(Un)Coddling the Mind in the USA and Australia [… and Japan?]

Written by: Karl Faase (CEO, Olive Tree Media) and Luke Nottage
[Below is our review, published in abridged form on 25 October 2018 by Eternity News (without hyperlinks and under a different title), for an important new book entitled “Coddling the American Mind“. The book, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, argues that a new generation is emerging in the USA that believes three “untruths” contrary to the lessons from mainstream psychology nowadays as well as from the wisdom literatures from many cultures:
1. What doesn’t kill me makes me weaker (so: always keep me “safe”!)
2. Always trust my feelings (so: don’t engage my rational brain!)
3. The world is a battle been good and bad people (so: don’t look for good within everyone!)
Our review suggests that drivers of these untruths are also evident in Australia, but (so far) to a lesser degree. I think the drivers may be even weaker in Japan, with these three untruths still contrary to traditional wisdom there. But that further comparison would be an interesting topic for future research.]

Writing recently for the Sunday Times, Josh Glancy reflected on the near-hysterical response to Trump’s election that he experienced on the campus of Columbia University in New York. Students were crying and consoling each other, while the university brought in therapy dogs. Some other campuses provided colouring-in books and Play-Doh. Glancy was surprised: “They were behaving like toddlers deprived of their latest episode of Peppa Pig”.
A tendency for some students also to shout down any idea or speaker that disturbs or offends them is becoming more frequent across universities in the US, but also now in other Western countries. This response has mostly been directed at those perceived to sit on the political right, but it is also more pervasive. Feminist author Germaine Greer and LGBT activist Peter Tatchell have been “no-platformed” in several universities in the UK. Recently in Australia, author and sex therapist Bettina Arndt had her lectures disturbed by protestors uninterested in engaging with any of her ideas, but rather yelling slogans and banging on doors.
However, her lecture at the University of Sydney had been given the go-ahead after it declared that: “one of the fundamental roles of the University is to be a place where ideas can be freely discussed, including those that some may view as controversial”. USyd is also still negotiating with the Ramsay Centre over its proposed donations to Australian universities to support programs studying Western civilisation, despite ANU earlier suspending negotiations after some students, staff and unionists were disturbed that this would promote a radically conservative view about the superiority of Western culture. USyd Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence defended academic freedom, arguing that the envisaged program anyway is “not a kind of boot camp for preparing brainwashed neo-cons”.
Such tensions are not limited to Australian universities. There was earlier controversy over “Safe Schools”, and Greer was also recently “disinvited” from the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. Political and social polarisation was very evident last year in the debate over recognising same-sex marriage. How do these broader trends connect to the mindset of the new generation entering universities, and how should we respond?
Many insights can be gained from the beautifully written and extensively researched new book from Penguin, “The Coddling of the American Mind”. It develops critiques of an emergent “culture of safetyism”, affirming “emotional reasoning” and an “us versus them” attitude. These fallacies were first outlined in a widely-read essay published in 2015 by The Atlantic monthly magazine. The authors are Jonathan Haidt (a moral psychology professor now at NYU Business School) and Greg Lukianoff (a lawyer committed to protecting free speech).
The book’s provocative subtitle is “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure”. Some disturbing trends identified in education and society generally in the US can also be found in Australia, although probably not (yet) to the same degree. So we can all learn from the book’s concluding lessons for “wiser” kids, universities and societies. We would add that Jesus similarly showed us how to take risks and pursue truth without denigrating others.

The Righteous Mind

This new book builds on another by Haidt entitled “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” (2013). That showed how we humans typically make moral judgments (about what is right and wrong) quickly and intuitively, but then (often creatively) rationalise these decisions, generating tribalism and polarisation. The intuitions also tend to be based on assessments of harmful consequences and fairness, as well as authority, (in-group) loyalty and a sense of purity or the sacred. (Try taking his Moral Foundations Questionnaire via www.yourmorals.org.) Progressives on the political left are particularly influenced by the first two factors. They are also important for conservatives, although viewing fairness more in terms of opportunity than outcomes, and their moral intuitions are based noticeably more on the last three factors as well.
Rather than ignoring those three or dismissing them as “irrational”, enhancing political divisions, Haidt argued that progressive politicians need to appeal across all the factors. Despite declaring himself a leftist atheist, he also acknowledged that many people’s experiences of transcendence or the “sacred” are genuine, and that related impulses towards altruistic behaviour are socially beneficial, albeit derived (ostensibly like the other factors guiding our moral judgements) from evolutionary biology. Haidt even cites (at p310) an extensive empirical study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon and Schuster, 2010), showing that religiously observant Americans make “better neighbours and citizens”. Indeed, the most important predictor for serving and benefitting others, not just within one’s own faith community but also the wider society, comes from organized religious practice. This would be a counter-intuitive finding for many other atheist writers, or those on the political left whose moral judgements appear less influenced by (organized) recognition of the sacred, thus creating a divide over religion as well as politics.

The Coddled Mind

In the new book on “Coddling” or over-protection, Haidt (with Lukianoff) highlights two similar problems that are increasingly taking hold in US society. They call them “untruths” because they contradict ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures, as well as modern psychological research on well-being, and because these beliefs harm the individuals and communities now embracing them.
One is “the untruth of Us versus Them: life is a battle between good people and bad people”. They tie this dichotomous view back to the human mind having evolved for living in tribes engaged in conflict, and criticise those nowadays (on the far left and far right) who exacerbate the tendency by engaging in “common-enemy identity politics”. Haidt and Lukianoff instead advocate “common-humanity identity politics”, epitomised by Martin Luther King Jr, who humanised opponents and appealed to common values.
The second problem identified, also going back to “The Righteous Mind”, is “the untruth of emotional reasoning: always trust your feelings”. They see emotional reasoning as a very common cognitive distortion best addressed by insights from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, an empirically-grounded method that Lukianoff credits for having got him over suicidal depression. Insights from CBT can also help individuals, but potentially societies too, to become aware of and overcome other cognitive distortions such as dichotomous (all-or-nothing) thinking, (often related) labeling, over-generalising or filtering negatives, catastrophising, and blaming others.
“Coddling” adds also a third “untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that the human body (including the immune system) and psychological development need stimulus to grow properly. While lauding the great achievements of the late 20th century in making the US physically safer for children (and people generally), they object to “concept creep” resulting in “safety” now include more and more “emotional safety”. This generates a culture of “safetyism” (p30) –
“a belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. ‘Safety’ trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger. When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to ‘emotionally safe’ while protecting them from every conceivable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which them makes them even more fragile and less resilient. The end result may be similar to what happened when we tried to keep kids safe from exposure to peanuts: a widespread backfiring effect in which the ‘cure’ turns out to be a primary cause of the disease.”

Causes of the Three Untruths

Lukianoff and Haidt argue that this “safetyism” is most evident in the generation of students who began to enter American universities around 2013. They tie this to research by psychology professor Jean Twenge. She found sharp differences in the “iGen” born from around 1995, including the idea that “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault but from people who disagree from you” (citing her iGen, Atria Books, 2017, p154). The internet was born in the mid-1990s, but really took off for many people around 2007, after Facebook allowed teens to have their own social media accounts and when the first iPhone came out. Lukianoff and Haidt later outline (ongoing) research by Twenge and others suggesting that excessive “screen time” is linked to growing rates of teen depression (especially among girls), suicides and self-inflicted injuries. Since 2012, when the iGen began getting to universities, they have faced a growing percentage of students reporting psychological disorders.
Lukianoff and Haidt also identify other factors generating emotional fragility. Since some tragic cases of child abductions in the US around 1980, a generation of parents increasingly shields children from possible risks, despite dramatic improvements in crime rates in recent decades. Helicopter parenting more generally, found particularly in the upper-middle class, has combined with norms and laws to make it hard to provide children with unsupervised play time – impeding neural development and risk tolerance.
Ever-larger numbers of students (especially from well-off families) are now going on to university, calling for and receiving psychological help from a burgeoning cadre of administrators. The high university fees long charged in the US also reinforce a broader consumerist mentality nowadays – “the customer is always right”. So from around 2013 there have increasing examples of administrators agreeing with students that their lives need to be carefully regulated, and that it is far better to overreact to potential risks than to under-react. This “bureaucracy of safety” in many American universities is reinforced by society-wide campaigns to highlight potential terrorist threats, since the 9-11 disasters in 2001.
Lukianoff and Haidt also mention important research by two sociologists in the US, recently developed in a book entitled The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces and the New Culture Wars (Palgrave, 2018). Focusing on universities but also making connections to wider society shifts, those authors see this culture as combining a tendency to take offence quickly but respond indirectly (via institutional or legal procedures). This contrasts both the “culture of dignity”, still dominant in the West, where people became slow to stake offence while developing indirect response mechanisms. This notion, which we would add is closely linked to Jesus’ teaching about humbly turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), opposed the “culture of honour” in antiquity, where people were quick to take offence but responded directly (often violently). We also note that British apologist Michael Ramsen has recently suggested five ways for Christians to respond to today’s victimhood culture.
Another driver behind the three Untruths identified by Lukianoff and Haidt is the emergence of “negative partisanship” over the last two decades: political participation is more driven by hostility towards the other party than enthusiasm for one’s own. Reasons include the loss of a common enemy after the Cold War, post-internet media polarization, self-segregation into politically homogeneous communities, and increasingly bitter hostility in Congress. During this period of rising cross-party hatred, university students and professors have shifted leftward in the US. This is highlighted by the Heterodox Academy, co-led by Haidt to reinstate viewpoint diversity, now bringing together over 2200 professors and including growing numbers from outside the US. So universities have started to lose trust from some conservatives, exacerbating the “Us versus Them” untruth.
Lukianoff and Haidt also observe that university students are responding with social justice activism to a series of dramatic and (media-)visible political events over 2012-18, such as the “Black Lives” and “MeToo” movements. Yet their response to these emotionally-charged issues is tending towards “equal-outcomes social justice”, including regarding issues on campus such as gender-based quotas. This collides with the “proportional-procedural social justice” still commonly found in wider US society, which combines perceptions that what people are getting is deserved (an equal ratio of outputs to inputs for each person) and that all should get equal opportunities.

Australia Compared

Australia may be fortunate in retaining a more egalitarian sense of justice, so less tension regarding emergent “equal-outcomes social justice” among the iGen and their educational institutions. There may be still be less political homogeneity and inter-party hostility than in the US, despite all the shenanigans over recent years.
It is also not evident that there has been such a leftward shift across Australian universities, compared to the wider society, or such a strong sense of dread about terrorism or other threats. Although there has been a dramatic rise in student enrolments, especially since caps were raised in 2011, government-supported domestic students pay much lower fees than in the US. Australian universities have successfully attracted large numbers of full-fee paying students, for postgraduate programs but also from overseas, but most international students come from societies in Asia where the three Untruths probably remain less pervasive. Another difference from the US is that many university students are working part-time, with employers not (yet) so amenable to affirming those Untruths, and they do not live in self-contained “university towns”.
Yet some parallels do exist. These help explain some of the incidents we mentioned at the outset, as well as burgeoning calls by students for “special consideration” in assessments or disability plans for the classroom, which increasingly dealt with by university administrators rather than teachers. There are even stronger similarities in the rise of “paranoid parenting” highlighted by Lukianoff and Haidt, the decline of unstructured play time (somewhat offset, perhaps, by organized sport as Australia’s national religion), and the super-connected but emotionally fragile iGen.
How to Respond?
Lukianoff and Haidt urge us first to raise “wiser kids”, countering each of the three untruths. Against “safetyism”, they affirm the folk wisdom that we should “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child”. This includes allowing kids to take more risks and engage in “productive disagreement”. Countering emotional reasoning, they invoke Buddha: “your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded”. Recommendations include teaching students CBT or “mindfulness”. (Another resource could be a recent bestseller by American psychologist Amy Morin: “The 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do”, HarperCollins, 2014.) Undermining the Us versus Them fallacy, they recall the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”. This implies learning, for example, to interpret others in the best possible light (“the principle of charity” applied in philosophy and rhetoric).
Lukianoff and Haidt also advocate for “wiser universities”. They should entwine a sense of identity with freedom of inquiry, as epitomised by the Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression now adopted by several leading universities (including Columbia). (We add that another promising development is Princeton promoting especially among its incoming students a new book by their professor Keith Whittington, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, 2018) Universities should admit more mature students, and encourage a “gap year” after high school. They should educate for productive disagreement, emphasising criticism of ideas rather than people, and promote the analogy of universities as a “gym” rather a “comfortable” place. They should foster a university-wide spirit and host cross-partisan events, while protecting physical safety.

What Would Jesus Do?

The book has no index entry for “Jesus” or “Christianity” (only some for “Buddha”, “Jews” and “Islamist extremists”). But how could Australian Christians respond to those three Untruths? First, there is nothing in the Bible that says instead that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” – and indeed that saying comes from atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and was later invoked by the Nazi regime. But the Bible often teaches about taking risks, not being afraid, learning from discipline, and persevering in adversity (think of James 1:2-4).
Secondly, rather than relying on one’s feelings, Jeremiah (17:9) warns that “the heart is deceitful above all things. When Jesus taught that it is more important to re-orient one’s inner being by accepting His grace, rather than religiously focusing say on food laws to try to earn salvation, He said: “it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21). ”. Jesus also told us to think about what we are doing: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). This was one reason why Christians became path-breakers in supporting education (as explored in the Jesus the Game Changer documentary series) and developing the sciences (in the Towards Belief series).
Thirdly, the apostle Paul wrote (like Solzhenitsyn, an atheist who converted to Christianity two millennia later ) about everyone’s inner struggle between good and evil (Romans 7). However, Timothy Keller (Romans 1-7 For You, The Good Book Company, 2014) explains how Paul’s “war against the law of my mind” (7:23) changes from one that is impossible to win (as in The Strange Case of Dr Jekkyl and Mr Hyde, written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886 ) to a battle that is ongoing but cannot be lost, after we accept Jesus. Still, following Jesus cannot mean seeing “us” believers as superior to “them”, as we all remain broken people, in a broken world that we are called to help restore. This self-understanding is linked to the counter-cultural willingness of the Christian church, from its earliest days, to extend love and care even to non-believers (also explained in Jesus the Game Changer, as well as the new documentary For the Love of God).

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM LLD Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.