on the same principles of contagion and pollution; in a prestige economy in which unpopular children have little to no value, the perceived social cost of even talking to them is too high for most other children to bear. Befriending the friendless does not come naturally. Although children rarely lose prestige by being kind to those with much lower social status, in a typical social system, no one gains prestige that way.
In contemporary politics, this principle of contamination operates more openly. In Vice President Joe Biden’s eulogy of Senator John McCain, he recalled that both men were told by their respective caucuses not to sit together because it didn’t “look good” to their respective tribes. After McCain’s cancer diagnosis, Senator Cory Booker reported being “pilloried” by Democrats on social media for embracing the ailing McCain on the Senate floor.
This is how guilt by association works. A shared moral intuition about proximity and pollution allows us to stigmatize others by associating them with “bad” people. Relying on guilt by association evinces a worldview of life as a battle between good people and evil people (the Great Untruth of Us Versus Them), and because contamination can mean exile, in intellectual settings, this effectively prevents people from engaging with people or views that conflict with the most sacred beliefs of their tribe.
Guilt by Association and Misrepresentation in the Guardian‘s Review
In what follows, we will see how the review in the Guardian misrepresents Lukianoff and Haidt and attempts to highlight their perceived contamination:
1) Misrepresentation plus guilt by association:
Lukianoff and Haidt share some benefactors and allies with the well-established Right that funded Bloom and D’Souza.
While nothing in the above statement is technically false, it mischaracterizes the authors by omission. In fact, Lukianoff is the president of a non-partisan organization, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and Haidt co-founded the non-partisan Heterodox Academy. Some people who donate to their nonprofits are conservatives. But many donors to those organizations lean politically left.
2) Guilt by association:
At one point Lukianoff and Haidt rehearse a narrative about Herbert Marcuse that has been a staple of white nationalist conspiracy theories about “cultural Marxism” for decades. Nassim Taleb, whose book Antifragile Haidt and Lukianoff credit with one of their core beliefs and cite repeatedly as inspiration, is a fixture of the far-Right “manosphere” that gathers on Reddit/pol and returnofkings.com.
The argument seems to go like this: Some white nationalists dislike Marcuse and like Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The authors critique Marcuse and draw upon Taleb’s concept of antifragility. Therefore, because Lukianoff and Haidt have something in common with hateful people, they must be hateful themselves.
3) Guilt by association:
The rhetorical appeal, here, shares a structure with the appeal that carried the enemy in chief of political correctness to the White House: “That’s just common sense.”
This seems to be an assertion that the authors use a rhetorical strategy similar to Trump’s, therefore they are like Trump, and readers should feel toward them as they feel toward Trump. (Some readers may recognize that this rhetorical strategy is similar to one used by Joseph McCarthy.)
Oddly, in discussing the playful opening story (in which the authors go on a metaphorical journey to consult a Greek oracle) the review describes it as a “bait and switch.” And, in a non-sequitur, an old chestnut appears:
The bait and switch might seem like a strange way to begin fighting dogma on behalf of facts. But the “tenured radical” is a long-standing enemy in the culture war industry.
The “tenured radical” may be “a long-standing enemy in the culture war industry,” but the book isn’t a polemic against tenured radicals. Although some professors behave badly in the stories we tell, throughout the book we defend professors and tell their stories of being targeted—sometimes from the Right and sometimes from the Left. (In fact, FIRE is often the only group defending these professors.) The book isn’t about a culture war, let alone part of a mercenary “industry.” It is about avoiding cognitive distortions, encouraging resilience, and developing an antifragile generation. This book is not an attack on universities or on “tenured radicals”; it is a constructive attempt to help students and universities solve some pressing problems.
The authors cite the “folk wisdom” “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” They call this attitude “pragmatic.” The prospect that a group of children might get together to build a new road themselves is not one they can countenance.
Far from this being something the authors are unable to countenance, encouraging children to build new roads themselves is exactly what the authors hope to achieve. But this can’t happen if adults prepare roads rather than children.
The review presents false claims about the arguments in the book:
[Lukianoff] and Haidt argue that student demands for social justice are expressions of “cognitive distortions” that CBT can correct…
False. There’s a whole chapter on the quest for justice.
…and that the problems that young people and their parents worry about are not as grave as they think…
False. We say the opposite about the real problems young people and their parents worry about.
…they are simply, as Steven Pinker writes, “problems of progress.”
False, and a misrepresentation of how we talk about problems of progress.
While we say that some problems are examples of “problems of progress,” the book actually says much more about problems. For example (emphasis in original):
To repeat, we are not saying that the problems facing students, and young people more generally, are minor or “all in their heads.” We are saying that what people choose to do in their heads will determine how those real problems affect them. Our argument is ultimately pragmatic, not moralistic: Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals if you do the opposite of what Misoponos advised. That means seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).
And about justice:
When social justice is about searching for and ending violations of human or civil rights, particularly when those violations are related to membership in social identity groups, then it is about removing obstacles and creating equality of opportunity.
7) In a final example of guilt by association (although there are many more), the review notes:
Lukianoff and Haidt quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago as an epigraph and key inspiration; [Jordan] Peterson, who frequently lectures on the book, wrote the introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition Penguin will publish in November.
We do reference Solzhenitsyn in the book. Jordan Peterson does lecture on Solzhenitsyn and is writing the foreword to a new edition. But so what? What possible reason is there to attempt to link the Lukianoff and Haidt to Jordan Peterson other than to morally pollute the former for those who see Peterson as morally contaminated?
Ironically, the review fails to note that the part of The Gulag Archipelago we quote in the book is an exhortation to reject the idea that life is a battle between good people and evil people, to be aware of our own failings, and to embrace our common humanity.
If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
As the Solzhenitsyn quote reveals, the impulse by which moral pollution operates is fundamental to all of us. By default, each of us believes that we are on the side of the good, and we all draw conclusions that support that sense of ourselves as morally impeccable and our opposition as morally polluted. It takes courage, self-awareness, and an understanding of our common humanity to overcome this tendency. As we urge throughout the book, this is more essential now than ever.
My hope is that readers will look past the many and various distortions in this review and consider the book and its arguments on their merits. The Coddling of the American Mind is a book about education and wisdom. If you disagree with something in it, offer an argument explaining what we got wrong instead of trying to convince others that the authors are bad people.
There is one part of the review that accurately represents what we say and makes a serious counterclaim. Weigel notes that on the penultimate page of the book we express optimism about the future, and she argues that our optimism is not data-driven. That may be right, although we expressed our optimism with caution: “The arc of history bends toward progress on most measures of health, prosperity, and freedom, but if we can understand the six explanatory threads and free ourselves from the three Great Untruths, it may bend a little faster.”
Pamela Paresky is Chief Research Officer to the CEO and President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), director of the Aspen Center for Human Development, author of the guided journal, A Year of Kindness, and writes a blog for Psychology Today. You can follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky