The Coddling of the American Mind: ‘trigger warnings’ for a generation

While the authors seem bent on sparking a movement, their thesis will struggle to win over their tremulous subjects

Right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos at a free speech rally:  ‘disinvitation attempts’ hit an all-time high last year. Photograph: Getty Images

Right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos at a free speech rally: ‘disinvitation attempts’ hit an all-time high last year. Photograph: Getty Images

Sat, Sep 22, 2018, 06:00

   
 

Book Title:
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure

ISBN-13:
978-0241308356

Author:
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Publisher:
Allen Lane

Guideline Price:
£20.00

Affronting popular sensibilities at taxpayers’ expense, Leftist excesses on campus reliably inflame middle America. There’s a running thread –“campus craziness” – devoted to them on conservative TV channel Fox News and they were the subject of a cantankerous bestseller credited with fomenting the US culture wars. Published in 1987, The Closing of the American Mind was a recondite jeremiad against cultural relativism and declining academic standards – not the material of your average blockbuster. But it shifted a million-plus copies. It didn’t hurt that author Allan Bloom – egged on by University of Chicago colleague Saul Bellow who contributed the foreword – could turn a phrase, minting one of the more memorable descriptions of college leaders caving to bolshie student activists: “A few students discovered that pompous teachers who catechized them about academic freedom could, with a little shove, be made into dancing bears.”

By design of its title and subject, The Coddling of the American Mind invites comparison with this near-namesake. And not a few dancing bears stalk its pages. But whereas Bloom trafficked in slashing polemic, authors Greg Lukianoff, chief executive of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) which is a kind of civil liberties advocacy group for professors and students, and New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt are reluctant culture warriors. There’s no fulminating against political correctness (they largely approve of it). Instead, they ground their critique of recent campus developments in cognitive behavioural therapy and ancient wisdom. Evincing concern for student welfare, it might more aptly be called,The Kids Are Not Alright.

Disinvitation attempts

Still, it should come with a trigger warning for middle Americans of all nations. Consider the 2015 case of Zachary Wood who in the interests of “[exposing other] students to ideas…they would otherwise not encounter…invited Suzanne Venker, a conservative critic of feminism” to Williams College, eliciting the following broadside: “When you bring a misogynistic, white supremacist men’s rights activist to campus in the name of ‘dialogue’ and ‘the other side’, you are not only causing actual mental, social, psychological, and physical harm to students, but you are also paying for the continued dispersal of violent ideologies that kill our black and brown (trans) femme sisters… Know, you are dipping your hands in their blood…”

Venker joined the swelling ranks of those bounced from speaking gigs for views deemed, erm, unspeakable. Excluding cases involving serial alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopolous, “disinvitation attempts” hit an all-time high last year with 33 versus five in 2000, according to FIRE.

Then there’s Mary Spellman, ex-dean of students at Claremont McKenna College, who in 2015 after reading a student essay expressing unease about an “institutional culture… primarily grounded in western, white, cishetero-normative upper to upper-middle class values”, emailed the student soliciting her input on “how we can better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mould”.

“Mould” was a bit of a clanger, but did it warrant a kangaroo court demanding her removal, including two students who announced a fast until she was removed? Amid zero public support from campus brass, Spellman resigned.

Not long after, college wardens Erika and Nicholas Christakis were door-stepped by an apoplectic mob accusing them of “stripping people of their humanity”, “creating an unsafe space” and promoting “violence” after Erika, in a leaked email, questioned the wisdom of campus authorities policing students’ Halloween outfits to guard against cultural insensitivity. “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society,” she wrote. The Christakises were not long for their warden posts; facing outcry, they quit them. The locale for this insurgency: Yale.

Feelings or facts

Videos of these and other incidents recounted by Lukianoff and Haidt may be viewed on YouTube. You can see Spellman being reproached for “partially falling asleep” (taken to connote contempt). As the authors note, she appears rather to be choking back tears.

What to make of them? They’re anecdotes. Consider their tenor though: objections to opinions couched in phobic quasi-medical terms, the conviction that words pose a physical menace, conflation of feelings with facts, and readiness to ascribe malintent to those found in error.

Even allowing for shifting demographics and the need to legislate for a more diverse student populace, Lukianoff and Haidt contend that US campuses are in thrall to pathologies – “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”, “always trust your feelings,” and “life is a battle between good people and evil people” – antithetical to all we know about human flourishing, resilience and any sense of agency and empowerment.

Implicated in these “great untruths” is overprotective parenting, characterised by a morbid concern with safety and dramatically reduced scope for the rambunctious play that inured previous generations to life’s stressors. Amid perceived threats from without, this has inculcated a view of life as a morality play and elevated subjective feeling to sovereign status as the supreme gauge of risk, they write.

Bubbles and pillows

Abetting them is the eclipse of “common-humanity identity politics” practiced by Martin Luther King, which sought to rally everyone behind goals of inclusion and equity, by “common-enemy identity politics”, designating certain groups as foes, and emergence of a brand of scholar-activism, extolling “passion” and commitment above disinterested pursuit of truth.

Add a chaser of social media-induced anxiety and small wonder students repair to “safe spaces” stocked with “cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies”. Calls for books to come with “trigger warnings” or the patrolling of “microaggressions” come with the alacrity once reserved for finding reds under the bed.

The overall impression is of a revved-up immune system attacking its own organs.

The Coddling of the American Mind is prescriptive as well as diagnostic. Lukianoff and Haidt seem bent on sparking a movement; ancillary efforts include a dedicated website as a locus for a community and initiative to promote more intrepid parenting.

But the book’s scolding title scarcely seems conducive to winning over its tremulous subjects, now graduating and presumably seeding the fallacies they’re labouring under in the workforce. And much of its advice is directed over their heads at parents of future students (how they can identify campuses with a rock-ribbed commitment to free speech) and college leaders (how they can reform their campuses).

Moreover, while it’s wreathed in glowing testimonials from luminaries like Steven Pinker, their average age pushes 65. I hope I’m committing the fallacy of undue pessimism, but I predict tough sledding.