So I just finished Jonathan Haidt’s latest book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Penguin Press, 2018), coauthored with Greg Lukianoff. The key phrase: bad ideas. No shortage of those these days. Let’s focus on the bad ideas that the authors call the Three Untruths: (1) Fragility (the idea that people can’t handle conflicting ideas); (2) Emotional Reasoning (the idea that your feelings can’t be wrong); and (3) Us versus Them (the idea that there are good people and there are bad people, rather than that human nature is that all of us have some good and some bad in us).
Before giving a paragraph each to those bad ideas, two quick comments to give some context to Haidt’s discussion. First, the discussion is strongly generational. The point of departure is the strange and sudden change in the culture of university campuses starting about 2013, when concepts like speech codes, trigger warnings, microaggression, safe spaces, and speaker disinvitations (resulting from energetic and even violent student protests to speakers they disagree with) suddenly became a thing. Haidt ties that development to the college cohort born about 1995. These are not Millennials, this is the next generation (often called iGen or Gen Z). The timing is such that this cohort was roughly the first to have full engagement with smart phones and social media when they were early teens, and now they are at college. It changes the way they think and behave, and not in a positive or healthy way. A revealing statistic: something like 50% of college students use campus counseling services in a given year. But the whole discussion applies to all members of that cohort, not just college-bound kids, and extends as well to society as a whole, if not in such a concentrated way. Facebook is making everyone anxious and angry, not just the kids.
Second (and you probably saw this coming) I’m thinking the Three Untruths tell us something about what is going wrong with LDS culture as well as what is going wrong with campus culture and American culture. Think about it: (1) Fragility (the idea that the membership can’t handle the actual facts of LDS history, so instead we get a “based on a true story” kind of narrative); (2) Emotional Reasoning (more and more, leadership is teaching the youth to get an emotional testimony and avoid a facts and evidence approach); and (3) Us versus Them (black and white thinking has always been a feature of orthodox Mormonism, but suddenly there are more Thems than before in leader discourse: gays, gay marriage, feminists, intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals, anti-Mormons, and now suddenly doubters seem to have made it onto the Them List).
The Untruth of Fragility
In the campus setting, Haidt is disturbed that so much of the new culture acts to protect students from ideas or opinions that they don’t like. That is so antithetical to the traditional idea of a university as an institution where all ideas are freely discussed, tested, and either affirmed or rejected based on evidence and argument. That may be more of an ideal that a true description of what goes on, but it is hard to deny that the current campus culture is farther away from that ideal than just ten or twenty years ago. Instead of faculty presenting a range of new and challenging ideas to students and inviting them to see the world in a different way and to appreciate alternative viewpoints, faculty are increasingly incentivized to avoid controversial topics and even non-controversial but (to some students) unwelcome ideas. Universities are becoming correlated!
The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning
There is an increased tendency or habit of defining reality in terms of one’s feelings rather than objective facts or evidence. Sometimes that works but feelings and initial reactions are not infallible. Far from it. So if a speaker’s or author’s words or ideas make you angry or upset, think before embracing your negative emotional response. Emotions are not just powerful states of mind — they color the way we see the world. It takes effort to push down one’s emotions about a tough issue and actually think in a relatively objective and rational way about it. Feelings are not facts.
Haidt spends some time comparing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an effective therapeutic treatment approach, with the problematic aspects of bad thinking. The negative thinking habits that CBT helps troubled persons overcome include emotional reasoning (overreliance on feelings), catastrophizing (focusing on the worst possible outcome), dichotomous thinking (black and white), mind reading (assuming you know the thoughts and intentions of another with little or no evidence), labeling, and blaming (p. 38). Haidt sees these bad thinking habits — that CBT helps troubled persons overcome — as becoming more and more prevalent in campus culture and, to a lesser extent, in society as a whole. I won’t make a blanket claim that this also describes bad thinking by Mormons or within Mormon culture. To have traction, one would have to claim it is more of a problem within Mormon culture than within US culture as a whole. But some of those bad ideas are certainly found in LDS discourse and curriculum materials.
The Untruth of Us versus Them
I don’t think I need to say much here. A couple of quotes should do. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” — Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
I don’t want this to sound like a blanket criticism of Mormon culture. There are a lot of good things we do: try to raise good kids who stay out of trouble, bring tasty food to friend or neighbors in need or in crisis, support higher education, and so forth.
The above discussion is drawn from just the first three chapters of Haidt’s new book. Other chapters discuss witch hunts, overparenting, safetyism, and bureaucracy, all of which a Mormon reader will find enlightening. So read this if you get a chance. Haidt’s earlier book The Righteous Mind is also highly recommended. Here are a few earlier W&T blog posts that discuss Haidt’s books or ideas: