The Strangling of American Discourse

I am reading the fascinating book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Timely stuff for a world and country unraveling at the seams. Sean Stevens offers a nice summary. Let me share a portion of it today. He writes:

The origin of The Coddling of the American Mind occurred over lunch in May of 2014, with Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in attendance.  Lukianoff had asked Haidt to help him make sense of a puzzle he had noticed emerging over the past year or two.  Historically, students had consistently opposed administrative calls for campus censorship, yet recently Lukianoff was encountering more demands for campus censorship, from the students.

Lukianoff’s biggest concern was that the rationale for justifying increased campus censorship was becoming medicalized, with students claiming that encountering certain kinds of content impaired their ability to function.  Stated simply, Lukianoff’s hypothesis was: “Many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.”

Initially, what emerged from this lunch was an article, published in The Atlantic on August 11, 2015, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.”Lukianoff and Haidt have “always been ambivalent” about the title (writers typically don’t choose the headlines in major outlets). As they put it:

Young people today – at a minimum, those who are competing for places at selective colleges – are under enormous pressure to perform academically and to build up a long list of extracurricular accomplishments.  Meanwhile, all teens face new forms of harassment, insult, and social competition from social media. Their economic prospects are uncertain in an economy being reshaped by globalization, automation, and artificial intelligence, and characterized by wage stagnation for most workers.  So most kids don’t have easy, pampered childhoods (p. 13).

Nonetheless, Lukanoff and Haidt’s new book ultimately ended up adopting the title of their blockbuster article — and represents an expansion on its arguments and themes.

In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure, Lukanoff and Haidt contend that the emergence of a culture of “safetyism” has produced institutional practices that overreach in their goals of protecting children from harm.  This, they argue, is a “problem of progress” — an unfortunate side-effect of what are otherwise positive social changes: In American society, the level of comfort and physical safety of most, if not all, people has increased exponentially, when compared to even the recent past.  Yet, these advances have also produced institutional practices that, in our contemporary milieu, undermine our ability to solve important social problems.

Part I of The Coddling of the American Mind devotes an individual chapter to each of three Great Untruths.  Key concepts of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are also introduced.  Part II provides evidence of the consequences of believing in the three Great Untruths, by reviewing a variety of events that have occurred on college campuses and within the academy in recent years.  Part III offers six explanatory threads for how the culture of safetyism emerged and documents some of the consequences for broader society that may be arising as a result. Part IV offers suggestions for preventing the spread of the three Great Untruths and combatting their existing prevalence.

Part I: Three Bad Ideas

In Part I Lukianoff and Haidt begin by identifying three Great Untruths that have spread widely in recent years, and become particularly prevalent among current college students born 1995 or later: (p. 4):

  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 and evil people.

They also delineate the criteria that must be met for something to be classified as a Great Untruth (p. 4):

  1. It contradicts ancient wisdom – ideas that are found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures.
  2. It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being.
  3. It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.

 Lukianoff and Haidt begin by arguing that children are “antifragile” — a term popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe things that have the capacity to not merely endure stress, but to actually flourish and grow as a result of it. They operationalize this concept as follows:

 In life, we will face completely unexpected events.  If we have limited, or no, prior exposure to unexpected events, we will likely find navigating them difficult.  Systems that are antifragile (like our brain and its cognitive processes) need to encounter unexpected events so that they learn, adapt, and grow, making it more likely uncertainty is successfully navigated.  A system that does not encounter unexpected events, on the other hand, can become rigid, weak, and inefficient, because nothing challenges the system to respond vigorously. Thus, parents and teachers should help children learn and grow from facing risks and stressors, not limit their exposure to them.

Indeed, limiting exposure to risks and stressors is directly counter to the recommendations of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  CBT is a psycho-social intervention that aims to improve mental health by focusing on challenging and changing unhelpful cognitive distortions (e.g. thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes) and behaviors, improving emotional regulation, and developing personal coping strategies that target solving current problems. Lukianoff and Haidt briefly review nine common cognitive distortions that CBT helps people recognize (see p. 38):

We’ll stop there for now. Read full summary by Sean Stevens here.

  • Emotional reasoning: Letting your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”
  • Catastrophizing: Focusing on the worst possible outcome and seeing it as most likely. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
  • Overgeneralizing: Perceiving a global pattern of negatives based on a single incident. “This generally happens to me.  I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
  • Dichotomous thinking (also known as “black-and-white thinking,” “all-or-nothing thinking,” and “binary thinking”): Viewing events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
  • Labeling: Assigning global negative traits to yourself or others (often in the service of dichotomous thinking). “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
  • Mind reading: Assuming that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
  • Negative filtering: Focusing almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom noticing the positives. “Look at all the people who don’t like me.”
  • Discounting positives: Claiming that the positive things you or others do are trivial, so that you can maintain a negative judgment. “That’s what wives are supposed to do – so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “The successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”

As someone who seeks regular counseling and therapy for my own unhealthy thought-patterns, I am all too familiar with some many of these distortions. Of course, the book is arguing that these distortions are increasing in our culture as a whole, and based on the unhealthy condition of our current public discourse, I can’t help but conclude that our entire country needs one big group CBT session together.

Or, we could each work on ourselves and begin by reading this book!


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