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The Coddling Of The American Mind

Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote the cover story of the September issue of The Atlantic, The Coddling of the American Mind. 

They make the case that by encouraging or allowing the style of thought that leads to concepts like micro aggressions and trigger warnings “Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.”

In the reader comments after the article somebody wrote; “So many of the points made in this article boil down to: “Your concerns are unreasonable because white men do not experience the problems you face on a regular basis, and therefore they are not real problems.””

I think this is a quintessential example of exactly what this article is about. It’s not about microaggressions and trigger warnings per se, it’s about the style of thought that leads to them, and the likelihood that that style of thought “will damage [students] careers and friendships, along with their mental health.”

This style of thought was described by Daniel Hannan when he wrote “Some people are naturally inclined to see every transaction as a swindle, every contract as a form of exploitation, every tradition as a superstition. To such people, conservatism is a kind of personality defect, an expression of selfishness and bigotry. No amount of empirical data will challenge that prejudice.”

I believe Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory explains the psychology behind this style of thought.

Moralities differ in the degree to which they employ six psychological mechanisms of social perception, intuition, and reasoning that evolved in the human psyche as we became “The Social Animal.” These moral foundations are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and authority/degradation. The more of them we use the greater is the depth and breadth of our social perception and understanding.

In rigorous psychological studies Haidt’s empirical evidence reveals the following, described in his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion:”

1) Conservatives employ all the foundations in equal balance.

2) Liberals employ only the first three, and of those mostly just care, to the point that Haidt often refers to liberalism as a one-foundation morality.

3) Conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.

4) Conservatives understand human nature better than liberals understand human nature.

I suggest that a moral system that starts and ends with “care” leads naturally and almost inevitably to the style of thought described in this article, an example of which is the quote at the opening of this comment.

Here’s a similar observation from Haidt (on page 334 of his book “The Righteous Mind):

“If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan [i.e., conservative] narrative, what else could you think?”

“You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:

Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm)

One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic-who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living-to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own.”


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I Support Viewpoint Diversity


A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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