Jonathan Haidt on "the Coddling of the American Mind" and How We Should Address It

College students rather than deans are calling for less speech and expression. That should worry us all.


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The suppression of free speech on college campuses isn't a new thing, says Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the New York University Stern School of Business and author of The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. In the past, however, it was usually done by professors and administrators rather than students.

Haidt says student-driven speech suppression is a relatively new phenomenon. "It was after the Yale protests that everything really spread, and that was only 13 or 14 months ago," says Haidt, referring to an incident in which students protested potentially offensive Halloween costumes.

For Haidt, students calling for speech codes, trigger warnings, and the like is a reversal of what we had come to expect on college campuses in the wake of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. "The thing people were not expecting was that the students are the ones who are demanding [political correctness] now," he explains. "Before, it was typically the students who were demanding more freedom."

This can have a chilling effect on speech even as it pushes students to opposite ends of the political spectrum. "At schools," says Haidt, "men feel they can't speak and then they go and vote for Trump."

Reason TV's Nick Gillespie sat down with Haidt at the International Students for Liberty Conference to discuss the rise of political correctness and its cultural implications. They also talk about Heterodox Academy, a website that Haidt helped start that discusses the need for viewpoint diversity within the university system.

Produced by Mark McDaniel. Cameras by McDaniel, Joshua Swain, and Todd Krainin. Graphics by Meredith Bragg.

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This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Jon Haidt: What Greg was beginning to see was that it's the students themselves who are saying, "You can't say that. Stop her from saying that. We need rules to stop him from saying that," and that's what was new.

Nick Gillespie: Hi I'm Nick Gillespie with Reason TV. Today we're talking with Jon Haidt. He is a social psychologist at the NYU Stern School of Business. Jon, thanks for talking to us.

Jon Haidt: My pleasure, Nick.

Nick Gillespie: You obviously have a fantastic academic reputation which proceeds anything we're doing here, but also along with Greg Lukianoff, the Director of FIRE, Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, a couple of years ago you wrote "The Coddling of the American Mind" which really brought a lot of the issues you're interested in to a much broader audience. Let's talk about campus PC and where it comes from, because this is the world we live in, it helped empower Donald Trump, he ran for presidency saying, "I was against PC." Define and quantify how we know that political correctness is getting bigger or worse on college campuses, that speech is actually being shutdown, thought is being shutdown.

Jon Haidt: Right. It's hard to find. This is all so new. There's been, I believe, a kind of a moral revolution, a new moral culture emerging on campus but it really is only in the last two years. If any of your viewers graduated from college in 2013, they probably haven't seen it. There was a culture, we can talk about it in a moment, but it's organized around victims of oppression, it's a vertical metaphor of privileged and oppressor people, and victims. This idea that everything is power. It goes back a long way. Students were always at risk of being told, "Everything is power." No. "Everything is money." No. "Everything is sex." We've had these one dimensional moral cultures for a long time, but they were limited to certain departments on campus at certain schools.

But something began happening in 2014-2015 where we just started hearing all these stories. When Greg and I wrote the article, it was just there were all these amazing shocking stories of students.

Nick Gillespie: What's an example of one?

Jon Haidt: One of the ones we tell in the paper that everybody [knows 00:02:17], Jeannie Suk at Harvard wrote about how in her law school classes, students wouldn't let her … Students were objecting to her saying "violated," like, "That violated the law," because violation, that could trigger a thought of rape and we can't let a student who's been raped think about rape. While there's a certain logic to that, it also, and this was the point of the article, the more you teach people to think that way, that hearing a trigger will reactive, you're actually hurting them when you do that. We're finding more and more professors saying, "Wait, I'm doing just what I've always done but suddenly the students are freaking out and they're reporting me to the dean."

When we wrote the article it was all just anecdotes, but that was in August of 2015. That was before the big blowup. It was really in the fall of 2015, the Missouri protests, and then especially Yale. Again, it was after the Yale protests that everything really spreads, and that was like 13 or 14 months ago, so we don't have the data …

Nick Gillespie: And that in the Yale video, there was I guess …

Jon Haidt: Nicholas Christakis, the [crosstalk 00:03:24].

Nick Gillespie: Yeah, but I mean just that primal scene really of where a student is saying, "This is not an intellectual space. This is a safe space" or something along those lines, so that you have this paradigmatic example of somebody at one of the, considered one of the best colleges in the country, shockingly given what's going on there, but like, "Hey, get out of my mind here." This is pretty stunning.

Jon Haidt: That's right.

Nick Gillespie: There isn't really a way to quantify other than to say, "This stuff seems to be going on more and more."

Jon Haidt: Yeah, within a year I'm sure there'll be surveys. Oh actually, you know what? We are creating a survey. At Heterodox Academy, it's a collection. We have 400 professors have signed on to say that we think that we need viewpoint diversity. We think that no university should be politically homogeneous. We're creating a bunch of products that we think will help address these problems, and the first thing we need is good data. We're mostly social scientists so we're creating something called the "fearless speech index." It's a simple survey, you come to our site, you get your own link, you send it out, and you can find out who is afraid of speaking openly, on what topics, and why. Is it because you're afraid the professor will retaliate or because other students will?

We're just pilot testing it now, but by April we should have it up on the website. Anybody who wants to do a survey at your own school, go to Heterodox, you'll find the link, and then you'll find out. Maybe it's that the, for example, the men what I'm finding when I talk, the men are often very quiet during my talks. They don't ask questions, they just sit there, but afterwards they come up to me like they were abused spouses or something because at some schools the men feel as though they can't speak. Then, they go and vote for Trump.

Nick Gillespie: Let's take it back a little bit and talk about the causes. First off, in a lot of the examples you used in The Atlantic article, and I'm sure in your forthcoming book, it seems to be driven by students. In other cases, it's driven by professors, sometimes it's administrators, [inaudible 00:05:37] residents' life has become a bigger and bigger part of many people's …

Jon Haidt: That's right.

Nick Gillespie: … College experience and they have all sorts of speech and behavior codes, but if we go back a couple of decades, because the term political correctness first burst onto the consciousness in the very early late '80s or early '90s. There was a New York Magazine story talking about it. I went to both undergrad and grad school in the early '90s and I felt like I saw a shift between about when I graduated college as an undergrad in '85 and when I finished grad school around '93. Things had become …

Jon Haidt: Exactly the same timing for me.

Nick Gillespie: Things had become more restricted in the sense that there was a political code. I was in literary then, cultural studies, so it was already politicized but that only certain viewpoints were acceptable.

Jon Haidt: That's right.

Nick Gillespie: It was kind of the teachers saying that, they might have the token weirdo, like "Okay Gillespie. You're going to say Frederick Douglas actually liked wage labor, but he didn't know, he didn't know the beauty of socialism" or something, but what is the connection? Is there any kind of straight line connection between that earlier form and what we're seeing now?

Jon Haidt: The way I think about it is that these all these fuses coming together, and each one was burning separately to some extent. They all intersected in the fall of 2015. One of them is academic trends, so the professoriate. The professoriate has leaned left in most fields for a long time, but it only leaned left. Here's where we do have good data. From the early '90s to the late '90s is the big shift. It's as the greatest generation retires, there were a lot of Republicans in that generation, whereas the baby boomers, many of them came rushing to the academy either to avoid the Vietnam War or to study racism, so it's in the '90s that the academy goes from leaning left to be very …

Nick Gillespie: Very.

Jon Haidt: … Solidly on the left. You lose diversity there. That's also part of why you get this faculty driven wave of PC in the early '90s.

Nick Gillespie: I would also, if I can add to that, and I don't know how far his influence extended outside of literary and cultural studies, although I see it a lot in sociology and history, Michel Foucault, when you mentioned everything is power.

Jon Haidt: That's right, exactly.

Nick Gillespie: I think he actually is very proto-libertarian in many of his discussions. That's a different story, but there was no question, we were all Foucauldians, and we were trained to look at …

Jon Haidt: Exactly.

Nick Gillespie: … What does this say about power? Whatever the text, whatever the area of subject.

Jon Haidt: I think that's exactly right. Again, there's all these fuses coming together and so one is a separate evolutionary process of ideas about power, privilege, and oppression. That's from the humanities. Ideas from psychology about trauma, bullying, abuse, the idea of microaggressions was invented by a psychology, so you get these Foucauldian ideas, you get these psychological victimhood ideas coming together.

Nick Gillespie: Who came up with the microaggression?

Jon Haidt: Well, the term goes back to the '70s or '80s, but it was popularized in an article in The American Psychologist in 2007. Then, the idea gets picked up. You've got this intellectual development. The big surprise, the thing that people were not expecting was that the students are the ones who are demanding it now. This is what took Greg by surprise, because Greg had been fighting all these speech codes, all these things imposed by administrators and faculty, and the students had always generally wanted more freedom. But what Greg was beginning to see was that it's the students themselves who are saying, "You can't say that. Stop her from saying that. We need rules to stop him from saying that." That's what was new.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah, he mentioned, I guess it was at Emery College, a case where somebody had chalked on the sidewalk …

Jon Haidt: Yeah, "Trump 2016."

Nick Gillespie: Yeah, and that what struck him as particularly discerning about that was it was students calling for the investigation and the suppression of speech, and for him that was a Rubicon that he's very uncomfortable has been crossed.

Jon Haidt: That's right. A key term here is "moral dependency." The most interesting idea I've come across in these years of studying it is the idea of victimhood culture. There's a great paper by two sociologists, Manning and Campbell. If you go to Heterodox and type in "victimhood" you can find our abbreviated version. They analyzed how many cultures used to be honor cultures where a small insult must be attended to by you. You can't go get someone to fight your battles for you, you have your honor. Then, we move to a dignity culture, as you get more trade, you don't need the honor culture anymore. In a dignity culture, sticks and stones will break my bones, names will never harm me, I'm not going to make a big deal out of a little thing. I'm just going to ignore you.

That is a great way to have diversity. If you have a diverse community, boy do you want a dignity culture because then the little misunderstandings, people overlook them. But what they show is that in some universities, and they're writing in 2014, before the blowup, in some universities those that are most egalitarian, so it's only the most left leaning universities where they're already egalitarian, and there was an authority who can brought in to punish, decide, everybody is desperately trying to get prestige by either showing what a victim they are or by punishing people who they think have harmed victims by getting the administration to come in.

Everybody is pitching to the powers that be to come in. Where did this come from? In the '80s and '90s, America changed its parenting. Kids lost unsupervised time. Kids used to have a lot of unsupervised time. You get into fights, you work it out, but because of the fear of child abduction, because of the anti-bullying policies, American child rearing changed so that there's always an adult and the adult always solves the problems, and the whole point is you want to state your case to get the adult to punish him, not to let him get the adult to punish me. Kids haven't had the chance to learn to deal with insults, to learn to be excluded. I mean, we all get excluded and we learn to deal with it.

Nick Gillespie: Now, is this turning back or is this putting on a new dress, kind of like, the Momism movement of the '40s or '50s? For Freud, it all goes back to the parents, particularly the mother it seems. How do you make that statement or how do you validate that? I have two sons, 15 and 23, and my ex wife and I often talk about how they started being put in institutional situations where there was always an adult present. Not like, "Oh, this lady's going to be in the neighborhood."

Jon Haidt: Right, balance.

Nick Gillespie: "So when you get run over by a car she might hear it," but you're taking them to a place, you drop them off, you sign them in. That's very strange, and it's different than the childhood that I had, certainly. But does it create a social type then, and is that social type, is it capable of either being reformed or does it mean that kids will grow out of it, maybe not at college, but then in the workplace or in their 30s?

Jon Haidt: Yeah, that's right. People are concerned about this for generations and I think there's no question that life and childhood has gotten more feminized, away from the masculine virtues, and in many ways that's good. I mean, there was a lot of bullying and name calling, so to have a general trend that way is probably right and good and admirable, but I think it can go too far when it encourages moral dependency. Freud was wrong that everything goes back to the mother, kids relationships to their parents matter for attachment when they're very young, but when they're in middle school and beyond, the total obsession is the peer group. Kids have to fit in with their peer group.

If these norms are peer group wide and we should bring in social media. Take whatever tribalism, groupishness, virtue signaling, take all the things that people have always done, give 13 year olds Facebook beginning in 2006, and you're really ramping up the mob punishment, the fear of saying something wrong. The kids who entered college, so if Facebook opened its policy in 2006, the very first kids who'd been on Facebook since 13 only graduated 2014. Professors have been encountering these kids who are just really different than the kids they were used to who were born before 1980. That's, I think, it's one of the threads. There's all these threads coming together.

Nick Gillespie: Right. This is not a monocausal explanation, right?

Jon Haidt: No, I can give you seven or eight.

Nick Gillespie: Do students see themselves, and this goes back to the question of a victim culture, and I realize it's the typical student, if there is one, but do they seem themselves more as individuals say than when you and I were growing up? I always felt like I was an individual, and my kids, their friends, they seem very individual. I realize these are ridiculously small samples or examples, but kids, do they feel less individualized in this kind of culture?

Jon Haidt: That I can't say. I have no idea how they feel about this. I think rather what we can say is that they have been exposed, they have been raised in a moral world that has different pillars than ours. You and I, I was born in 1963, I presume you were around …

Nick Gillespie: Yes, exactly.

Jon Haidt: We were raised by people who either fought World War 2 or at least remembered it. We were raised during the Cold War. We were raised to think that liberty and freedom were really, really important concepts and boy, they really were. There was the free world and the not free world. It was really clear. Liberty matters, and it was American, like we are the pioneers. What I'm noticing is that now, and actually I can show you data on this, you just do a Google Trends search, diversity and inclusion is going up and up and up. That phrase is becoming very, very prominent, and actually even multiculturalism is going down. Diversity and inclusion is becoming primary, our kids are being raised with such anti-bullying training. If it's Valentine's Day, everyone has to get … We can't have anyone be excluded.

Our kids have been raised where liberty and freedom are not really talking about. Like, even China isn't a slave … Liberty doesn't matter as much, diversity and inclusion is much, much more important than we ever experienced.

Nick Gillespie: And the diversity, does it extend to say, "Hey you know what? We're all different."

Jon Haidt: No. It's [crosstalk 00:16:17].

Nick Gillespie: It's not that diversity?

Jon Haidt: It's three to six specific groups. That's what we mean by diversity.

Nick Gillespie: Right. How do you address that? I guess I have two final questions I'm interested in. One is, how do you address that kind of … And it's beyond parenting. It's a set of social norms and social cues, but then also, specifically at the college level, how has the changing function of college affected all of this? Because it's one thing if you're going to college in order to get a job, if you're going to college to finish your education so that you can be an informed citizen, or if it's like a fancy etiquette school. I mean, how do you address this push on diversity and inclusion in a way that, of course, doesn't mean, "Okay, now we can finally stop kicking certain groups out of college" or anything like that, but how do we change that in a positive way?

Jon Haidt: Sure. First, it's important to realize that this is not happening at most colleges. Any college which students come to campus, take class and go home, you don't get this because they're living in multiple moral worlds. If people are different ages, you don't get this. This is only at four year residential schools where there's a moral world that emerges as these students come together.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah, this is like the kids being shipwrecked in … What's the …

Jon Haidt: Yeah, we all read it.

Nick Gillespie: "Lord Of The Flies." Thank you.

Jon Haidt: "Lord Of The Flies," that's right.

Nick Gillespie: Yes. It's "Gilligan's Island" for bachelor degrees.

Jon Haidt: That's right, except … Well, yeah. It's "Gilligan's Island" or "Lord Of The Flies" but with a gigantic staff of therapists and deans around to make sure that everybody places nice. It's only at the elite schools, so what do you do? Well, I think we need to rethink the way that we do diversity training. I think the way that it's often done, given that the evidence suggests diversity training either doesn't work or it can backfire if it's done with hostility. I think we need to recognize that as a country, we are in big trouble. We face an existential threat of coming apart, and this is now obvious to everybody. I think that we need to rethink diversity training. If you're going to have a multi-ethnic, multiracial democracy, you have to get everything right.

You have to look at the centrifugal forces blowing us out, the centrifugal forces pulling us together. Just this morning, [Karen 00:18:40] Foster gave a great talk on how she does diversity training. She uses humor. You've got to get people to be a little lighter, give people the benefit of the doubt, recognize that diversity is difficult, and recognize that political diversity is every year or decade, political diversity is a bigger divide and actually racial, we've been making progress on race and gender and sexual orientation, so a lot of the things we've been focusing on, I mean fortunately we're making progress. The political divide is now, I believe, the one that's going to do us in, and I think it actually might do us in. I think terrible things can happen in this country.

Nick Gillespie: And so that I mean it helps explain both why Trump was … And it's not that Trump is the only thing, but that you had Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump who were like equal and opposite versions of themselves. They were very disliked, very divisive.

Jon Haidt: I wouldn't say they were quite equal but they were, yeah.

Nick Gillespie: No, but I mean …

Jon Haidt: But in terms of violating democratic norms, Trump was much further out than anyone we've ever had, but many analysts I've read and spoken to agree, Trump is very much a symptom of what was happening. He could not have come in had we not had such dysfunction, animosity, distrust, cynicism, and then Trump is making those worse by violating what were the norms, so we are in big trouble. We will still be in big trouble once Trump leaves. I think we need to rethink this and I think a lot of ideas from mid to late 20th century America, Richard [Worthy's 00:20:03] ideas have been kicking around, Arthur Schlesinger, about having a common and group identity, a shared identity. I mean, this is basic social psychology. The more you emphasize differences, the more you drive people apart.

Nick Gillespie: But in a weird way then, is Trump kind of doing that because he's defining, he's saying, "This is what is American," and it's like hey sorry, that means Mexicans, or at least illegal ones, you're not. I love you when you're here. This is the … I mean, for me, I see red whenever I hear Schlesinger's name because I don't like consensus anything, but in terms of a common identity and if you go back to the 1920's which was the last time where the US shutdown mass persistent immigration that took place over decades. It was done specifically by defining the American as a non-immigrant.

Jon Haidt: That's right. There's an active discussion now about nationalism and patriotism. Before Trump was elected, back when we all thought Hillary was going to win, I wrote two essays earlier this year on nationalism, how what we're seeing around the world now is the left/right divide has become the nationalist … The left is the globalist versus the nationalist. This is very much in Europe, it's in a number of countries. I've been trying to say, because the left tends to reject nationalism, reject patriotism, reject borders, that this is a losing path. You're not going to win elections, you can't even run a country like that. I've been trying to define healthy, positive forms of nationalism and patriotism, and for America, it should be easy because it's not racial at all.

America should be really good at doing this, Britain should be pretty good too. Then, Trump comes along and the first thing he says in his inaugural address is this ugly, almost a blood and soil patriotism. I was hoping that he was going to say something like, "You know, I've said a lot of things about illegal immigration in this country, but boy, if you came here legally and you're a citizen and you're Mexican, I love you. I'm your" … I was hoping he was going to say that and he could have, but now he's made, just since he's making PC is his issue, which makes it harder for me to criticize PC, now he's made patriotism his issue which makes it harder for me to say patriotism is good.

Nick Gillespie: It's like he's got your number. He must be hacking your computer or something. Talk a little bit about college, and how has … College has changed in the 200 or so years it's really been around in the US.

Jon Haidt: Many times, yes.

Nick Gillespie: It fully became a mass phenomenon around 1970, that's when a majority of high school seniors went on to some form of college. We hear now, partly because it's so expensive, that the stakes are high in college, and that clearly puts anxiety on parents, on students, on professors. There are fewer and fewer tenure track lines, the business model of school, how does that affect the campus climate and particularly the issues that you think about? What needs to be adjusted there?

Jon Haidt: Yeah. I'm not sure that it affects the campus climate so much right now, but I think it's likely to lead to a huge disruption at some point in the next 10-15 years. If you go back five years before any of this, the intense PC stuff was happening, once MOOC started coming out and the cost of college was such an issue, a lot of people were saying, "It's just a matter of time before there's a big disruption of colleges not delivering the value if there are alternatives. It's just a matter of time before most schools go out of business." Harvard and Yale, Chicago, they'll always be there, but most schools will go out of business. I think what's happened is as college has gotten weirder and weirder, and all this bad publicity, most people in the country look at the coddling culture, they look at the students protesting, they're not sympathetic.

Many of them are horrified, so I think that's a black mark on colleges. What are they doing to deal with it? A lot of the things the elite schools are doing to deal with the protests are hiring a lot more administrators and a lot more expensive programs. I think they're digging in their own grave a little faster, they're speeding up the time of the disruption. As soon as someone can come up with a way of actually training or certifying people so that they can actually get jobs, I think colleges are going to face a big loss of market share.

Nick Gillespie: Well, and it'll be a shame too, because I mean the liberal arts have always, and particularly the humanities, have always been kind of suspect and those are really in a lot of ways, those are the types of areas, course areas as well as frames of buy-in that would actually help us navigate a more diverse …

Jon Haidt: That's right.

Nick Gillespie: … Tolerant society in the best way possible.

Jon Haidt: Exactly. That's right. It's the classical things that we say about the liberal arts and the liberal arts education are just what we need now. Unfortunately, my wife went to Smith as an undergrad, she loved it, she loved literature, so she went to the University of Virginia to get a master's degree thinking that she loves literature, "Let me go study literature." She was so disappointed because it was really more about politics and power and Foucault. It wasn't about literature, it wasn't liberal arts thinking, it was very ideologically. I think the humanities have kind of lost credit and I think it's their own fault.

Nick Gillespie: In total agreement, and we will leave it there. Thank you. We've been talking with Jonathan Haidt. He is a social psychologist at New York University's Stern School of Business, and he's the foremost thinker about the coddling of the American mind and what we need to do to address it. Jon, thanks so much.

Jon Haidt: Nick, my pleasure.

Nick Gillespie: For Reason TV, I'm Nick Gillespie.