Review: The Coddling of the American Mind

What do peanut butter allergies and safe spaces have in common? What do witch hunts and free-range kids have to do with each other? They all are consequences of safetyism and reinforce bad mental habits addressed in the book The Coddling of the American Mind.

In 2015, Greg Lukianoff, a First Amendment lawyer, and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, collaborated to publish an article arguing that the harmful thought patterns that harmed student’s mental health and interfered with their intellectual development were growing.

Coddling, or overprotecting, are problems of progress, and America’s young have been unknowingly taught “mental habits commonly seen in people who suffer from anxiety and depression.” And the tumultuous years following the published article provoked them to revisit the issues addressed there.

Three Great Untruths. Three Bad Ideas.

The authors say this book is about wisdom and its opposite. People act with good intentions but implement ideas and policies inconsistent with ancient wisdom found in widely in literature of many cultures that contradict modern psychological research on well-being, and that harm individuals and communities who embrace it.

The authors give a whole chapter to each untruth starting with a quotation that supports the content and well-researched and -referenced material.

The first bad idea to be unmasked is Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker. Actually human beings need physical and mental challenges and stressors or we deteriorate.

The quotation used to start this chapter is from the fourth century: When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the patches of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, hardens his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent. ~ Meng Tzu (Mencius)

Antifragility is discussed in a book by Nassim Taleb, a professor of risk engineering. Our immune system as well as other important systems like economies and politics are antifragile. They require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow. Systems that are antifragile become rigid, weak, and inefficient when nothing challenges them or pushes them to respond vigorously. Muscles, bones, and children are antifragile.

“Much of our modern, structured world has been harming us with top-down policies and contraptions…which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems. This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most.”

Nassim Talib

The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings opens with this quotation from Epictetus “What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.”

They delve into the rider-and-elephant metaphor explaining the the rider represents the conscious mind that we can control to a certain degree and the elephant represents the everything in our mind, the vast majority of which is outside our consciousness. While the rider believes he is in control, the elephant is stronger and will win any conflict between the two. The rider becomes skilled at justifying the beliefs and actions of the elephant.

Emotional reasoning is a distortion resulting when the rider interprets based on the elephants emotional state, while not refusing to see what is true.

This chapter delves into cognitive behavioral therapy CBT which helps the rider (controlled processing) train the elephant (automatic processing) which produces improved critical thinking and mental health. It also addresses microaggressions especially in the context of college settings and commits to the adage that “discomfort is not danger.” The concept of antifragility should be embraced as well as Hanna Holbrook Gray’s principle: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”

The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life Is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People is the final bad idea unearthed. Its opening quotation is from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ book Not in God’s Name: “There is the moral dualism that sees good and evil as instincts within us between which we must choose. But there is also what I will call pathological dualism that sees humanity itself as radically…divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad. You are either one or the other.”

Identify politics are beneficial when they play to common and shared values and beliefs. Reverend Martin Luther King appealed to the best nature of American beliefs to overcome the vile practices of our worst nature. If we believe these truths we purport the confess – that all men are created equal – then let’s put up or shut up. That’s my crude interpretation. King eloquently appealed that our founders were signing a “promissory note” and the moral force of America’s civil religion was needed to overcome and destroy segregation and oppression.

King efforts are considered common humanity identity politics. It appeals to the elephant and the rider. Instead of shaming or demonizing their oppressors, they are humanized and then relentlessly appealed to their humanity.

Common enemy identity politics should be avoided. It approaches structures primarily in terms of power where power is perceived to be held by one group over others resulting in moral polarity: the powerful groups are bad and the oppressed are good.

Victim and oppressor. Groups and tribes. Identity politics. All are current buzzwords that get a thorough treatment in this book.

Part 2 and 3 are Bad Ideas in Action and How Did We Get Here. The authors delve into intimidation and violence, witch hunts, polarization cycles, anxiety and depression, paranoid parenting, the decline of play, the bureaucracy of safetyism, and the quest for justice. These parts are expansions of the great untruths.

The final section is about wising up with wiser kids, wiser universities, and wiser societies. The author summarize the three great untruths with proven psychological principles and wisdom from the ages. For example the untruth that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you weaker can be dealt with psychologically with the principle is that young people are antifragile. The ancient wisdom is an unattributed folk lore that we should prepare the child for the road not the road for the child.

Always trust your feelings, the second untruth to get slapped down with a saying from Buddha: “your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father and mother.” The psychological principle says we are all prone emotional reasoning and confirmation bias.

Finally, we should counter the “life is a battle between good people and evil people” untruth with wisdom from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who spent time in a Soviet gulag: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Psychologically, the principle is that we are all prone to dichotomous thinking and tribalism.

The ideas in this book have not lost any punch in the three years since it was written. I grew up with sayings like, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” and “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Everything you say bounces of me and sticks to you.” In essence: words can hurt but they ain’t going to kill you. For whatever reason, people will put you down. Expect it. Deal with it. Always act in ways that leave you with a clear conscience. That’s all you can control.

The authors offer many examples rely on both psychological standards and ancient insight better put than the street wisdom I grew up with. But this book is a well-researched, comprehensive mirror to our age and zeitgeist. It’ll help you understand why you scratch your head at safetyism, fragility, and the desire to be offended.

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