Oliver Hartwich says a new book is required reading for anyone wanting to understand 21st century politics

By Oliver Hartwich*

It had to take an evolutionary psychologist and a lawyer to dissect (some of) the craziness of modern society and polity.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s new book The Coddling of the American Mind is required reading for anyone wishing to understand 21st century politics, not just in the US but globally.

At first sight, the book is about good intentions, bad parenting, and the education system.

It shows how young people are being damaged by an emotional ‘safety first’ culture. Victimhood is the new moral status symbol and it is creeping into the public discourse to shape our politics.

According to the authors, three Great Untruths have taken hold among the younger generation. Superficially appealing, each has the potential to hurt those who accept them.

First among these untruths is the untruth of fragility: What does not kill you makes you weaker. This defies millennia of experience that it is through challenge that we grow stronger. For example, the human immune system needs early encounters with pathogens to build up resistance. Similarly, the mind needs challenge to develop the ability to reason.

Modern society, meanwhile, tries to shield us from both. Both peanuts and uncomfortable ideas have been hidden away from kindergartens and schools for decades now. As an ironic result, peanut allergies have increased, and critical thinking has given way to fear mongering.

The second untruth of emotional reasoning asks you to always trust your feelings. It is the logical consequence of our growing rejection of the need to think, let alone rationally. Instead, we are allowing emotions to dictate our actions. Evidence and reason are out, window-dressing and virtue-signalling are in.

In such a socio-political climate, the final untruth of us versus them is inescapable: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. Once we are subsumed by emotions and intentions, it is no longer possible to have constructive arguments across the divide. Anyone with an opposing view is ignorant, if not downright evil.

Taken together, the three Great Untruths embody the opposite of Enlightenment values. Yet they are increasingly ‘informing’ (lacking a better word) what students are ‘learning’ these days, turning society and politics into a moralistic, symbolic and emotional theatre.

Ironically, Haidt and Lukianoff have put their dissent into a book, possibly hoping some people still think.


*Oliver Hartwich is executive director of think tank the New Zealand Initiative. This article first appeared here.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment or click on the "Register" link below a comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current Comment policy is here.

28 Comments

""emotional reasoning asks you to always trust your feelings"". It should ask you to be cautious - when an idea gives you a physical reaction it is usually worth while stopping and trying to think clearly. So your pet dies: do you eat it or waste energy and protein by burying it? I would go with my feelings. Does the thought of experiencing homosexual sex upset me? Yes but rational thought tells me I can avoid it but let others do as they wish; so in this case I don't go with my feelings.
Trust mathematicians, computer programmers, engineers - they have all learned the hard way that wishful thinking gets you nowhere. Distrust politicians and journalists who have done nothing else - they allow good intentions to be acted on without weighing the costs.

This is the cost of 50 something years of piss weak education and socialist thinking that will (and is) undermining our greatest strengths - to think, to fight for what's right, to love, to create, to get on together, to relate, to grow and more. These things are FREEDOMS. Freedom to be able think for yourself being the most fundamental and useful. As socialism (social democrats, Labour, Democrats, urban liberals, the intelligentsia etc.) slowly permeates (takes over) into our schools, our state departments, indeed anything that doesn't have to make a profit, they act like a cancer in destroying those key abilities (freedoms) that made the west so good for so long. And how do we know it was so good? Because anyone with half a brain and few dollars in their pocket is migrating to the west as fast as their little legs (or boats) can carry them. By the millions. I'll say it again, by the millions!!! Why, because we offer the best lifestyles available on the planet and have done for 200 years or more. And that failing them, the welfare. Don't underestimate the welfare.

Freedom for those who fall short to go rag picking at the local dump.

This is an odd comment indeed. NZ is less socialist than it has been in a long time. 50 years ago the country was making a big effort to make housing affordable for average New Zealanders on average wages, whereas now that's seen as 'orrible nasty communism.

And yes, people are migrating to countries where those nasty left-leaning folk have brought about things such as 40 hour weeks, minimum wages etc.

I'm pretty centrist, but this comment...I dunno...it's like someone's been watching too much Prager U.

Funny thing is - the authors of the book and the good Dr. Hartwich are all highly qualified/educated products of that education system :-)!

Yes, and another funny thing is that I see all three of the untruths in play in LJM's comment ;-)

I'd avoid this one like the plague. Fear and paranoia sells, as LJM's comment above clearly illustrates.

There are plenty of books that are required reading ahead of this one in order to understand C21st politics. I'd start with Thomas Rick's excellent analysis of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 'Fiasco'; anything by former US analyst, translator (to Nixon in '72) and diplomat Chas Freeman, whose analyses on politics are unsurpassed - and the man has a sense of humour which always helps :)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkf2MQdqz-o

Hogwash. My mother and father had, respectively, 8 and 10 siblings that made it all the way to adulthood. Today's parents rarely have more than one or two kids. My grandparents had heaps to spare if any fell short of the mark, today's parents do not.
There is as much nature in how we deal with things today as there is nurture. Nature naturally makes us more cautious the fewer kids we have, look at how much Chinese parents have vested in the one child most had.

In this article's vein - try this counter-culture book:
https://www.fishpond.co.nz/Books/12-Rules-for-Life-Jordan-B-Peterson/978...
"It's a counter-intuitive strategy for a population hooked on the instant gratification of ideological conformity and social media 'likes, ' but if Peterson is right, you have nothing to lose but your own misery." --Toronto Star"
Or on Youtube:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqEsTPaUZF0
.
"Peterson has become a kind of secular prophet who, in an era of lobotomized conformism, thinks out of the box. . . . His message is overwhelmingly vital." --Melanie Philips, The Times"

Reassuring that these issues are being publicly aired by a few, at risk to them of being labelled alt right. The value signaling by the brain washed masses, politicians and corporates has me worried. Indipendant critical thought that does not conform to popular ideas is severely dealt with and the speed it has happened is amazing. From school, universities to corporate policies and training its being peddled and when i confront people about it they are offended, asleep or too far gone to see it. I'll definately read it.

Be aware of how your kids minds will be shaped by universities today:
Some inoculation and independent thinking needs to be developed first.
https://www.mindingthecampus.org/2018/09/04/what-your-sons-and-daughters...

Pointman has a typically singular take on the same issue.

There’s been this huge push across most western democracies to get as many young people into third level education, or college or university or whatever you want to call it. It’s been mainly a political promise – your boy or girl, every single one of them, can emerge in three years clasping that magic piece of paper in their sweaty hand that guarantees a job. The only way of ensuring that mass level of access was to drop any notion of entrance standards, which the universities, like the government subsidy dependent sluts they are, did.

To which we, locally, from the Goodness of our Hearts and the Infinite Depths of our Pockets, can add 'And no Fees, either, kiddies....'

The results are a foregone conclusion:

As always in these situations, you don’t have to be an Einstein to see the problem, but the next and rarely taken step is to suggest a solution. I’ve recently read one by a professor who’s been lecturing for over twenty years and simply can’t get students to read certain books because it’s been smugly decided they’re white supremacist or whatever. How you can make that decision without ever reading the damn book is beyond me. I’d read Das Kapital and Mein Kampf as a sprout, neither of which turned me into a Communist or National Socialist, but at least I formed my refutations of the ideas contained in them.

He advocates just closing universities down. I can see the sense in the idea; nothing has come out of them since the 1950s. Once the fudgy areas of academia were allowed to retitle themselves as the social “sciences” the whole thing started to go to hell on a hand cart anyway. All it’s been doing for the last three decades is churning out impressionable kids as the second attack wave on western culture of an already failed Marxist experiment that died at the end of the 1990s.

Perhaps he’s right, just close them down. There are no ideas coming out of what should be an ideas factory, the end product is virtually unemployable and the kids are starting to wise up enough to realise there isn’t a guaranteed job at the end of it anyway, but what is for sure is they’ll end up with a huge boulder of debt on their back for no benefit to them.

""It’s been mainly a political promise – your boy or girl, every single one of them, can emerge in three years clasping that magic piece of paper in their sweaty hand that guarantees a job. "" Not the promise of a job but the promise of avoiding despised manual work. It also explains why so many tradies are more intellectually curious than most graduates.

Taking the NZ "no fees" and applying that to the paradigm is missing what's actually occurred. In the USA, universities have been turned into massive profit spinners, with companies requiring degrees for more and more jobs while the combination of student loans and for-profit universities-as-business is creating huge student debt (the only debt that cannot be relieved via bankruptcy) without delivering on the jobs front.

Young folk are being told they have to go to university to get a job - heck, how many companies even in NZ are interviewing kids straight out of high school anymore? - while being exploited for profit in order to get this job.

Limiting numbers might be a good idea...so long as it's combined with a labour market that encourages companies to hire straight out of school again, as they did in earlier decades. I.e. as long as they can't simply work around that by importing a cheaper and more exploitable workforce hand over fist.

The fees-free in NZ does actually include all tertiary study including any full time pre-trades Polytech programmes.

Every society has stupidity but that book sounds like more of a problem than a solution. The bonfire's burning low! Throw on more straw men!

It's not just universities. It is happening at your workplace, mindless health and safety policies that excuse the individual from indipendant thought for example wearing hivis everywhere and anywhere. Using gender quotas and inane policies gender policies to virtue signal. Becoming rainbow certified while your company melts...aka Fletchers. Lion Nathan promoting responsible drinking and alcohols effects. Ceos and hr of the older generations are embracing it out of fear.

It's worst when it's not genuine.

For those further interested, here's the 2015 magazine article that backgrounds/summarizes the material expanded on in the book;

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the...

And a set of interesting reviewer comments;

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/557315/the-coddling-of-the-amer...

I think we have reached peak virtue signaling signaling (PVSS), peak PC signaling and peak SJW signaling. Peak freedom of speech signaling etc etc etc.
All in all a lot of signaling signaling.

Graduates are like the Red Guards of Cultural Marxism.

It surprises me that there is so little rebelliousness and transgressive behaviour these days. Let's face it, living in sin, drugs, being an atheist and pursuing alternative relationships is pretty ho-hum. The less intellectual break a few car windows (easily fixed for free for most people), a bit of graffiti that no one can decipher and tossing fast food refuse out of car windows to express their anger at 'the system'. Pretty sad effort really.

The Internet has provided a transgressive outlet for some much to the consternation of the Boomer ruling class. However his is an important aspect of the Internet and we should ensure the continued free expression of ideas through this medium and do everything in our power to stop governments from meddling with it.

They can no longer discern the difference between discernment and rebellion due to:
“Today, academics deny that there is such a thing as objective Truth. Instead, they argue that no one can be objective, that everyone is inevitably subjective, and consequently everyone has their own truth. The correct point of view, they urge, is relativism. This means not only that truth is relative to the subjectivity of each individual, but also that ethics and morality are relative to the individual and the culture, so there is no such thing as Good and Evil, or even Right and Wrong. So too with the ways of knowing; your children will learn that there is no objective basis for preferring chemistry over alchemy, astronomy over astrology, or medical doctors over witch doctors. They will learn that facts do not exist; only interpretations do.”

Yes good point. With no objective truth things get weird. The litterbug will discern no qualitative difference between Autumn leaves and discarded Burger King wrappers.

These comments resemble less the reality of university graduates I know than a talkback stereotype of universities.

So you are countering our stereotypes with your anecdotal 'evidence'. I know graduates too and have been a long time listener of BFM, I know what I am talking about.

The Trump era really brought it all home for me though. Finally a revolutionary hero arrives on the scene and they are all out protesting wearing vulgar pink woolen hats and supporting Hillary and buying U2 CDs.

About as reasonable as assuming all Trump voters are uneducated hicks or neo-Nazis because they get a conspicuous amount of media coverage.

Why assume it's reasonable that one stereotype represents the statistical norm in reality while the other represents only a fringe few? Just because one's listened to bFM (small b) for enough years?

Likewise, does that indicate that Leighton-callers are representative of your age group or broader demographic? Because from what I've seen there's actually a whole lot more variation.

Sounds like your stereotypes are also based on anecdotal "evidence", perhaps confirmed by echo chambers.

I don't think we will get anywhere without making some generalizations.

Out of this dialogue some gems can emerge you see. I'm rather proud of my autumn leaves observation.

One thing to keep in mind is that not all members of a specific group are needed to set the tone, just around 10% or even 8% I read somewhere. So if 8% of an organization are highly vocal and active 'looney tunes' then that will be the overriding philosophy.

In Sept 12 edition of Southern Rural Life Olivia Ross, B & L NZ Southern South Island Extension Manager, has a piece titled 'The next generation is not being challenged'. Quotes Frank Martin a USA basketball coach: kids haven't changed. Kids don't know anything about anything. We've changed as adults. We demand less of kids; we expect less of kids. We make their lives easier instead of preparing them for what life is truly about! We're the changed ones.
Don't need to read a book, just read young Olivia's article. page 12 http://digital.southernrurallife.co.nz/olive/ode/srl_daily/