Every once in a while, you will pick up a book, read two sentences of the summary and think to yourself “no thanks, next!” That is how I felt when I initially encountered The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I find this to be ironic because one of the points the authors discuss is how many of us today have become entrenched in our own viewpoints and are unwilling to hear the story from the other side. After reading a few more reviews of the book, I decided to download it. This book made me think about American culture, politics, our society today, and even my upbringing as a Millennial. If you stumbled upon The Coddling of the American Mind in connection to some argument that Generation Z is ruining society—I urge you to give this book a read. This book is NOT a lament about over-sensitive young people, rather a sophisticated and nuanced argument that the authors give to explain a shift in American society toward “safetyism.”
The authors begin the book by explaining to the reader the three untruths (i.e. the underlying principles that our society has begun to operate under and the foundation of safetyism):
- The Untruth of Fragility – what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
- The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning – always trust your feelings
- The Untruth of Us vs. Them – life is a battle between good and evil
Even though many of us believe the opposite of the untruths (i.e. what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, we should use logic instead of relying on feelings alone, and the world is not black and white, but gray), the way we and some institutions operate today are seemingly based on the wisdom of the untruths. While it might sound silly to claim that respectable researchers and universities may foster the three untruths, the authors show us that there are plenty of examples to suggest that the culture of ‘safetyism’ in America (i.e. the belief that both physical and emotional safety are sacred values) is emerging.
A big example of the untruths in action and the problem with safetyism is evidenced by a student protest gone viral at Brown University. In 2014, feminist author Wendy McElroy was invited to speak about ‘rape culture’ on campus. A student group, passionate about protecting survivors of sexual assault feared that McElroy would express views that could traumatize victims of sexual violence. In response to McElroy’s invitation, the student group set up a “safe space” at the same time as the talk for students who may feel attacked by the viewpoints expressed by the author. The reaction to the ‘safe space’ attracted as much criticism as applause. The authors highlight this incident because it promotes ‘the untruth of fragility.’ By assuring students that it is okay to reject opposing views without listening to them and labeling some sorts of speech as ‘violent,’ we are justifying the idea that people can be hurt by words and therefore should be protected from opposing views.
The above example is a short summary of events, but it is the point that critics of the book harp on most. To explain the other untruths, the authors detail events (mostly on American college campuses) between 2013 and 2017.
Another manifestation of this culture of safetyism is the rise of the ‘vindictive protectiveness,’ which inadvertently promotes the untruth of ‘emotional reasoning.’ Vindictive protectiveness results when people call out others for ‘triggering’ someone or a group in some way. We see this play out on social media, when someone is chastised for using a non-politically correct term as well as on college campuses. This ‘call out’ culture, while intended to protect groups that are so often considered to be in the minority, inadvertently creates a culture of ‘self-censorship,’ which can stifle open discussion and civil disagreement. In this way, in certain settings (especially online) people feel that they have to carefully choose their words for fear that they may insult someone (unintentionally) and receive large backlash or criticism. The examples of this point are insightful and if you do not agree with my description of this, I highly suggest that you read one of the many stories that the authors have to share on this point.
In addition to explaining the culture of safetyism today, the authors also take us on a short history of how we got here. In particular, famous kidnappings in the 1980s, increasing competitiveness of colleges, less free play/ more screen time for children, and the increasing politicization of American politics are dramatic oversimplifications as to why we see an increase of safeytism in the U.S.. I found this section of the book to be incredibly interesting. As someone who grew up in the 1990s/early 2000s—the era the authors detail—I can personally attest to the fact that my childhood/ adolescence was shaped in part (but not entirely) by safetyism concerns.
Another astute point that the authors make is their conceptualization of ‘fragility,’ which they describe in the following three ways:
- Fragile – things that are delicate and must be protected or they will break, ex. a teacup or a glass
- Resilient – things that can handle stress, but do not benefit from it, ex. car tires or basketballs
- Anti-Fragile – things that require stress to support their growth, ex. the immune system (must be exposed to germs to support immunity), muscles (must be challenged to grow stronger)
Humans are anti-fragile by nature. Our immune systems are bombarded with dusts and germs, which can make us healthier. We exercise to make our muscles stronger. And, we debate challenging ideas, listen to opposing opinions, and engage in civil disagreement to strengthen our relationships and understanding of each other.
The authors propose a few ways in which we can foster our anti-fragility including giving children a little more independence earlier on, teaching the ‘principle of charity’ (i.e. interpret the message of the speaker in the most rational way, rather than giving into emotional reasoning), living by the principle of ‘intellectual humility’ (being open to being wrong) among more radical approaches (like mandating a gap year of service between high school and college).
The book covers many more themes including social justice, the polarization of American society, the expanding role of social media, etc. As I read through the above, I know that I did not do the book justice. So, I ask you, before making a judgement on The Coddling of the American Mind, please do consider reading the full book—love it, hate it, or find it literally ‘incredible,’ I think it is an important piece of literature that does its best to explain this unique time in American society.