Jonathan Haidt is working the room. The slim, silver-haired professor is standing on top of a chair in a hotel suite packed with professors, students, reporters, donors, and assorted kibitzers, giving a rapid-fire litany of what’s wrong with our young people and what we should do about it. He talks fast and answers questions eagerly: “Send me your research,” “I’d love to see that,” he tells the social-science wonks. The room is full of educational entrepreneurs. Someone has a site to teach values through hip-hop music (“I love it,” says Haidt), someone else a program to produce self-reliant “free-range kids” starting in grade school. Stand-up comic Karith Foster is there promoting free speech as diversity as are Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, who were driven from Evergreen State College by marauding students in 2017 and then became intellectual dark-web stars.
Haidt’s high-flying pep talk took place in late June at Heterodox Academy’s annual conference. In 2015 Haidt founded Heterodox to promote intellectual diversity on college campuses and challenge the enforced orthodoxies of academia. At the start Heterodox was “three guys and a blog,” says Haidt. Now Heterodox Academy has about 3,000 members, and more than 400 came to the conference. (Full disclosure: I have been a member of Heterodox since 2017.) Haidt founded Heterodox Academy with Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz in 2015. Their goal was to use the organization to foster viewpoint diversity in universities by providing a supportive outlet to academics with beliefs that stray from the enforced political biases of their field. In practice, the academy runs a free platform called Open Mind to help depolarize workplaces and campuses, as well as the Campus Expression Survey, which professors and administrators can use to find out if students feel they are “walking on eggshells,” too fearful to speak their minds. Their blog is still going strong. And then of course there are the conferences, like the one I attended last month.
The fledgling academy now occupies a position within America’s tumultuous culture wars as advocates for free speech and the values of the “open society” and against political correctness and the millennial fervor of social justice activism. Though by their own light Haidt and those sympathetic to his mission see themselves more as referees than combatants, there are no neutral parties on certain fundamental questions. Unlike some of his putative allies in the anti-political correctness cause, Haidt is more than an activist with a set of “classical liberal” tics and familiar complaints about college students and the decline of civilization. The NYU professor believes he can go beyond criticism to explain why these things are happening. His explanations draw on areas of social psychology, including those he has pioneered like “moral foundations theory,” and more recently an account of how social media is rewiring young people’s emotional circuitry. Politics at its most fundamental level, Haidt suggests, perhaps a bit amusingly given the role he has taken on with his conference, is not about rational decisions but rather an expression of preconscious emotional and temperamental biases.
A professor of ethical leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, Haidt calls himself a “Jewish atheist,” and a lifelong Democrat who respects religion and conservative values. His generosity of temper is appealing, but until recently it made him somewhat scattered. His books still tout cognitive behavioral therapy, and dabs of Eastern wisdom jostle with Darwinian factoids. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt displayed the social scientist’s eager hubris. “I’ll present research showing where love comes from, why passionate love always cools, and what kind of love is ‘true’ love,” he announced, as if Jane Austen and Tolstoy hadn’t done that research long ago. The Righteous Mind argued that liberals value compassion and equality, while conservatives prize loyalty, authority and obedience, but the Trump era dropped a bomb on such now-quaint distinctions. With Heterodox Academy Haidt has found his proper mission. He has zeroed in on why young people are so prone to see themselves as righteous victims, so apt to abuse others instead of respecting them, and he has set out to make things better. He’s not alone. There are also groups like Better Angels and Respect and Rebellion, a speakers’ series pairing ideological foes who are also close friends (“pro-life feminist,” “abortion access fanatic”), so that students may develop such “treasonous friendships” themselves.
In his most recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Haidt soft pedals the evolutionary biology he relied on in his previous works, The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind. The Coddling of the American Mind, was co-authored with Greg Lukianoff, the CEO and president of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Building on earlier work by the two authors, the book argues that free speech is the means by which a society preserves its connection to reality and prevents myths and slogans—whether progressive or reactionary—from overpowering facts. The cost in America of abandoning the commitment to free speech is evident, Lukianoff and Haidt say, by the armies of the righteous on both left and right gathering power to force their extremism on everyone else.
The current anti-free-speech plague, Haidt and Lukianoff write, began in 2017. That was the year, fresh off the election of Donald Trump, when the UC Berkeley administration refused to restrain the violent demonstrators, many affiliated with the left-wing group Antifa, protesting a planned speech by Milo Yiannopoulos. Berkeley did not discipline a single student for smashing windows and beating up people who had the bad luck to get in the way of their rage. “The clear sign of being afraid of your students is that you will say nothing, nothing, that suggests that they are wrong,” Haidt said at the Heterodox conference. “I can only name one example from a university president” of standing up to students, he added: Oberlin’s former President Marvin Krislov, who refused in 2016 to respond to student protesters’ “nonnegotiable” demands.
The Coddling of the American Mind targets the progressive taboos that stop us from addressing the issues that progressives, paradoxically, are most concerned about. Haidt and Lukianoff quote Jeannie Suk Gersen, a Harvard law professor who says that discussing rape law in the classroom “has become so difficult that teachers are starting to give up on the subject.” She adds that if law professors stop mentioning sexual assault, that “would be a tremendous loss—above all to victims of sexual assault.”
The current student progressives differ from their ’60s forebears because they deem themselves fragile, liable to be harmed by, for instance, depictions of women being treated badly by men. (I’ve experienced a few such objections myself when teaching college students books that show violence against women.) And so professors become PR agents for the masculine gender, carefully avoiding books that describe male brutality. After all, students are easily triggered, and they will be healthy and safe—so the story goes—if they can avoid triggers altogether. Meanwhile, campus health services pander to students who think themselves too psychologically fragile to handle disturbing opinions in the classroom. Not surprisingly, given the incentives created in these institutions, on some elite campuses 1 in 4 students consider themselves disabled, a huge spike from a few years ago. Our current idea is that higher education exists to protect young adults from stress, which as Haidt and Lukianoff point out is not the way to promote their future success in life, much less their strength of soul and open-mindedness.
The reason college students see themselves as fragile beings who need protection is that they are shellshocked from the social media shame culture that has taken over our high schools. A few years ago, Haidt and Lukianoff write, Gen Z arrived on campus: kids born around 1996 who grew up with social media. “That’s when things started to get weird,” Haidt said at the Heterodox conference. “Safe? What do you mean? You don’t feel safe because a book was assigned?” Gen Z, Haidt says, was given free range on social media but had vastly overprotected childhoods in every other way. The result: a college age culture in which self-righteously deriding other people is a sign of virtue, and everyone fears being called out. “We’ve got to get the age of social media raised from 13,” Haidt said at Heterodox. “Girls in the fourth grade are getting Instagram accounts—all you do is lie about your age.”
“The recent spike in students’ anxiety and depression is like nothing else in history,” Haidt added, because they grew up exposed to online bullying and know they could be the next victim. Their aggression comes from fear that they might be pilloried themselves if they don’t think or say the right things. College administrations fuel this paranoia. At NYU, for instance, posters urge students to call a “bias response hotline.” “It’s like East Germany,” Haidt said to Bari Weiss in a 2017 Wall Street Journal interview, with the woke students playing the role of the Stasi.
The shaming culture extends far beyond media. In the workplace, Haidt said at the Heterodox conference, employers have been exhausted by the fracas-promoting fragility of their Gen Z hires. “Imagine a blowup over something someone said and it happens every day and it goes on forever—that’s the future of every organization in America.” Heterodox’s Open Mind program is in demand in the corporate world as well as the academy, Haidt reports.
The notion that students need to be protected, not challenged, leads directly to censorship. Recently Brown University distanced itself from research done by one of its faculty members about the purported phenomenon of rapid onset gender dysphoria in which social media influences teenage girls’ adoption of’ transgender identities. After depublishing the paper, the dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, Bess Marcus, noted that “the School of Public Health has heard from Brown community members expressing concerns that the conclusions of the study could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.” The message is clear: Science might invalidate students’ experiences, causing psychic harm to young people, and therefore must stifle itself.
Social justice beliefs are supposed to be accepted, not questioned, and this orthodoxy has a chilling effect on our campuses, on mainstream media, and on social science. Haidt and Lukianoff remark that “nowadays, when someone points to an outcome gap and makes the claim (implicitly or explicitly) that the gap itself is evidence of systematic injustice, social scientists often just nod along with everyone else in the room.” If we want to remedy outcome gaps between genders and ethnic groups, we need to study the reasons for these gaps, instead of assuming that they are always the result of bias and oppression. Of course, the researchers will be labeled white supremacists by those who fear that more knowledge might interfere with their ideologically pure claim that American racism is the root cause of every social problem.
We need to talk freely about how to remedy inequality, since some remedies have a moral cost. There must be a limit to treating individuals unfairly in order to ensure a larger social outcome. Haidt and Lukianoff write that “equal-outcomes social justice activists” want “all institutions and occupations” to “mirror the overall U.S. population: 50% female, roughly 15% African American, 15% Latino, and so on.” Such drastic social engineering might trample on an individual’s right to have a fair chance at a job or a college admission, but it’s hard to speak against it without being slammed as a racist and misogynist.
Haidt’s Heterodox Academy approach is gaining ground, as shown by the growing number of colleges that have adopted the University of Chicago free speech principles, which commit them to ensure “free, robust and uninhibited debate.” Despite the impression sometimes given by the media, the American public disapproves of the shaming culture that has infested the life of teenagers and now colonized much of the political arena, with its smackdown Twitter battles. Yet many universities still remain bastions of political correctness. We are at a turning point, and an up-and-coming political candidate voicing support for heterodoxy could make all the difference. This hasn’t happened yet. The Democratic presidential candidates routinely denounce President Trump’s vulgar savaging of his opponents on the left, but they have mostly failed to criticize the left’s own reliance on hierarchies of victimhood and mob-rule tactics. If they were to do so, they might capture the votes of centrist America and save us from four more years of Trump.
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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.