The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure
Penguin Press, 2018, 352 pp., $28
When Nicholas Christakis announced that he would be resigning as Master of Silliman College—Yale University’s largest living space, in both size and reputation—the school had less than two months to find a replacement. Nobody knew who this might be, nor, frankly, did many care to find out: It was summer, after all, the sun was shining, and after some nasty racial protests had elicited some even nastier media coverage, most were content to let the search unfold without fanfare.
Still, everyone understood how much it mattered. An outspoken progressive, Christakis had made waves, headlines, and eventually enemies because he had refused to apologize on behalf of his wife Erika, who in a college-wide email had questioned the university’s practice of policing offensive Halloween wear. “Dear Sillimanders,“ she wrote:
I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students. . .. Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.
As it turned out, Yale was not particularly free or open. The email plunged the campus into a veritable Two Weeks Hate that culminated in the now-infamous confrontation between Nicholas Christakis and his disgruntled students, one of whom became a viral internet meme known only as “shrieking girl.“ Donors tightened their purse strings; administrators did damage control; and the whole affair was so disgraceful that one alum has now mounted a petition campaign to join Yale’s Board of Trustees for the express purpose of protecting free speech.
This story has been told many times by many people, most recently Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in their The Coddling of the American Mind. A treatise on “good intentions and bad ideas,” the book claims that Christakis’s mistreatment reflects a broader set of pathologies that are “setting up a generation for failure.” Nothing here will surprise partisans in the culture war: If you are at all familiar with Haidt and Lukianoff’s other writings, you already know how they view Christakis, the students who accosted him, and the importance of academic freedom more generally.
What you may not know—and still won’t, even after reading their 300-page masterstroke—is the story’s epilogue, in which Yale finally decided who should replace Christakis. His successor would not much alter the day-to-day rhythm of the college, let alone the entire university. But whoever was picked would nonetheless have tremendous symbolic significance, insofar as he—or, as it turned out, she—would represent the better, more “inclusive“ Yale demanded by students and promised by administrators.
Enter Laurie Santos, a psychology professor who was in nearly every way the antithesis of her predecessor. Whereas Christakis had tried to cultivate debate by encouraging students to talk about issues like censorship and cultural appropriation, Santos saw her role as less academic than therapeutic. Meditation classes, makeshift haunted houses, and a new in-house coffee shop all formed the backbone of Silliman’s “wellness” initiative, spearheaded by Santos in the hope of rejuvenating college spirit. Rejuvenate it, she certainly did; with the courtyard fiasco only a few months behind them, Sillimanders were eager to rally around new amenities provided they staved off further controversy.
If these reforms made Santos popular, the classes she taught made her a celebrity. Nearly one in four undergrads enrolled in “Psychology and the Good Life,“ a record-breaking lecture that endowed Santos with Oprah Winfrey-like status. The premise of the course was simple: According to science, our culture is really bad at making people happy. It tells us that marriage and children promote human flourishing, even though numerous studies posit an inverse correlation between having kids and subjective well-being; in the name of efficiency, it throws up countless barriers to sleep and rest and “mindfulness”; and most crucially, it doesn’t keep people up to date with the latest discoveries in behavioral economics, leaving them ill-equipped to pursue their goals by means of social influence.
Implicit in those critiques was a positive program for happiness—as Santos put it, “the good life”—which included the following imperatives:
- Avoid binding attachments and obligations; these will stress you out and make you sad;
- Focus on cultivating your own mind and mental habits, so that you can be happy regardless of your external conditions, a self-reliant ray of sunshine; and
- Prioritize instrumental knowledge that helps you achieve your goals; in particular, learn how to manipulate others to your advantage.
For Christakis’s successor, in other words, modern science just happened to confirm what Adrian Vermeule has called the “liturgy” of contemporary liberalism: a pragmatic, hyper-individualized cosmology that places the autonomous self smack dab in the center of the moral universe. This, of course, was nonsense, and on some level everybody knew it. Like all academic disciplines, psychology reflects socially embedded assumptions at least as much as it critiques them; it does not legitimate the you-do-you morality of 2018 any more than Rawls’s famous “veil of ignorance” legitimated the policy preferences of the Harvard political science faculty in 1971. That Santos thought we could improve our culture by essentially doubling down on it demonstrates how difficult it can be to go beyond one’s own horizons and view social problems the way an outsider might—not as defects or deformations but rather as encoded into the very logic of the system.
Despite their best efforts, Haidt and Lukianoff ultimately show signs of a similar blind spot. Coddling of the American Mind has already received many plaudits from the (classically) liberal commentariat, some of them quite justified.1 The book advances several provocative hypotheses that vary in plausibility (more on that in a moment), but overall it does a decent job of establishing that no, the kids are really not alright.
At the same time, however, Coddling is constrained by the scientistic individualism that birthed Laurie Santos—and, I will argue, many of the other problems afflicting college campuses today. This constraint not only causes Haidt and Lukianoff to misjudge the scope and origins of the present crisis but also, in a way, makes them partners to it. When all is said and done, their values do not meaningfully diverge from the “safetyism” Coddling decries, nor do they amount to a legitimating basis for democratic life; on the contrary, they end up reinforcing precisely those assumptions that encouraged illiberalism in the first place.
Indeed, the key to understanding campus craziness is not John Stuart Mill (the hero of Haidt and Lukianoff’s story) or Herbert Marcuse (the villain): It’s Tocqueville, who foresaw how excessive individualism would gradually undermine the social substrate on which individual freedom depends. Haidt and Lukianoff are thus correct in thinking that today’s students are “unlearning liberty,” to quote from Lukianoff’s first published monograph.2 But they err in attributing this process to contingent, exogenous forces when in fact it has arisen out of a deep-seated cultural dialectic, between individualism on the one hand and collectivism on the other. Only by disrupting this dialectic can we restore some sanity to the campus, and, one hopes, to the nation as well.
Coddling is framed as an attack on three “Great Untruths,” whose growing prominence is “setting up a generation for failure”: The Untruth of Fragility (What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker); The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning (Always trust your feelings); and The Untruth of Us Versus Them (Life is a battle between good people and evil people). For Haidt and Lukianoff, a proposition counts as a Great Untruth if and only if the following criteria are met:
- It contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures).
- It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being.
- It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.
The rest of the book endeavors to show how each of the three Great Untruths meets each of the three stipulated criteria, and how young people nevertheless came to believe in them.
Before assessing that project, though, the stated criteria deserve a bit more scrutiny, for they are the closest thing to a methodological prospectus found anywhere in Coddling. Two observations immediately stand out.
First, Haidt and Lukianoff make no evaluative distinction between “ancient wisdom” and “modern psychological research.” Both stand as equally reliable methods of getting at truth, with philosophy no more credible than psychology and vice versa. This assumption isn’t really necessary for Haidt and Lukianoff’s argument, since most of their empirical claims find support in both ancient wisdom and modern social science. But it is worth questioning all the same. Psychology is currently in the grips of a “replication crisis,” wherein the findings of many studies cannot be replicated by other researchers, and sometimes not even by the original authors. Given this problem—which Haidt once described in an interview as a “top priority for science”—it’s unclear why “modern psychological research” should enjoy the same status as ancient wisdom, especially when dealing with a construct as ill-defined and complex as well-being. Other considerations also militate against empiricizing eudaimonia, of course; the point is that, even if we reject them all, the equation between Socrates and science would still be dubious by science’s own standards.
Second, only two of the three criteria are even notionally epistemic. The third—it harms the individuals and communities who embrace it—has nothing to do with truth as the term is conventionally understood. Many propositions can be both true and harmful–just consider the belief that America’s elite is increasingly out of touch with America’s public. It’s accurate, but it’s also causing imbecilic charlatans to get elected at all levels of government.
Embedded within this third criterion, then, is an instrumentalist conception of truth that makes liberal education into little more than a bona fide self-help manual. “Our argument is ultimately pragmatic, not moralistic,” say the authors, taking great pains to assure us that “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 reject the three Great Untruths. Although they make several vague statements alluding to the fate of American democracy—implying, as many commentators have, that what happens on campus doesn’t stay there—Coddling’s normative core is ultimately more therapeutic than political, more egoistic than communitarian. As such, it has little to say about the common good as something over and above a sum of individual preferences, and this deficit reverberates throughout the entire book, distorting not just its diagnosis but also its prescriptions.
What is the diagnosis? After cataloguing an array of abuses at Yale, Middlebury, and elsewhere, Haidt and Lukianoff identify six different “explanatory threads” they believe are responsible for the growing illiberalism on college campuses:
(1) the rising political polarization and cross-party animosity of U.S. politics, which has led to rising hate crimes and harassment on campus; (2) rising levels of teen anxiety and depression, which have made many students more desirous of protection and more receptive to the Great Untruths; (3) changes in parenting practices, which have amplified children’s fears even as childhood becomes increasingly safe; (4) the loss of free play and unsupervised risk-taking, both of which kids need to become self-governing adults; (5) the growth of campus bureaucracy and the expansion of its protective mission; and (6) an increasing passion for justice, combined with changing ideas about what justice requires. [Numbering mine.]
These trends, Haidt and Lukianoff concede, “did not influence everyone equally,” but each has played a sizable role in academic life over “the last few years.” That specification is subtle but significant: Though the authors occasionally canvas developments prior to the early 2000s, such historical dives are rare because Coddling is presented as a story about “Gen Z,“ the post-Millennial generation that arrived on campus between 2013 and 2017.
This means that even if we accept all of the above as proximate causes of student malaise, we are still no closer to identifying the fundamental cause—that is, the reason these things arose in the first place. Consider the sixth variable, “changing ideas about what justice requires.” Proponents of social justice used to push for equal opportunities, the authors say, but over time that mission morphed into a quest for equal outcomes—even though differences in outcomes do not always stem from oppression or discrimination. The upshot is that students have begun to see hierarchy and bigotry where none exist, making reasoned debate more difficult. Haidt and Lukianoff are right about this: Conflating outcome inequality with injustice inevitably leads to hysteria in diverse societies where people are free to make their own choices and suffer the consequences. But definitional drift is arguably a constitutive feature of campus culture more than it is a causal antecedent. And Haidt and Lukianoff never really engage with the history behind this drift, tracing equal outcomes justice only as far back as Clinton-era debates over Title IX. One wishes they had bothered to speculate about why, exactly, elites began privileging equality of outcome over equality of opportunity—or at least conceded that they didn’t know.
Such speculations are more forthcoming when it comes to parental overreach, which feels like the central culprit in Coddling’s “social science detective story.” The argument here is not rigorous—mostly just the observation that a culture of “paranoid parenting” preceded a culture of hypersensitivity—but the casual inference seems warranted enough: If children are never exposed to risk or hardship, they’ll never develop the resilience to deal with uncomfortable ideas and experiences. And if they grow up hearing that “evil lurks in the shadows, on the streets, and in public parks and restrooms,” they might be inclined to “embrace the Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.” Unlike the chapter on social justice, this analysis identifies a phenomenon that is both different from and plausibly connected to the thing it is trying to explain. And the genealogy it describes, while brief and a tad light on evidence, at least has the virtue of being a genealogy.
Coddling’s strongest chapter links these attitudinal changes to higher education’s turn toward corporate governance. By treating students as consumers rather than truth-seekers, the university lost sight of its traditional purpose and function, with pedagogy coming to play second fiddle to profit. Schools therefore had a monetary incentive to indulge demands for trigger warnings/safe spaces, even though such demands undermined academic freedom. What’s more, because campus bureaucracies “are bombarded with directives . . . that they must limit the university’s liability in everything from personal injury lawsuits to wrongful termination,” they have a vested interest in controlling “what students do and say.” Speech codes, bias reporting systems, and other manifestations of “safetyism” thus emerged in response to market forces, working in tandem to create a culture of “moral dependency.” More could be said here, and has been, but Haidt and Lukianoff still deserve credit for implicating corporatization in the paroxysms that have rocked college campuses these past few years.
What they do not deserve credit for is bulverizing the campus Left to the point where it becomes difficult to take anything they say about good-faith debate seriously. Coddling’s go-to dialectical strategy proceeds in two stages: Identify an outrageous claim made by student activists—“liberalism is white supremacy,” say—then list a bevy of social and psychological explanations for why activists nonetheless believe it, without ever bothering to actually refute the claim in question. To be sure, Haidt and Lukianoff marshal a great deal of evidence against the Great Untruths, propositions that supposedly command widespread support in academia. But by their own reckoning the academic Left believes plenty of other things, too—things Haidt and Lukianoff reject but to which they provide no counterargument.
Take, for example, the idea that oppressive power structures cause schools to privilege the “perspectives of white males” such that “girls and women . . . are effectively a ‘colonized population.’” This is not a call to trust feelings over reason, nor is it an inversion of Nietzsche, nor is it equivalent to dividing the world into good and evil. It is incorrect, for several reasons; but Haidt and Lukianoff do not list even one of them. Instead, they resort to consequentialist gymnastics, arguing that we should disbelieve the colonization thesis not because it is wrong, but because embracing it might harm students.
It was mostly white males who set up the educational system and founded nearly all the universities in the United States. Most of those schools once excluded women and people of color. But does that mean that women and people of color should think of themselves as “colonized populations“ today? Would doing so empower them, or would it encourage an external locus of control? Would it make them more or less likely to engage with their teaching and readings, work hard, and benefit from their time in school? More generally, what will happen to the thinking of students who are trained to see everything in terms of intersecting bipolar axes where one end of each axis is marked “privilege“ and the other is “oppression“?
It’s obvious Haidt and Lukianoff think such views are nonsensical in addition to being harmful. But they never explain why. Their rebuttal, if it can be called that, consists in identifying the social costs of leftwing pieties and then providing a series of just-so stories about how those pieties took hold.
For a book about truth-seeking and charitable discourse, this is a problem, made worse by the fact that student radicals use exactly the same results-oriented logic to justify banning controversial speakers with whom they disagree. Charles Murray, it is argued, exacerbates racism whether or not his views about race and IQ are actually true; Erika Christakis does harm, whether or not bureaucratic overreach is actually an issue. In this moment as in others, Haidt and Lukianoff play into their opponents’ hands, resting the case for free speech on the shakiest of normative foundations. What if tomorrow we discovered (1) that every sentence in The Bell Curve was true beyond a reasonable doubt, and (2) that saying so publicly would lead to a 5 percent spike in hate crimes? Would (2) amount to a case against letting Charles Murray speak at Middlebury? For that matter, what if all the studies Haidt and Lukianoff cite about trigger warnings being bad for mental health were suddenly and conclusively debunked? Would that be a reason to embrace trigger warnings, despite their potential to be weaponized by competing ideological factions?
I hope not—but “pragmatic” arguments give us no reason to think otherwise.
Moreover, and more important, these explanatory threads simply cannot account for what we’re seeing in academia. The cradle-to-campus infantilization described by Haidt and Lukianoff is consistent with a wide range of possible outcomes, all of which involve hypersensitivity in some way while nonetheless diverging in crucial others. One could imagine, for instance, a militant socialist politics in which class warfare was seen as the key to racial equality, and identity politics seen as a distraction. Young people who embraced such a politics might argue that life is a power struggle between the 99 percent (good) and the 1 percent (bad), that feelings of oppression and alienation are more important than facts (rising incomes, surprisingly low Gini coefficients), and that neoliberal discourses of “global entrepreneurship” inflict deep and lasting harm on those exposed to them. For good measure, they might also demand the resignation of freshwater economics professors and lead social media lynch mobs against their fiscally conservative peers.
The reason campus protests don’t look like this, focusing more on minority representation than on soaring income inequality, probably has a lot to do with the ideas that have been incubating in the academy for almost half a century. As Heather Mac Donald puts it in The Diversity Delusion, “campus intolerance is at root not a psychological phenomenon but an ideological one. At its center is a worldview that sees Western culture as endemically racist and sexist. . . . One outcome of that teaching is the forceful silencing of contrarian speech”—what used to be called “revolutionary intolerance” back in the Sixties.
Yet critical race theory and poststructuralism are nowhere to be found among Haidt and Lukianoff’s explanatory threads. The closest the authors come to acknowledging the role of ideas is a cursory attack on Herbert Marcuse, the grandfather of the New Left whose thought was “taken up by the generation of students in the 1960s and 1970s who are the older professors of today.” But in the same paragraph, they assert that Marcuseanism no longer makes sense in today’s post-1960s world, implying that continued support for this doctrine must owe to some kind of “cognitive distortion” rather than to the doctrine itself. (They also gloss over the black-white wealth gap, mass incarceration, and disparities in educational performance between various demographics, all of which have surely made Marcuse’s distinction between formal and substantive liberties more appealing to today’s activists.)
So even if psychological conditions did trigger campus victimhood culture, they still don’t explain why the culture has taken the particular form that it has. Nor does Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which postdated the trigger warnings/safe space craze by at least two years, nor do the well-publicized shootings of unarmed black men. Such tragedies might lend credence to the belief that systemic racism still exists in American society, as the authors acknowledge, but not to the belief that systemic racism exists in American universities, where law enforcement is regarded with suspicion and Donald Trump with outright scorn.
The resulting explanatory gap redounds to Coddling’s closing prescriptions, many of them geared toward making young adults more “resilient.” Considered on their own they are fine ideas: More unsupervised play time would likely improve mental health outcomes for children and, coupled with reduced social media usage, perhaps campus culture as well. But there’s reason to think the improvements would be marginal, if they materialized at all. People are irrational and bad ideas build on each other, so it isn’t enough to discredit the Great Untruths; one must also discredit the underlying ideology that leads to the Great Untruths, never mind dismantling the social structures that perpetuate the ideology.
By the end, it’s hard to escape feeling let down. We’ve been promised a comprehensive set of answers to the question, “how do we fix it.” What we get instead is a technocratic wish-list, policies that are neither bad nor difficult to implement, but which, because of that, cannot possibly counteract the maudlin tide of insanity spreading from campus to campus, coast to coast.
In sum, The Coddling of the American Mind succeeds in establishing safety culture as one possible source of campus radicalism, and it offers some decent advice for parents and educators looking to reverse present trends. But it does not explain why we’ve ended up with this particular radicalism, or why its purveyors are incorrect as opposed to just destructive. What’s more, Coddling rests on empirical claims that leave it open to consequentialist gerrymandering—and, ultimately, to charges of bulverism.
So pace Haidt and Lukianoff, let’s engage in some bulverism of our own. Let’s tell a just-so story about how these normally insightful authors managed to get campus politics wrong, or at least not quite right.
This story, like Coddling’s, begins with good intentions: Haidt and Lukianoff want to help universities become better places, something they realize cannot be done without a major cultural, or at least subcultural, shift. Radicalism isn’t just an annoyance or an obstacle to free debate; it is a stress-inducing way of life that hurts real people in addition to the usual abstractions—Civil Society, the Marketplace of Ideas, and so on. Thus while Haidt and Lukianoff do care about liberal democracy, they care even more about young people suffering on college campuses. Some of that may owe to Lukianoff’s own experience with depression (he suggests as much in Coddling), but most of it is just basic decency, a genuine desire to help others help themselves.
Because of this emphasis, however, Haidt and Lukianoff end up seeing students more as patients than agents, adopting the same clinical stance that animates safetyism. In a sense they’re not wrong: Students today are buffeted by a host of maleficent social forces, several of them endemic to the university. But this outlook also causes Haidt and Lukianoff to understate the role that ideas, beliefs, and values play in determining human culture, for it treats the former as mere expressions of the latter, lacking autonomous form or content. The campus thus becomes a medical problem, filled with students too weak to function without treatment, rather than a political one, filled with well-organized extremists advancing a particular ideology.
And since Haidt and Lukianoff are both liberals of the Santosian variety, their approach to problem-solving is thoroughly individualistic. The book’s title is quite suggestive in this regard: We do not speak of coddled communities or families or nations but coddled persons, so marked because they receive more pampering, more indulgence, than typical social norms supply. The coddling construction therefore assumes (a) that the problem revolves around and is experienced by individuals, and (b) that it does not revolve around the basic structure of American society. Haidt and Lukianoff all but assert (b) in disclaiming that helicopter parents are much more common among the upper-middle class than everyone else, whereas (a) comes across in their relentlessly pragmatist framing: “If we can educate the next generation more wisely, they will be stronger, richer, more virtuous, and even safer.” The words surrounding “virtuous” give us some idea what Haidt and Lukianoff mean by the term: not the virtue of the ancients, who stressed knowing one’s proper place in the collective, but the virtue of the moderns, who stress the ability to pursue one’s ends without interference.
This then causes Haidt and Lukianoff to overlook the ways liberal individualism has itself fueled identity politics by undermining traditional sources of meaning and community. “Wokeness” is sometimes analogized to a religion, with “privilege” playing the role of original sin, privilege-checking the role of confession, and cultural groups the role of the clerisy, bringing congregants together around shared values and experience. Those interventions, however, only emerged in a secularized context where few theological competitors existed to challenge them. And they followed a decades-long campaign to liberate the individual from all such moralizing constraints, first initiated in the 1960s when college students attacked the then-regnant model of in loco parentis for being too uptight, too heavy-handed and overbearing. As a result, society became more free and, some would say, more fun—but also much more atomized, which in turn made it more susceptible to totalizing, postliberal faiths.
Coddling comes close to making this point when it notes that social media usage correlates strongly with depression except in kids who are already “highly sociable—the ones who [spend] more time than the average kid in face-to-face social interactions. In other words, the potentially negative impact of screens and social media might depend on the amount of time teens spend with other people.” So loneliness fuels depression, and depression fuels safety culture, the idea being that universities were caught off guard by a technologically induced mental health crisis. Left unexplored, though, is the fact that depression rates have been rising since the mid-20th century, around the same time social and familial relations began to take quite the beating. As Frederick Goodwin, the former director of the National Institutes for Health, told the New York Times in 1992,
There’s been a tremendous erosion of the nuclear family—a doubling of the divorce rate, a drop in parents’ time available to children and an increase in mobility. . . . the losses of these stable sources of self-identification mean a greater susceptibility to depression.
The campus/Christianity parallel may therefore indicate a kind of substitution effect, whereby left-wing extremism provides students with many of the social goods that post-Woodstock life has denied them. Such provision comes at a cost, no doubt, as Haidt and Lukianoff forcefully explain. Yet for all that, wokeness qua faith still captures an important truth about our politics: Give people too much freedom, and soon they’ll come crawling back to their chains.
Thus it is true, as Coddling presumes, that today’s “progressive” illiberalism originated in a peculiar set of social conditions. But it’s also true those conditions are not contingent features of iGen so much as essential facts of late modernity, engineered by modern values in which the potential for seppuku has always been a lurking, if patient, danger.
At the same time, widespread atomization was helping to produce what Haidt and Lukianoff call the “bureaucracy of safetyism” even before its capture by ideological interests. Here, we would do well to examine Tocqueville’s insight that a state predicated on individualism will paradoxically tend toward oppression—not because it empowers the rulers as such, but because it disempowers the ruled, who, having withdrawn into their own private circles, lack the mediating attachments needed to resist tyranny. Over time, the nation “is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd,” governed by “a network of small complicated rules” that “enervate” the people and inure them to “administrative despotism.”
Haidt and Lukianoff actually open their chapter on corporatization with just this quote (taken from Volume II, Book 4 of Democracy in America), implying that speech codes, bias reporting systems, and other diktats have induced Tocquevillian levels of slavishness all across campus. And they have—but that slavishness also has its roots in a distinctively Tocquevillian premise, the “you-do-you” attitude that Coddling fails to critique and at moments seems to endorse. Unmoored from meaningful connections, bereft of any sense of higher purpose, students could suddenly see themselves the way in loco parentis had seen them: weak, fragile, demanding shelter and protection. And the administrators who came of age in our hyper-libertarian era were only too happy to oblige, because they had imbibed the same moral outlook as Laurie Santos, wherein subjective well-being becomes the font of all value, the ultimate argument-ender.
Individualism, scientism, and technocracy thus created a culture that was simultaneously enfeebled and resilient: enfeebled, in the sense that it dissolved the social ties necessary for its continued sustenance; resilient, in that it was ubiquitous enough to escape detection and critique by those with a vested interest in critiquing it. This is why classically liberal arguments against political correctness have made such poor headway since l’affaire Christakis, when the culture wars reemerged in full swing. Whereas Soviet-style communism challenged our democracy from without, thereby strengthening its internal consensus, campus leftism represents a challenge from within, born more out of spiritual dissatisfaction than imperial ambition. Reorienting the university around a values-neutral quest for truth would therefore just perpetuate the moral vacuum in which PC-culture arose. That Haidt and Lukianoff can’t see this, criticizing viewpoint intolerance while simultaneously affirming the very premises that created it, is a testament to how much power those premises exert over the American imagination. It’s an understandable error, perhaps even an inevitable one—but an error all the same.
1See, for example, Thomas Chatterton Williams in the New York Times and Matthew Lesh in Quillette.
2Greg Lukianoff, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (2014).
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