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Moral Pollution In Place of Reasoned Critique

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.

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.

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.)

4) Misrepresentation:

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.

5) Misrepresentation:

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.

6) Misrepresentation:

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

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61 Comments

  1. Sam Hall says

    The reviewer’s tossing out of Solzhenitsyn’s name without further elaboration is more guilt by association. The left has noticed at some point that Solzhenitsyn was a believing Christian, and taken advantage to bury him under all the labels they apply to those; hater, white supremacist, capitalist, privileged (!) etc. This is conventional wisdom in certain circles, and seems to be used primarily to deny the scale and awfulness, and sometimes the very existence, of the Gulag in an effort to rehabilitate Soviet communism.

  2. Circuses and Bread says

    It’s sad and frankly pathetic that any discussion of a book these days descends into a discussion of which political faction is favored or disfavored as a result. As if these factions had even a small grasp on the truth.

    Anti politics PSA: voting is for chumps.

    • @Circuses and Bread
      Indeed, this is why Nicholas Taleb says not to pay attention to any book until it is at least 20 years old. I agree with this, it’s important to see past the political climate in any age in order to absorb the wisdom of any kind of cultural critisms.

  3. Farris says

    “Neither of us has ever voted for a Republican for Congress or the presidency.”

    The virtue signaling in the above statement is an excellent illustration of taboo and pollution. The speaker is saying to the intended audience, “we may have written somethings with which you disagree or appeal to the other tribe but please don’t take us of the A list for parties.”
    Admittedly, this not an argument against the author’s’ positions. But it is a nice graphic that no one is immune from the forces it taboo and pollution.
    This is an excellent article on an apparently excellent book. Self realization is a great mental challenge and most do not enjoy having others reminding us when we fail. It is much easier road to dwell in a cocoon of goodness believing everything thing outside is evil. But often it is the road less taken that leads to the greater reward. I will pass judgment on the book after I read it (I know the author’s will be waiting with baited breadth). But if Ms. Paresky’s description is accurate, it would appear to be a very necessary book at a very necessary time.

    • Cornfed says

      Perhaps they are simply trying keep some readers from immediately tuning them out?

    • yandoodan says

      I, too, was off-put by the author’s repeated assertion that he is anti-Republican. Why should that matter? It has nothing to do with his arguments, which succeed or fail on their own. It shows that the author, at some emotional level, embraces the position he attacks.

      • It shouldn’t matter. But it doesn’t necessarily show that they embrace the position they attack. It may just be that they’re trying to reach an extremely intolerant audience, and to do that, they may have to say such things.

      • Precisely! You never read a rightest saying, “I have never, ever voted Democrat, I am in no ways a Democrat but….

  4. c young says

    The Guardian sinks ever deeper.

    Yet this is nothing more than tribalism. Adopt the principle – if you turn against the tribe you are not only wrong you are despicable – and any imaginable position can be fortified, as they have been throughout human history.

  5. Ludlow Worthington says

    The quote about the line between good and evil running through each person reminded me of this Stephen Crane poem:

    A man feared that he might find an assassin;
    Another that he might find a victim.
    One was more wise than the other.

  6. Innominata says

    I read the book. I had mixed feelings:

    I really liked “The Righteous Mind”, but “Coddling” didn’t seem as groundbreaking or perceptive. The truths seem like common sense to me, hardly worth writing a volume about. But then I was raised with those truths.

    The explanations for why so many students and teachers in the academy are throwing out commonsense wisdom–things like safetyism, moral discomfort, etc.–seemed probably true but incomplete. I felt like the authors didn’t go nearly as far as they could have, and didn’t because … well … they seemed to be playing it safe!

    Reason is a playing field, it’s not the whole stadium. Many on the Left (including this writer at the Guardian) get that, and they have moved from trying to advance the ball on the field to fist-fighting in the stands. They employ logical contradiction with abandon and even glee–“Racism and sexism must be stopped! And by the way, white women are subhuman garbage for not being more woke!”–and those in the Center and on the Right keep staring at the football game and ignoring the person in the seat next to them who keeps punching them in the groin: “We must be reasonable. This acrimony doesn’t make any sense. We should all make sense and stop being contradictory. Why do my balls hurt so much? I can’t figure it out …”

    I have a terrible, sinking premonition that Haidt in particular may soon find out just how little reason protects you in today’s climate. He is making himself a huge target by all his “let’s be reasonable” talk (because Western logic and reason are how evil white men keep the oppressed in their chains, don’t you know). I expect to open up Quillette in the near future and find an article by Haidt writing from exile, telling the story of how The Righteous marched into his classes, shouted down his protestations, got him bounced from his university for being “anti-black” or some such, and drove him to a hut in Borneo when the administrators refused to protect him because they wanted to protect themselves.

    Reasonable men reason when they can. When they cannot, they move to reasonable force.

    • augustine says

      Whichever faction has the power to define the meaning of “reason” will dominate culture and politics (and science apparently). Force is for unreasonable men the first choice, or at least a prime motive and presumed eventuality.

  7. Instead of calling the enemy as “leftists”, we should call them a name that is more sticky: “false moral supremacists”, or just simply “false prophets”.

    Some of you on the center did not yet realize that the end game of post modern neo marxism is white enslavement and later white genocide. They are not random ideas, they are covertly (sometimes openly, hidden in plain sight) targeting this one goal. Therefore a more targeted approach, directly charging these people with genocide, and removing them from society by force, should be the main goal, of anyone who prefers to preserve (western) civilization.

    • codadmin says

      Just call them racists, extremists, bigots, etc, etc, etc…reinventing the wheel is pointless because they control the means of cultural production.

      • They also pretty much have a monopoly on those words though.. The, “No you’re a racist for calling me a racist” argument never ever looks good

        • codadmin says

          But leftists are racist. So, call them that. Don’t get fancy and invent new slogans that will never stick.

          If enough people called them out on their racism, hate, bigotry, extremism, tribalism, etc, etc, then they will no longer monopolise those words.

          And besides, calling leftist a racist after they falsely accuse you of racism is a far better look than grovelling for forgiveness.

          • Well, reserve the name calling for when it makes sense. But when we read about “getting rid of old, white men” you don’t have to think deeply to sense they want such people gone, and that they express clearly their ageism, racism and sexism/misandry.

  8. Consider the moon landing when considering sources of mass hysteria and cultural shift. Experiments with mice show that once mice discover the boundary of their environment (no matter how big and natural the “cage”), antisocial behavior commences and fertility drops off.

  9. RadixLecti says

    The Guardian needs to be renamed The Hysterian.

    It’s literally just a bunch of angry, screaming people who wake up in the morning furious at the thought that somehow, somewhere, someone might actually be happy.

  10. Johnny Marin says

    Like the Puritans and the witches in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Social justice Puritans today persecute anyone who says anything incorrect with exclusion and violence. Schools, universities and cub scouts chuck people out for the tiniest ideological error viz. diversity, inclusion and equality. Fascist administrators cast out those who speak out because it is as heart-warming today as it was in Salem in 1692. Nothing has changed in 330 years. Be honest; certain people *should* be got rid of somehow. Like bad smells or evil spirits. So that the community can be cleansed, purified. An idea as captivating today as it was in nazi German, in Stalin’s Russia and in Miller’s Crucible.

    What is the antidote to this ? Only by studying plays & stories like the crucible and books on the inquisition, the holocaust, Mao’s china and the gulags can we learn to contain our “us and them” urges. A course on ‘revolutionary studies’ or ‘heresy studies’ should be compulsory for all university students. Those who refuse to learn about the dangers of human tribalism should be rejected from educational institutions.

    • Farris says

      @Johnny Marin
      Haven’t heard or read the verb “chuck” in over 20 years. I suspect you and I are from the same neck of the woods.

  11. John Kemp says

    Western culture has devolved from ideas into sides. While there is some reason to be doubtful of our political class, it is more likely our voting class wants an upgrade. This can only come through education, and it seems in Canada at least, and perhaps the States, our educators could do with a few minutes of reading and contemplation of the “Great Untruths” listed above.

    • Circuses and Bread says

      @John Kemp

      While I’m a fan of education in general, I have to wonder what are we going to teach when it comes to politics? Will we ever actually analyze the (in my mind false) premise that underlies politics? That politics is a reasonable way to achieve beneficial ends in a society. If not, then what is the point of further education?

      Unfortunately when it comes to politics, “education” tends to be a code word that means something more along the line of propaganda or evangelization.

    • That’s funny. Western culture started with the ideas of sides, and it was very good at killing off and taking advantage of anybody who wasn’t on their side. Are we to forget western colonialism, theft of natural resources, African/Native American slave trades, Native American extermination and forcible removal from lands, segregation, etc.?
      But western values have gained focus over time, which is how humans actually evolve culturally, giving more people rights. The quest towards Liberty and Equal Protection has been slow, but it makes real progress, progress many would note better if they remembered that many modern day humans are suffering real issues related to tyrants, authoritarianism, tribalism, etc.

  12. codadmin says

    This article is an excellent, surgical analysis of how leftists lie and why they do it. But, it’s about as useful as reading about why bears shit in the woods.

    Bear shit in woods happens. And no one needs an explanation why.

    At this late stage in the war, and after all these decades, the same must now, surely, apply to leftist ‘shit’.

  13. swack says

    The editor has deleted my constructive comment as well as the 3+ replies from fellow readers–who happened to agree with it.

    It was the only comment offering criticism.

    “Free thought lives.”

      • swack says

        That the authors are making the same mistake milquetoast conservatives did:
        > overcome this tendency [to not recognize the opponent as ultimately good even if misguided–sound familiar?]. As we urge throughout the book, this is more essential now than ever.
        Putting high minded principles over tribe and politics in this climate is to set yourself up to lose just as hard as those conservatives, who got culturally genocided from media, academia, Hollywood, tech, education, etc.

        • codadmin says

          Essential points. Not sure why they were removed removed then.

    • Circuses and Bread says

      @swack

      Quick Quillette trick: the counter doesn’t change when comments are deleted. Count comments. Looks like 4 are gone. Including one of mine. Who is to say yours was the offending post? It might have been mine. If so, my apologies to both Quillette and my fellow posters.

      Like any website, we post at the owners tolerance. Quillette is actually pretty good as intellectual websites go.

      Further, we all need to remember that Quillette is AUS based and doesn’t have the same protections that US based sites have with regard to so called “hate speech.” Comments that wouldn’t merit a second glance in America might put this website in legal peril.

      • Peter from Oz says

        Other than the infamous s.18C of the Anti Discrimination Act, there are few anti freee speech laws in Oz. It would be very difficult for a website to be challenged on s.18C for comments, as the bar is pretty high.
        I’d say that Oz is actually better than the US, here as we don’t have peopl finding offence in everything you say and trying to ruin you for it.

    • augustine says

      I share swack’s bewilderment over the removal of his (presumptuous of me, yes) comment. One of the responses was mine. I don’t recall if it was swack or a respondent I had replied to but in effect I suggested that instead of cynicism, understanding the opposition and one’s own positions, a la Haidt, were worthy of effort. I did not have the impression that any content of the relevant posts merited removal or silencing.

      I suggest it would be worth Quillette considering “pending approval of blog owner” for all comments to deal with any unwanted content rather than allow and then disallow comments made in good faith.

      • Circuses and Bread says

        @Augustine

        In much the same empathetic vein, we should also recognize that our hostess and this website is based in Australia, which is not a particularly free when it comes to speech or political liberties. Indeed it is a crime in Australia to speak in such a manner as to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person.” That’s a legal minefield if there ever was one, so I have no doubt that posts that tread into that area must be removed, whether our hostess likes it or not.

        Frankly, I’m surprised some of my anti political views are allowed. Voting is compulsory is Australia. And yet I have been allowed to post comments such as “voting is for chumps.” While it isn’t my intent to encourage free-thinkers to avoid being frog-marched to the ballot box under force of law, I guess it could be interpreted that way.

        • Peter from Oz says

          CaB
          Oz is not that bad.
          You quote the infamous s.18C of the Anti Discrimination Act, but it doesn’t make such utterances criminal only unlawful.
          It is a terrible piece of law which should be repealed, but the pressure on free speech in the US is far worse, despite the First Amendment. That’s why you need organisations such as FIRE. The problem when you have constitutional protection of rights is that people of an authoritarian bent are always going to try and pare those rights down.

          • Circuses and Bread says

            @Peter from Oz

            Thanks for the reply. Please explain to me this concept of “unlawful but not criminal.” Ultimately all sanctions are criminal if you refuse to pay your fine, civil fee, penalty or what have you. I get the sense that were I Australian, I’d be spending a fair amount of time in jail.

            As for free speech in the US, it’s a case of eternal vigilance and all. The threats to speech for the most part are in the private realm, e.g. social media.

          • Peter from Oz says

            CaB

            An unlawful act is one that is contrary to law, but which is not subject to criminal sanction. It is a civil wrong. A tort or a contract breach are classic examples.
            I’m sure is a civil wrong. A tort or a contract breach are classic examples.

  14. Outstanding article and very true. Both the left and the right have been contaminated by this crappy cocktail of System 1 “argument”: ad hominem attacks, guilt by association attacks and egregious misrepresentation. It’s endemic and a real problem…

  15. The writer includes herself as one of the book’s authors, referring throughout the article to what “we” wrote. Now, for all I know, as “chief researcher” and “in-house editor,” she was 99% responsible for the book’s ideas and words. But the time to claim authoring credit was before it was published. Once it was published under their names, Lukianoff and Haidt became the authors, period. The writer, and Quillette, should know better than to use this piece as a way to claim co-authorship.

  16. Stevec says

    I guess if the authors had ever voted Republican it would have invalidated all their arguments.

    PS I’ve never voted Republican, important to mention so that my comment can be taken seriously.

  17. Except western values as they’ve matured suggest the opposite, that greater wealth, health, longevity and less violence come from voluntary cooperation. They key has always been voluntary, as liberty and equal protection work better by far than coercion, authoritarianism, brutality, irrationality.

  18. Presumably such thinkers dislike physical therapy to resolve disabilities related to an injury. It makes the victim relive the pain, confront their daily suffering and loss, and of course it forces labor, expenses and loss of time on the victim.
    It also is the path to getting better, healthier, stronger…

  19. derek says

    To be fair, the Guardian probably didn’t pay the writer very much. All she had to do was copy and paste a few phrases and put it together. I wonder if she actually read the book?

    What would be more interesting to know is whether the paucity of negative reaction is simply ignoring the book and saying nothing about it. The intended audience are faculty and administration of colleges and universities. Are they reading it? To what purpose?

    The ugly reality about this situation is that the extreme views are almost a heckler’s veto on every decision. It is the extreme and noisy who frame the discussions and it takes someone with a spine of steel and nothing to lose to go up against them. It is far easier to be quiet, get on with your work and hope that it all blows over.

    So the next time someone is considered for tenure or an addition to a department is someone actually going to take a stand on getting some ideological diversity by hiring someone that everyone disagrees with? Are they going to insist, noisily, vigorously challenging the usual slurs that derail these processes?

    The hard reality of these situations where things go seriously off the rails is that an almost entire changing of the guard is required to set it right.

    What is the likelihood that the book be taken as a how-to guide? If your goal is to create a large group of emotionally unstable people who are open to influence so as to advance your cause, does this book not tell you how to do it? The same noisy hecklers veto that has effectively cowed any opposition and heresy within academia is useful in broader society. We are already seeing it occur as we speak; the trans movement in elementary and middle schools, the ‘human rights commissions’ in various jurisdictions, the HR departments in corporations. The more emotionally unstable people with no impulse control the better.

  20. The tyranny of the thought police is nothing new in America. De Tocqueville knew this in the 1800’s

    “In America the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them. It is not that he has to fear an auto-da-fé, but he is the butt of mortifications of all kinds and of persecutions every day. A political career is closed to him: he has offended the only power that has the capacity to open it up. Everything is refused him, even glory. Before publishing his opinions, he believed he had partisans; it seems to him that he no longer has any now that he has uncovered himself to all; for those who blame him express themselves openly, and those who think like him, without having his courage, keep silent and move away. He yields, he finally bends under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.”

    – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

    Nothing ever really changes. Humans are exactly as they always have been.

  21. Erica Germaine says

    I grew up a moderate Democrat and now am a moderate Republican. Fiscally conservative and a libertarian on most social issues, and pragmatic on the issue of abortion.

    I read this book to gain more understanding of what my generation has done to the next generation by continuing to require them to ride their bike with training wheels (with headphones on while texting) so they don’t get hurt in a society rushing by them at a million miles an hour.

    With both of our children, we required them to put the phones down an hour before bed in a room other than their own, and to only play video games or watch tv in the loft area (never their bedroom). We set up study areas in 3 areas of the house so they could find their own nook where they felt comfortably focused.

    Then they went off to college not fully prepared for the radicalism that greeted them. It’s almost as if the AltLeft crazies no longer have a filter. These people don’t belong on college campuses. They belong in insane asylums. Thankfully my kids both had grit and a penchant for making their own case for why they believed what they believed while retaining an open mind.

    This all came to a head last week on a flight to Boston. Seated next to a retired recruiter from Harvard, she volunteered for over 2 hours every little detail about Donald Trump that she hated…and assumed that I did the same based on my non-response. As we approached final approach to Logan, I asked her to rate her career in terms of adding diversity to the Harvard campus. She immediatley jumped to the Indians, Asians, Blacks, Jews, Hindu’s, Lesbians, Handicapped, etc… as proof of her success. I asked how many conservatives she placed into Harvard in addition to all the Liberals and Progressives she just named. She got this ghost like look on her face and said she didn’t know and that this wasn’t important.

    So…the most intelligent students in America being recruited by one of the most prestigious universities in the world…and political ideology didn’t matter. Yet…we all know…it’s the #1 reason recruiters reach out to potential students. If a conservative gets in, it’s only because he/she is smart enough to deflect and dodge the question.

    Welcome to America. Where the academics and their agents are idiots, and the students they’re teaching are learning nothing of real value.

  22. Eric Stutz says

    On the matter of guilt by association: One should not allow extremists the ability to make an idea untrue simply by agreeing with it or expressing it in a way that is intellectually or morally deficient.

  23. ccscientist says

    One thing not on your list exactly is the democratization of opinions due to social media. 40 yrs ago, few could get a platform to put forth their opinions. Now everyone is on twitter. Reasoned debate is a high-level skill. The average person debates things with their friends like the virtue of their football team or why pineapple on pizza is an abomination or why GMO foods will kill you totally on an emotional level. Now millions of people who debate only on an emotional level have been given a megaphone and the ability to gang up on someone. This is very dangerous. Mob rule never turns out well. This idea applies also to professors: now with so many colleges, being a prof is no longer so exclusive. Idiot profs who want attention and can’t get it by publishing ground-breaking work can get it on Twitter.

    • James Pelton says

      I fear you are very, very correct. The mob has taken over many conversations and the intelligentry have become collaborators for fear of losing their status.

  24. Stephen J. says

    One question that might be worth asking, of either Ms. Paresky or the commenters, occurs to me: How much of Weigel’s constant misrepresentation and guilt by association is deliberate, self-aware falsehood, and how much is the sincere product of a distorted perspective that literally can’t understand Haidt and Lukianoff in any terms other than the ones she sets out? Put another way, what are the odds that Weigel is an unconscious victim of her taboos, versus the odds that she’s a deliberate perpetrator of them solely for personal and political advantage? Is she a believer or a deceiver?

    The reason I ask is because in my observation, it’s absolutely vital to know which kind of taboo-enforcer a person is before trying to challenge them. If they are a sincere believer, calling them a deceiver only hardens the taboos. If they are a deceiver, then trying to reason them out of the taboos is only a waste of time. Matching tactic to target is critical.

    • “How much of Weigel’s constant misrepresentation and guilt by association is deliberate, self-aware falsehood, and how much is the sincere product of a distorted perspective that literally can’t understand Haidt and Lukianoff in any terms other than the ones she sets out?”

      I have found the latter to be far more common in contexts like these. People on all sides of all issues mostly do believe what they write, and honestly fail to perceive any logical and evidential flaws in their viewpoint.

      The weak point in human debates of this sort is rarely that people are expressing argumentation point which they consciously know to be false. It’s more the question of “WHY can’t they see how false it is?” (at least from the perspective of somebody who disagrees with them).

      (As opposed to, say, a PR person paid to campaign to get approval/rejection of a dam project, who may cynically use whatever works and present promises or projections they secretly know to be false or unlikely to manifest)

      And cognitive dissonance tends to blur the distinction. If a politician adopts a position for decades because it gains votes, they have an incentive to come to believe in it themselves, in order to feel OK about themselves.

      • Stephen J. says

        The difficulty is that today’s media establishment contains very powerful incentives for both the cynical PR writer looking only for eyeball-clicks and the true-faith proselytizer trying to spread her gospel; as a result it can be very difficult to guess which is which. The same person can operate out of both motives without seeing any particular contradiction.

  25. X. Citoyen says

    The reaction to your book is as sad as it is predictable. This is the modus operadi in the new age of yellow journalism.

    I’m more interested in your claim that attitudes and behaviours mentioned pathologize the unfortunate souls who adopt them. Embrace these traits, you say, and your life will be a miserable one. I agree with your conclusion, though I have in mind a particular normative conception of human flourishing against which I judge the traits pathological. You judge them so by appeal to successful social and psychological functioning in the real world. You’re partially right, I think, because these traits are maladaptive in large swaths of the real world.

    Still, the adaptiveness of a trait, as the biologists say, depends on the organism’s environment. And there are also large swaths of the real world where these traits are adaptive—or, to corrupt a remark by Quine from another context, there are many places where to be is to be a member of an aggrieved group, with status increasing through memberships in multiple aggrieved groups. I don’t mean simply that group membership will get you a job, though that is a significant benefit of the adaptation; I mean that (1) your personhood depends on belonging to an identity group and that (2) your status in the social hierarchy built on grievance is proportional to the memberships you can claim. In short, there are places where (what shall we call it?) ontological victimhood is power.

    On this side of the ledger, I think, your analysis falls short. You criticize universities for coddling minds because they indulge students in pathological attitudes and behaviours that will not serve them well in the real world. Yet you seem to have missed the far more sinister side of all this: Universities, governments, some public and private institutions, and media are incentivizing the production of pathological minds by empowering and rewarding them with jobs, grants, awards, and social status. One can have lucrative career as a professional group representative or as an apparatchik in the field of grievance mongering. This is the bigger problem, and it cannot be addressed by appeal to social and psychological functioning because, obviously, it is adaptive behaviour within its (artificial) environment.

    • Summary of your point as I understand it: “Universities, governments, some public and private instituions and media” are actively and differentially seeking pathological minds to hire, and thus developing those pathologies of mind is an adaptive behavior for students (and a functional role of teachers and adminsitrators in preparing students to be the kind of employees industy is seeking). Of if not employment, then grants, awards and status.

      While I can appreciate the explanatory appeal of that premise on the emotional level, I don’t actually see a lot of real intellectual evidence for your cause and effect. The institutions you cite are traditional bogeymen for some of the polarized and conventional tribal politics, so your proposition would go down very easy for that audience of course – just as the SJW putative analysis involving it’s own stereotypical bogeymen goes down easy for their audience. Both tend to ignore or downplay any evidence or reasoning which fails to support their desired conclusions.

      So if we dont’ simply want to choose sides based on our tribe, we need to pay more attention to real evidence. Can you site a nuanced analysis of hiring and award patterns that demonstates a differential pressure on universities to coddle students as a functional adaptation? Like – students who fall for the Three Untruths tend to get hired more easily (or receive more grants and awards from those outside forces) than those who learn to avoid the described mental pitfalls?

      Until I see something more substantial to support your proposition, I find the author’s perspective more persuasive. I believe that the coddling and acceptance of the Untruths as truths, is predominantly maladaptive, and that it needs to challenged, as the book does.

      (And we may be differing more in degree than in direction of thought).

      (I am omitting the obvious and uncontroversial factor internal or local adaptive behaivor, like a student adopting compatible attitudes in order to fit in with their classmates and teachers. The above is about the external forces you cite, like employers and grantors).

      • Let me clarify one point herr. I do not dispute that a few students may be able to land a “career as a professional group representative or as an apparatchik in the field of grievance mongering”. I have never encountered an institution or industry in which those job positions were a statistically significant part of their job force tho, so it’s hard to believe that this tiny niche would swing the job market enough to make the coddling an adaptive behavior for students (or professors and administrators).

        Basically, I don’t think the cultural mutation (away from Enlightenment values and paradigms) being called out by the book is driven by meeting the needs of employers. So we can change it best by trying to identify the real causes, as the book authors do, and working there.

        • X. Citoyen says

          First, I’m not proposing dichotomous alternatives, my theory or theirs. I’m pointing to another dimension that they don’t discuss (as far as I’m aware): Believing the untruths can be adaptive because, even if it makes you and others miserable, it can provide you with both an identity and a career. I fail to see how this precludes the author’s analysis also being true.

          Second, I’m not suggesting universities incentivize the effects (anxiety, etc.) but that universities and other entities incentivize the causes (i.e., the untruths) by providing jobs, social status, etc., to people who believe them. Studies departments provide the supply and some of the demand because they train and employ people who believe the untruths. But there are all kinds of occupations open to such people outside the university: diversity managers, consultants, and researchers, human resource departments, and myriad gov’t and privately funded agencies and organizations devoted to propagating the untruths.

          I don’t see how the “emotional level” has or should have any bearing on my argument. And, it bears mentioning, most of what I said is public knowledge.

  26. It is interesting to see how often the dynamics described by the author of the article (referencing the book in question), actually show up in the comments. The comments provides a handy illustration of the dynamics described.

    One thing I note is that the more polarized a commentor appears (on either side), the more they tend to see the problem behaviors (as described in the article) as blatently obvious on the other side (but hardly worth considering on their own political side), and the more they are unaware of the rhetorical tactics they are employing.

    That said, there are some great comments, for and against the gist of the article; the best seem to come from people with less of a one-sided perspective, tho even the very polarized can cite snippets of thoughtful perspective or sources worth considering.

  27. NancyP says

    My big objection to the book’s premise, based on the authors’ articles forming the kernel of the book, is that the “coddling” described is at most a minor phenomenon confined to elite universities on the coasts. This is not applicable to the great majority of mid-country private and public universities, colleges, and community colleges. Students are largely concerned about passing classes and finding the money to continue school. Students have always complained about “too much classwork”, “tuition too high”, boring teachers, obnoxious dormitory neighbors. Yes, there is the occasional objection of a religious literalist to being tested on evolution in a biology class – to which the teacher’s answer is “you don’t have to believe it, you do have to know it for this class”. It is the teacher’s job to smack down any student ad hominem comments in class, and the administrator’s job to kick students out of dormitories for drawing swastikas (or anything else) in feces in the dormitory.

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