Dry November: Day 21

November 21, 2018

On Tuesday I saw Jonathan Haidt speak at intelligence². Emily Maitlis moderated the discussion with Kehinde Andrews, Eleanor Penny, and Rabbi Lord Sacks. Though the topic was interesting the debate itself was disjointed. The book he wrote with Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind, however, is well-worth reading.

The book contends that there’s a demographic divide between Millennials and a new generation he calls “Generation Z” or “iGen”, drawing the dividing line at 1995. Those born after that year are victims of two trends: one towards increasing and excessive safety, and the other related to ever-increasing screentime. The former is a longer trend, dating back to some high-profile murders and kidnappings in the late 70s and early 80s that caused parents to restrict children’s unsupervised play, just before crime rates began to plummet. The latter relates to the same problems we older generations face with regard to smartphones and the internet, but these are the first kids whose formative years were plagued by social media. He argues rather persuasively that these trends, along with a slower rate of maturation (discussed in the unrelated and rather lacklustre 100 Year Life), have led to a generation with worse mental illness and an increase in suicide, especially among girls. Gen Z also has different attitudes towards “safety” than older generations, and seems less keen on free speech. Importantly, these are big shifts from millennials proper, born from 1981 to 1995, who do not report feeling unsafe merely from exposure to ideas, and they tend (like generations before them) to be proponents of free speech.

He believes that related to these problematic trends, there are three lessons today’s kids are learning which are contrary to ancient wisdom (whether religious or philosophical). He calls them the “three untruths”:

Untruth of fragility: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”

Untruth of emotional reasoning: “Your emotions are right and you ought always to trust them.”

Untruth of us versus them: “There are good and bad people in the world, and the world is ultimately a zero-sum game.”

I think he’s right that these attitudes are both damaging and increasingly common, and that education should address them, or, at a minimum, strive not to make them worse. He draws comparisons with allergies—it turns out that eliminating peanuts from schools has led to fatal peanut allergies—as well as with PTSD. Eliminating all reminders of the source of suffering is a bad strategy for treating PTSD, he reports, not just because it’s impossible, but because it tends to make the problem worse. The best approach, one used in cognitive behavioural therapy, is a controlled, gradual re-acclimation to sources of anguish. To avoid stimulus at all costs is a symptom of PTSD, not a cure for it, and the avoidance approach (content warnings and so on) may set kids up for anxiety. I think injury would also make a good analogy: if you’ve broken your foot, it would be a bad idea to go for a run immediately. But if you instead obtain a wheelchair and resolve never to walk again for fear of further injury, you’re creating far worse problems down the line.

So far so good. I recommend the book. The talk, however, was less illuminating. Part of this was structural: each speaker had only a few minutes to have their say, and they often spoke at cross-purposes. The topics were complex and emotionally charged, with no shortage of equivocations and distractions. Sometimes the speakers themselves, perhaps assuming more familiarity with the issues than the audience (or at least I) actually had, lapsed into incoherence. I’ll try nonetheless to summarise their debate.

Haidt began with the statistics: in the last three or four years, in the US, depression is up 30% for boys and 40% for girls, and suicide is up 25% for boys and 70% for girls. Girls are also self-harming more, though boys are not. Trends in the rest of the “anglosphere” (a word I’d not heard), i.e., the UK, Canada, and Australia, are similar, though by some measures they are not as bad as the States. The two factors of interest to him are social media and overprotection. For this attitude of “safetyism” he blames the media’s relentless coverage of high-profile kidnappings or murders, which gives an illusion of persistent danger despite the fact that kidnappings (and every other violent crime) have been on the decline for decades.

He is (as am I) particularly concerned about the application of the word “safety” when it comes to ideas. This word once applied only to physical safety, so its expansion to include ideas is unlikely to be a good idea at a university, which after all should challenge and train minds. He points out that Socrates explicitly tried to make people uncomfortable as an educational method. Neither are the Buddhists known for taking a kind view of comfort when in pursuit of the truth, and I think it’s likely that comfort, or at least perfect comfort, impedes spiritual and intellectual development.  Testing is an effective way to learn, for example, and although I along with every other student of course dreaded them, I’m now glad that I took them. (The book discusses the related problem of students being treated as high-paying customers who must be pleased, at least in American unis, which also contributes to the coddling.)

Haidt conceives of students and people as “anti-fragile,” i.e., a certain amount of stress does not break them, but causes them to improve. He quickly ran through the immunological example, arguing that diseases (allergies, diabetes, asthma, Crohn’s) rise in countries as they become richer in part because too cleanly a childhood prevents children’s immune systems from properly developing—the so-called ”hygiene hypothesis“—and sets their immune systems up to wreak havoc on their own bodies by massively overreacting to harmless triggers. In diabetes, for example, the immune system may accidentally kill islet cells which produce insulin as a result of a lack of exposure to certain contaminants; in Crohn’s, the debilitating bowel inflammation, it is hypothesized, results from some mis-calibration of immunity. Likewise, a mind shielded from all disagreement and forms of bad thinking might fail to develop properly. He draws a parallel with physical fitness: to remove civil debate from universities would be like removing weights from the gym. Just as muscles atrophy in the absence of stressors, the mind will atrophy in the absence of dissent.

Eleanor Penny argued that portraying the bleakness that faces the younger generation as primarily a problem of personal development is to ignore their sociopolitical origins. She believes that there is a genuine problem, and a risk to free speech, but the older generation is responsible for this, not by their shortcomings in bringing up the younger generation, but by giving a platform to those who explicitly oppose freedom of speech. The trappings of free discourse, she said, are used to allow far-right speakers to wage war against free speech without challenge. Free speech is disingenuously used as an excuse for the powerful to consolidate power and use it to repress opposition.

Rabbi Lord Sacks came down broadly on the side of anti-fragility, in a society which he compared to a choral harmony requiring a multiplicity of voices. The marginalised must be heard, and the university must be a safe space in the sense that all views should treated respectfully. Universities and societies must not disaggregate into siloed groups, or real hatred of other groups will begin.

Kehinde Andrews contended that it is powerful white men who are fragile, and that they are terrified of the minority voices that are becoming more prevalent at universities. In 1965, he said, uni attendance was 5%, and they were dominated by white men. He believed that these men should have to adapt, and that it is reasonable for minorities to ask for and expect safe spaces, in places that had traditionally been racist and, until relatively recently, would not even considered him (as a black man) human, or capable of rational thought. At this point Emily Maitlis interjected, pointing out provocatively that Lord Sacks had also faced the “gentleman’s club” of British education as a Jew from the lower classes, and that he had found a way to enter constructive dialogue.

From here the cycle repeated, then questions came in from the audience. Lest this go on forever I’ll halt the summaries of each round. Various viewpoints garnered applause, from Haidt’s assertion that “A mind prepared for battle is not a mind prepared for learning” or his admonition to “Stop seeing oppression everywhere, because it will cause you to fail”. Sacks proposed that “If you are confident you are right, you will welcome any challenge.” Penny said that it was “patronising to tell people that oppression is not oppression”, arguing that this is an age-old way to stifle dissent.  A white male in the audience received applause for objecting to his perception that Penny was grouping him together with other white males, and claimed that she wanted to be arbiter for who was allowed to speak (to be fair to her, she neither harped particularly on the homogeneity of white viewpoints, nor did she seem to be condemning anything other than hate speech). Sacks said that he was “sympathetic to the anger of the younger generation,” but that “this anger must be put into open conversation.” Andrews received applause for saying that “To not talk about race is to collude.” Two audience members of colour in succession claimed not to see race, nor to have let their ambition be affected by their race or gender.

As you might gather, it was not the most insightful debate, but neither was it without its merits. I have sympathy for Andrews’ contention that minorities deserve a space in which to prepare for encounters with difficult ideas; powerful men have always formed exclusive social groups, and groups are critical for effecting change. On the other hand I’m wary, like Haidt, of a generation increasingly glued to screens and afraid of being challenged. Then again, I may just be getting old; every generation from the first syllable of recorded time has complained about the frailty of the generation to follow.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.