The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

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This book started as an Atlantic magazine article that was later expanded into a book. Their thesis is that trends on college campus such as a greater awareness of microaggressions and emotional safety serve neither the students nor society at large, as those trends are driven by what Lukianoff and Haidt call 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.

This book is challenging for me to review, because I agree with their thesis and also see the merits of the trends that they call “coddling”. Both authors are white male college professors who have been privileged by the current system (as have I), and therefore would “naturally” oppose trends that challenge the system (per the third Untruth, if you’re not with “us”, you’re against “us”). This book review in the Guardian nicely lays out how these authors have their own blinders on: “Enjoying the luxury of living free from discrimination and domination, they therefore insist that the crises moving young people to action are all in their heads.”

The section on micro-aggressions is an example of this attitude, subtitled “The Triumph of Impact over Intent”. By applying their “Untruth” of emotional reasoning, they dismiss micro-aggressions as “the distortion known as mind reading”, starting by “assuming the worst about people and reading their actions as uncharitably as possible”. This is clearly the viewpoint from someone of privilege who has not had their every action and even their presence constantly questioned by those around them. Such a viewpoint shows an utter lack of empathy and compassion for the lived experience of those they are allegedly trying to help.

And yet, I also agree with their point that “teaching students to use the least generous interpretations possible is likely to engender precisely the feelings of marginalization and oppression that almost everyone wants to eliminate. And, to add injury to insult, this sort of environment is likely to foster an external locus of control” where students feel they are hopeless victims of the structural inequities of society.

As a coach who regularly works with clients to focus on what’s in their control (how they react, and what actions they take in response) rather than what’s not (what other people do and say), their argument to avoid emotional reasoning resonates with me, as it is often not productive in an individual context. They note that treating emotions as truth can lead to dangerous outcomes; Lukianoff shares his own battle with depression that led him to almost end his life, and he believes that cognitive behavioral therapy saved him, by teaching him that his emotions distorted his thinking in a destructive manner. So I’m torn on how they address this subject – I feel that treating emotional reasoning as suspect is appropriate in many cases, but does not take into account contexts where it may be appropriate such as in the case of micro-aggressions (which are not at all micro in their effects on people as they accumulate over time as shown in Whistling Vivaldi).

I have similar ambivalence towards their approach on “The Untruth of Fragility”. I agree that the rise of what they call “safetyism” (prioritizing safety over all other concerns) is insane; the examples of children not being allowed to be unsupervised for even a few minutes make no sense when the world is far safer than it was when I grew up – I was expected to go play outside with other kids with no supervision for hours on end, but a parent that let their kid do that now could be arrested. And teaching kids that they have no ability to handle life without being supervised by an adult does not seem like the best preparation for college, let alone adulthood.

And yet, when the authors switch from these clearcut examples to decrying safe spaces and the effects of emotional trauma, I felt their attitude was paternalistic and superior. They note that these are “problems of progress” that people are now concerned with emotional safety when a few decades ago, children avoiding physical injury was a major accomplishment; they even say in their introduction that “By the standards of our great-grandparents, nearly all of us are coddled. Each generation tends to see the one after it as weak, whiny, and lacking in resilience.” and yet they feel confident in saying that they are different in that this time really is different when they are saying the next generation is weak and whiny. What I think they are missing here is the context that challenging children (or people) is good, but only up to the point that the challenge is just outside of what they can handle; when the challenge is too high, it can lead to learned helplessness. So setting a universal bar of what is acceptable based on their own experience feels like another example of overgeneralizing from their place of privilege.

I do like their discussion of the “The Untruth of Us Versus Them”, and the downsides of separating people into either good or bad, including the rise of callout culture and the concomitant effect of silencing those who might disagree for fear of being outcast. To me, this Untruth is another expression of the fundamental attribution error, where people tend to assume other people are acting due to their character (are they good or bad people?), rather than due to their context (when interpreting their own actions, they assume they are good and were just making the best of a bad situation). I often advise people who criticize somebody else’s behavior to imagine a world where that behavior makes sense – what set of rules might that other person be operating under? Everybody’s behavior makes sense in their own context, so calling them bad or evil is unproductive if you want to drive behavior change.

The rest of the book is an attempt to identify the intersecting trends that drive the rise of the Great Untruths on college campuses, which they identify as:

  • the right vs. left polarization cycle
  • greater anxiety and depression in an always-connected social media world
  • paranoid parents trying to protect their children from everything
  • the decline of play in an achievement-oriented society where kindergarteners are already being groomed for Ivy League colleges
  • the bureaucracy of safetyism, where colleges are reacting to lawsuits by institutionalizing their role as “in loco parentis” and preventing harassment or any sort of bad feelings
  • the quest for social justice on college campuses

They end with a few recommendations on how to improve the situation and oppose the “Great Untruths”, but I thought these were generic and unhelpful.

So I leave this book with mixed feelings. As a parent, I appreciated reading the perspective of the authors, and will be aiming to not teach my son the “Great Untruths”. But as a member of society, I felt that this work of social criticism is fatally flawed by the almost smug sense of righteousness exhibited by the authors in feeling like they have the Answer, and others should bow to their expertise.

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