Book Summaries
The Coddling of the American Mind

The Coddling of the American Mind

The Great Untruths

Jonathan Haidt identifies three common schools of thought that have become rampant in recent years. They are:

  1. What doesn't kill me makes me weaker. Contrary to the mantra "No pain, no gain". There are desirable difficulties in life which enhance our abilities. Every challenge we face helps us grow as a person.  
  1. Always trust your feelings. Yet, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is the most effective known form of therapeutic treatment and it states precisely the opposite; feelings are often so misleading, in order to achieve mental health one must learn to question their feeling and free yourself
  1. The world is in a battle between good and evil people. But how do you know you are part of the 'good people?' How do we know they are wrong? Surely trusting your feelings can't be enough.

The First Great Untruth: Always Trust your Feelings

The term 'microaggression' was born in a paper by Derald Wing Sue. It states that whenever an intentional, or far more importantly, an unintentional, act occurred between one and another, the historically marginalized individual should interpret it as a form of aggression.

Despite the fact that justice has always considered intention as a foundational consideration, unfortunately, Sue renounced this core tenet and argued to judge the situation entirely on the recipient's interpretation. This encouraged emotional reasoning and assuming the worst of people and set the stage for 'woke culture'. The great untruth of Always-Trust-Your-Feelings was born.

• CBT is an effective method that anybody can learn to understand their own trains of thought processes better.

• Emotional reasoning often creates a tunnel vision that often creates catastrophizing explanation styles of particular events. The fewer people do it, the happier they become.

• Historically left-leaning speakers have been increasingly disinvited on College campuses. Preventing harm to the students is often quoted as the primal reason, but discomfort is not inflicting harm.

The Second Great Untruth: What doesn't kill you makes you weaker

Concept creep is the phenomenon where the scope of a term or concept is expanded beyond its original meaning as time passes. At first, "trauma" was solely reserved to denote a physical agent causing physical pain. It was followed up by "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder" (PTSD) which was described in the manual (DSM Ⅲ) as the first mental disorder but explicitly emphasized not to be based on a subjective standard. In 2000, however, "trauma" was ascribed to " anything experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful...with lasting effects to... social, emotional, or spiritual well-being."

The cult of safetyism became a big trend, bringing forth an unprecedented emphasis on creating emotional 'safe spaces,' erroneously believing that protecting children at all costs would help them flourish as individuals.  

• Children, like most complex adaptive systems, are antifragile. Like the immune system, it needs to be exposed and challenged in order to grow the antibodies to be able to become stronger and healthier.

• As an illuminating example, in the late 2000s, many schools started to prohibit all processed nuts from elementary schools for the fear it could reach a single child with a peanut allergy. This however inadvertently caused six times as many children in a randomized control group to develop a peanut allergy because they were never exposed to it during their upbringing, vividly demonstrating the counterproductive effect of overprotecting children.

The Third Great Untruth: Us versus them

Before the dawn of the post-industrial revolution, civilians previously seen as active participants in democracy were gradually being defined as passive consumers in a consumer society. The need to express oneself loomed larger and larger as people sought to rebel against the status quo, conformity, and the Marcusian concept of becoming the so-called ‘One Dimensional Man’. However, doing business evolved, and what was once seen as the greatest threat to capitalism and mass production transformed into its greatest opportunity, yet.

With the rise of branding and customization of goods, consumers were persuaded they were actually fighting 'the system.' By consuming the goods they once objected to, they could self-express and signal to others their non-conformity; to differentiate themselves from others. This leveraged people's fundamental tendencies to be tribal creatures with profound in-group/out-group biases which have been demonstrated over and over again that people's ability to feel empathy for another is skewed when dealing with ‘outsiders,’ on whichever inkling of group identity that may be. This set the stage for common-enemy identity politics now so common in the media.

Martin Luther King Jr. employed common-humanity identity politics during the Civil Rights Movement. Nonviolent protests were centered around not vilifying the opposition, but in contrast, rather fulfilling a shared dream: fulfilling the nation's promise of a sacred place where all men are created equal. When a line was drawn in the sand that excluded the protestors, King famously asserted he would draw a bigger line in the sand, including all of them fighting the good fight of fulfilling the American dream.

Much changed unfortunately as trends like the rise of intersectionalism came to light on college campuses. A concept reminiscent of Herbert Marcuse's concept of 'repressive tolerance' with the disastrous antithetical notion that all tolerance for the ways of the opposition should be interpreted as an insidious tactic to dominate you. Interactionism came to state that the world was divided between the oppressed and the oppressors – ruled by those solely on the basis of inherited power. A model was proposed that drew a line in the sand between those privileged and those who were not, conflating them respectively with those who were morally in the wrong and those who were morally in the right. Common enemy identity politics came to be rationalized, accepted, and rampant. Those fighting for historically marginalized groups became hostile, exclusionary, and often outright cruel to anybody who at the first sight of dissent in any sense.

With prestige given to individuals who publicly identify those who, often at first glance, appear to be an offender of any misdemeanor, 'call-out culture' encourages the mob-dynamics of mass public shaming. One gets no points for privately talking to the person -- fact this could be interpreted as colluding with the enemy.

  • The more people think in the Us-Versus-Them mentality, the more they become hostile and unable to collaborate and thus make progress, as Henri Tajfe's psychology experiments have demonstrated.
  • Common-enemy identity politics are antithetical to what Martin Luther King Jr. preached during the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Intersectionality and microaggressions are popular frameworks on campuses today. While there are merits to it, these frameworks foster tribal thinking and can be seen as very counterproductive as a result.

Discover the full story by reading Jonathan Haidt's book The Coddling of The American Mind.