Review: The Coddling of the American Mind

The Coddling of the American Mind

The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

Summary: Discusses three bad ideas that result in a culture of “safetyism” in higher education, chronicles the consequences of these bad ideas, traces factors that led to the embrace of these ideas, and how we might choose a wiser way.

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt contend that these three bad ideas constitute a well-intentioned but toxic basis for a campus culture of “safetyism.” They argue that these ideas contradict ancient wisdom, psychological research on well-being, and are harmful to the individuals and communities who embrace this mindset. Lukianoff, the president of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Haidt, a social psychologist perhaps best known for his recent work, The Righteous Mind, began to notice, from 2013 on, an increasing trend of concern on university campuses about “triggering material,” efforts to disinvite, or obstruct controversial speakers by heckling or even violence, coupled with reports of increasing levels of anxiety and fears about safety.

There seemed to be an increasing perception by university administrators that students were “fragile” and needed protection and “safe spaces.” They noted the priority given to feelings, and that the response to anything that evokes negative emotions is not to consider how one ought think about the external cause, but to simply remove whatever offends or causes stress–be it course material or offensive speakers, or perceived “microaggressions.” (Although I wonder whether two white men can fully take on board what it is like to experience frequent microaggressions because of one’s race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, or disability.) They also noted the framing of the world in terms of a toxic form of identity politics, focused on common enemies rather than common humanity–us versus them, good versus evil.

After delineating the contours and problems with these “three great untruths,” the authors chronicle a number of incidents in the last five years that they believe result from these often well-intentioned but bad ideas. They chronicle violent outcomes to this thinking at Berkeley after Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak with no disciplinary action by the university, and at Middlebury College when controversial scholar Charles Murray attempted to speak and a hosting faculty member suffered a concussion and whiplash requiring six months of physical therapy, in attempts to disrupt the event. Perhaps not as well publicized were the “witch hunts,” often against liberal faculty like Erika Christakis at Yale, who objected to an administration’s paternalistic instructions about offensive Halloween costumes, suggesting that students might be mature enough to set their own norms. Students called her out as a racist, for creating an unsafe space, and sought her firing. She ultimately resigned. On many campuses, faculty feel they are walking on egg shells, often choosing to avoid anything controversial for fear that it may evoke complaints, or a witch hunt.

The authors identify six contributing factors to this culture of safetyism, devoting a chapter to each:

  • Rising political polarization, with campuses shifting leftward and increasingly distrusted by those on the right.
  • An increase in adolescent anxiety and depression beginning in 2011, significantly correlating to smartphone usage. This group began arriving on campus in 2013.
  • Paranoid parenting resulting in far less unsupervised play and greater fears of abduction (even though crime rates for this crime have dropped).
  • The decline of free play and the rise of emphasis on test preparation.
  • The growth of a bureaucracy of safetyism at universities, driven by federal mandates, risks of lawsuits, and a consumerist mentality, in which students are the consumers.
  • The quest for justice, evoked by events between 2012 and 2018 that sometimes focuses on “equal outcomes social justice” in which any demographic disparity is assumed to be the result of discrimination, and alternative explanations are themselves considered discriminatory.

The authors observe that many of these factors arise from good intentions taken to extremes and are careful to distinguish between legitimate forms of concern (like protecting physical safety) and more extreme forms of safetyism.

They conclude with three chapters on wising up, with applications to children, to universities, and to the wider society. They argue for preparing kids for the road rather than the road for the kids. They propose that our worst enemies cannot harm us as much as our emotional reasoning. And they encourage the recognition that “the line dividing good and evil goes through the heart of every human being,” and that we ought be watchful for any institution that promotes a common enemy rather than common humanity narrative. They commend the Chicago Statement (including a version of it in an appendix) that promotes free speech, academic freedom and free inquiry and sanctioning efforts to suppress speech.

The authors, particularly Greg Lukianoff, who benefited personally from this approach, advocate for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that improves mental health and coping skills through recognizing cognitive distortions and maladaptive behaviors, and challenging and changing these. Essentially, they would contend that their “three bad ideas” are both cognitive distortions and lead to maladaptive behaviors good neither for the person, nor the university, nor society. Hence, it should be understood that CBT is integral to their critique and recommendations.

Working in a collegiate setting, I’ve seen many of the conditions the authors describe. Most faculty I know readily resonate with the feeling that they walk on egg shells, even while being deeply committed to academic freedom and challenging students thinking. I’ve seen the growing sensitivity to microaggressions. I’ve witnessed the surprise when I’ve suggested that being offended is a choice–that no one can offend us unless we let them, and that there are other options. I have been concerned that universities often seem to be echo chambers for the progressive end of our political discourse, blind to the very practices they excoriate on the right.

Given the character of our wider society, it seems the last thing universities should be doing is engaging in the kinds of “coddling” Lukianoff and Haidt describe. If we are to have any hope, it will take resilient, anti-fragile people who will engage and keep engaging differing and even off-putting ideas. Most of all, in a climate of us versus them, we need people able to follow the Pauli Murray principle: “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them.” Here’s to drawing larger circles!

Review: Christian Political Witness

Christian Political WitnessWe were once told by a friend that she would not consider joining our church because it would mean she would have to change her political affiliation. Thankfully, if that ever was true, it is no longer. Yet when some hear the phrase “Christian political witness” it conjures up ideas of church support of a particular political agenda of one of the major political parties or an effort to gain political leverage to impose an agenda on a dissenting public. For many, that is alienating and smacks of the polarized politics so many of us detest.

I found that this volume, consisting of a collection of papers from the 2013 Wheaton Theology Conference, explores a very different, and much more nuanced political engagement. Stanley Hauerwas’ opening paper set a tone for the volume challenging the church to think of itself neither as allied with the state in some form of re-constituted Christendom nor simply a marginalized, privatized community in a secular culture but rather its own polis that exists as a public, material witness to the Lordship of Jesus over and against all other powers. The collection returns to this theme at the end as former Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Kenya, David Gitari, in his account of his own courageous witness confronting Daniel arap Moi, proposes an analogy between politics and fire. He writes,

“Our relationship with powers that be should be like our relationship with fire. If you get too close to the fire you get burnt, and if you go too far away you will freeze. Hence stay in a strategic place so that you can be of help. You can support the authority, but when they become corrupt you can criticize fearlessly.”

In between these “bookends” ten other scholars explored various aspects of this topic. Mark Noll looks at the antebellum use of scripture around the issue of slavery as a warning about our use of scripture in political witness, including an example of a more careful hermeneutic. Scot McKnight explores the idea of the kingdom and comes down against popular fashion in arguing that the presence of the kingdom is most visibly expressed through the church.  Timothy Gombis considers the political witness of Paul while George Kalantzis recounts the political engagement of the pre-Constantinian early church with Rome, particularly its refusal to engage in pagan sacrifice and of military service.

The following papers turned to more contemporary issues. Jana Marguerite Bennett suggests that the existence of the church challenges the public/private split and the relegation of family to the private sphere. William T. Cavanaugh explores the Citizens United decision that defines business corporations as persons. His objection to this decision is not the defining of corporations as “person” but the exclusive application of this to business, ignoring the long-standing idea of Christian communities seeing themselves as “bodies” in which individuals exist as part of a larger corporate whole. Peter Leithart turns to the often contested concerns about violence and God’s actions to destroy enemies, which he distinguishes from the unjust and sinful use of force, which he would define as violence.

The next two papers were, for me, the most thought-provoking. Daniel Bell gives us a fresh take on “just war” theory that moves beyond the “public policy checklist” approach to a “Christian discipleship” approach that considers the virtues the church nurtures related to just war criteria. Following this, Jennifer McBride challenges the triumphal and self-righteous approach often taken by churches with a repentance-based approach that acknowledges our own complicity in sin and invites others to join us in turning from it toward God.

The penultimate paper by David P. Gushee observes the absence in evangelicalism of a social teaching tradition similar to that found in Roman Catholicism or mainline Protestantism. He proposes a “social ethics of costly practical solidarity with the oppressed” and works out in brief form how this might apply to ten contemporary issues.

The question of how one engages or does not engage our political and power structures is unavoidable for any thoughtful citizen, believing or not. What ethic will inform that engagement? What ends will one pursue? The papers in this book provided helpful perspectives toward political engagements and structures that foster flourishing societies while resisting church or state tyranny and corruption.

The Missing Middle–Is it Time for a Third Way People?

I was going to write about something else today, but came across a guest post by Sara Cunningham in Ed Stetzer’s column at the Christianity Today site titled, “The Missing Middle: Three Expressions of Christ I’m Yearning to See In Evangelicalism“. Earlier this week, the same columnist posted an interview with local pastor Rich Nathan on a similar theme: “Both-And: My Interview with Rich Nathan“.

Both of these captured my attention as I’ve been thinking about the blog series my son and I have been doing on You Lost Me. I’m convinced that one of the problems that has plagued the evangelical Christian community with which I would most closely identify is our cultural and political captivity. Most of those my age are captives to the right. Many of those my son’s age are captives to the left. And hence we become lost to each other. What is troubling to me, and this seemed to be born out in the Cunningham post, is that it seems there aren’t that many, or that many who are vocal for being captive to the kingdom way which challenges our cultural and political captivities of left and right.

One of the things my theological training taught me is that nothing can be totally wrong. Very simply Satan (or whatever you want to call him) cannot create anything, but only twist the good things God has made. No human perspective can be utterly wrong or evil, nor can it be utterly pure. Yet this is where much of our cultural and political discourse has ended up. It forces me to be either pro-life or pro-women. It forces me to be pro-environment or pro-development.  It forces me to choose between “entitlements” for the poor and “entitlements” for the rich. It forces me not only to be alienated from others in my country, but even from others in the body of Christ who might identify differently. This is our cultural-political captivity and it is based on the lie that the “other” is utterly evil and we are utterly good.

When we celebrate Advent and Christmas, we celebrate the Jesus who delivers us from not only our personal captivities which we often think of under the rubric of “sin”, but also in his call to the kingdom, delivers us from all our captivating cultural and political allegiances. John Howard Yoder, in The Politics of Jesus argues that the church is its own polis, its own political structure and should not allow itself to be taken captive by others but to be shaped by its allegiance to Jesus.

The terms “centrist” and “both-and” have reasons to commend them. I like the term “Third Way”, which I first picked up from an early work of Os Guinness, The Dust of Death. We are neither just a compromise between left and right, which is often what I associate with “centrist”, which can also simply mean pragmatist. And while “both-and” often is true in things like combining both grace and truth, I struggle with the fact that there are some things that just are mutually contradictory–I cannot both love my neighbor and pollute their water supply.

Allegiance to Jesus brings me together with people from very different places and our oneness is not one of adopting the same perspective but rather being called by the same Redeemer. And as we read the scriptures from very different places, I discover a narrative that is both pro-life and pro-women, a narrative that is both pro-entrepreneurship with a kingdom vision, and pro-caring for “the least of these”. It is not for nothing that Jesus is called The Reconciler. Again and again I’ve seen polarities become creative tensions productive of great good.

I realize this post has been very “situated” in Christian terms. That is where I’m situated. But those of us in this country are all situated in a polarized culture. Finding ways to reconcile, to bring together those polarities in a way that thwarts the evil of hostilities toward the other and releases the best of what we all bring seems to be a matter all of us should care about deeply. These are my thoughts of how the Christian community could contribute to healing these hostilities. What are yours?