New! Another book against everything woke is? Don’t we still know what’s wrong with left-than-left thinking that puts moral purity over political action? Or what’s wrong with the hysterical right-wing reaction to it, which blows up fleeting incidents into a colossal cancel culture†
At least Jonathan Haidt was there early. Of free speech-lawyer Greg Lukianoff published it four years ago The Coddling of the American Mind, on the damaging effects of politically correct mores on American college campuses. Students would fall prey en masse to three cuddly ‘falseities’. Consecutively: the view that they are vulnerable souls (and must be protected from ‘dangerous’ opinions or even words); the belief that feelings can be trusted rather than reason, and the binary idea that the world is made up of us and them, good and bad people.
Haidt and Lukianoff see six trends as causes, including a compulsive need for security and control, the stifling ‘paranoid’ upbringing of modern parents; and the moral censorship of the woke movement. Their – very American – cultural diagnosis was welcomed by mainstream media. But the book is also cracked as the lamentation of two privileged white men about changing times.
Now the understanding woke in the meantime, too, has penetrated the regular tables here (and conservative hews are heavily fulminated against ‘wokism’), the book is finally published in translation (The patronizing of the American mind† Haidt likes to explain it in an online conversation, although he also immediately talks enthusiastically about his next book. “That’s called Life after Babel, adapting to a world we can no longer share† In it I claim that the Tower of Babel has collapsed again and we humans no longer understand each other or share the same world. We are in great cultural confusion.”
That ties in well with this book, because the tyranny of social media also plays a major role in the spiritual misery on American campuses, according to Haidt. He says: „Listen, the generation of young people we are talking about is in big trouble† They are mostly kind, intelligent and hardworking. The problem is the cult of vulnerability, which leads to anxiety and depression. Social media makes young people insecure about their views, status and life. They are expected to full time brand managers are of their own personality. That has never been the case before. Young people should not spend all day looking after themselves as a brand.”
The New York Times recently noted in a remarkable commentary that the US has a free speech problem. Then you agree.
“Oh my gosh, we have a huge problem. Exactly what John Stuart Mill described in On Liberty† The problem is not so much the state’s suppression of free speech—although Republicans are now trying to bring it about through all sorts of legislation—but self-censorship by society. We are no longer capable of disagreeing with each other. For radical students, if you contradict them, you are immediately a racist who must be punished. Or silenced.”
Is that cancel culture real or mainly imaginary? After all, nobody is really permanently silenced or even killed. The latter did happen in Charlottesville, at a neo-Nazi demonstration.
“Look, we have two political parties in America, one of which has gone bonkers. Today’s Republican party has nothing to do with the prudent conservatism of thinkers like Edmund Burke. That party has no respect for the Constitution. Yet they continue to win elections. How did that happen? Because progressives control all relevant cultural positions and exclude dissent there. In the universities, in education, media, technology, the arts, Hollywood. They have all become subdivisions of a progressive orthodoxy. Americans see it happening, they’re disgusted by it — and that’s why Republicans keep winning elections, even though their party is a horror.”
The right is politically aggressive, the left culturally?
“Yes, and that makes normal social debate impossible. One of the most explosive topics in the US right now is all things transgender. In general, Americans are very tolerant of that. Views on gay rights and the acceptance of transgender people are evolving very quickly. But should you start giving a 10-year-old puberty blockers? I think you should be able to discuss that. But if you question that, you will be flattened to the ground. It is a small group of activists, but because of social media they have an enormous reach and impact.”
Critics say you pathologize left-wing students. They would suffer from cognitive impairment.
“To be clear, we don’t say in our book that leftists are sick. Of course not. Most left-wing Americans are liberals† Me too. But there are small, radical groups left and right with views that are politically pathological. There is a difference: right-wing extremists make death threats, left-wing radicals call you a racist for the slightest thing. But the effects are not just political. Research by myself and others shows that especially young girls on the left side of the political spectrum suffer significantly more from anxiety and depression. I think that has everything to do with the dominance of social media.”
Isn’t the right more dangerous? Trumpians stormed the Capitol.
“Since the Civil War, nothing has been more dangerous in this country than a president trying to steal an election with the help of his own party. But the left continues to do things that lead to Pyrrhic political victories. An example. Wealthy New Yorkers all send their children to very progressive private schools. After George Floyd’s murder, they changed their curriculum to include the work of Ibram X. Kendi (How To be an Anti-Racist) embraced. That is terrible stuff† Anything that leads to any form of social inequality is by definition proof of racism for Kendi. If you’re not an anti-racist, you’re a racist. You should read something like that, but committing to it as a school is a mistake. In the next school board election, those parents will vote for Republicans.”
Isn’t the appetite for egalitarianism understandable, as resistance to the inequality that has increased rapidly in the US since the 1980s?
“I don’t believe in that at all. These are phenomena of recent years, and inequality in America has not changed much since Obama’s first term. Relations between the sexes are much more equal than before, and so are racial relations. All those trends were headed in the right direction. Until it went wrong, between 2012 and 2015. I suspect it’s because the use of social media has exploded. This has greatly increased social tensions. Americans don’t mind income inequality, as long as it’s fair. Most people prefer fair inequality to unfair equality. What is new is the online culture and the anger it generates.”
One word is noticeably missing from your diagnosis and that is: capitalism. Isn’t that related to the symptoms you describe?
“Good point. Competition for university admission has increased dramatically in the US. This has consequences for the well-being of students. In wealthy or highly educated families, childhood is increasingly becoming one long preparation for college. That’s unhealthy. I grew up in the seventies. We played outside after school. That is no longer the case, after school there is now: more school. Or organized activities that should be useful for your later studies. On the other hand, in Canada and New Zealand they have the same problem. So capitalism like ours does play a role, but it is not the driving force behind what we describe. Depression among young people is increasing in all English-speaking countries.”
So what should conservative liberals like you do?
“I am thinking about a citizens’ movement with the motto ‘we are the eighty percent’. The vast majority of people are very reasonable. They are willing to live and let live, they can deal with diversity. But they are intimidated by extremists.”
You want to stand up for the silent majority, like Nixon?
“No, he made a populist and explicit right-wing appeal to workers against the elites. I would rather appeal to people in the creative professions in particular who now feel trapped and intimidated. Giving in to ideological extremes is bad for democracy, bad for public culture and bad for mental health. I see that comment The New York Times as the return to a more responsible, centrist position. Funny that it sparked so much anger on the left. The times who stands up for free speech, well! Proves our point, I’d say.”
The book has been cracked in The Guardian as a rearguard action of privileged white men resisting social change.
Laughing: “That was the only left-wing critic who actually read the book! But she never says why we are wrong, she mainly says that we are wrong. I was looking forward to debate about the book, but there was hardly any.”
Do you think liberalism as it exists in America remains the solution?
“I’m convinced of that. liberal institutions like universities are the best, perhaps the only way to find truth. Being perpetual motions who know how to turn disagreement into truth. I sign for that. But it’s been fading in recent years, because of these illiberal currents. President Biden should distance himself from it, including in his own party. Otherwise, the Democrats will continue to lose.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 1 April 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of April 1, 2022