In September 2015, the US magazine the Atlantic published a cover story provocatively entitled “The coddling of the American mind”. It was co-written by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and civil liberties lawyer Greg Lukianoff, and in it they excoriated students and universities for “policing speech and punishing speakers”, warning that this imperilled not only young people’s intellectual independence but their mental health.
Its impact was immediate: the article became one of the Atlantic website’s five most-read ever and was referenced during a Q&A session by Barack Obama: “I don’t agree that students at colleges have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”
Haidt and Lukianoff were later inspired to write a book entitled – despite their reservations – The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. “That was a title made up by the editors at the Atlantic after the article was written. We didn’t like the title [an allusion to Allan Bloom’s 1987 anti-relativist polemic The Closing of the American Mind] because it seems insulting to the very people we want to reach,” Haidt, 55, recalled when we met recently in central London.
“But coddling literally means overprotection, so our thinking was the title is true in that the really big problems – especially mental health – are caused by two factors: massive overprotection that began in the 1980s and social media.”
The phenomenon that Haidt describes is often labelled a “free speech crisis” (the British government’s Office for Students has been awarded the power to fine universities that “no-platform” speakers). But both its scale and intensity are easily overstated. Disinvitation attempts have increased in recent years but stood at just 36 in 2017 (of which 20 were successful) across 4,583 US colleges and universities. Is Donald Trump, who relentlessly delegitimises the media and denounces dissent against him as unpatriotic, not a far greater threat to free speech than “snowflake” students?
“I would agree with that, there’s no question that Trump is the bigger problem,” said Haidt, who is professor of ethical leadership at New York University and describes himself as a centrist Democrat. “But this is one of the two major objections I get to my work: how can you be talking about universities when Trump is president? My answer is I love universities, it’s where I live, the fact that Trump is a bigger problem doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address other issues.”
Haidt also acknowledged that the matter is not one of untrammelled free expression – no speaker has an inalienable right to a platform. “I almost never talk about free speech but the conditions necessary for a community of free inquiry. It doesn’t mean people can say whatever they want, it doesn’t mean we need Milo Yiannopoulos [the alt-right provocateur]. What we need is a community in which people feel free to say what they’re thinking and to question those who make statements.”
His argument echoes that of John Stuart Mill who wrote in On Liberty (1859) that unless received wisdom is “vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice”. As Haidt bluntly remarked: “I read Mein Kampf in graduate school, I’m glad I did. I’m Jewish, I study extremism. I want my kids to read Mein Kampf. It makes no sense to say we can’t give it a platform in a university.”
Haidt’s previous book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), urged liberals to appeal more successfully to conservative notions of loyalty and authority, rather than simply equality and justice. He partly attributes Trump’s election to the rise of progressive identity politics. “Hillary Clinton’s opening advertisement had lots of people who were visibly members of identity groups, it had only one white male with a speaking part.”
But does the election of Trump not validate students’ anxieties? The Obama-era illusion of a post-racial America has been banished. “In the Middle Ages they’d put leeches on and if the patient wasn’t getting well, they’d put more leeches on,” Haidt, who is polite but forceful, sardonically replied. “I don’t think the election of Trump proves that America is a racist country. We found out it’s a lot more racist than we realised, there are actual Nazis. I didn’t know that.”
Haidt is troubled by the remorseless polarisation of US politics (“Trump is both a reaction to and an exacerbator of it”). But, I retort, it was the era of bipartisanship that delivered the Iraq War and reckless financial deregulation. “I certainly agree that putting together antagonists or opposites within an institution that channels the disagreement in positive ways is a good thing. But when the political system changes from sport to hooliganism, once people think the end justifies the means, then we’re asking for disaster.”
Haidt solemnly concluded: “I see nothing that gives me hope. However, I’m constantly reminded by my libertarian friends that people have often thought this way and they’ve always been wrong… I’m not looking at property in New Zealand, I’m not planning to move my kids to another country, but I am expecting things to get worse in the next few years.”
This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions