Book Review: The Coddling of the American Mind | Right-Wing Outrage or Well-Written Treatise?

In the past few years, it has become relatively common to see large and occasionally violent protests on college campuses when controversial, usually right-wing, speakers are invited.

18 comments

Last month, a video went viral of students at UNT protesting Jeff Younger, a Republican Texas House of Representatives candidate who was there to speak about trans issues, by chanting “f*ck these fascists”, screaming, and banging on tables. Similarly, last week at the University of Buffalo, protests against Black conservative speaker Allen West spiraled out of control, ending up with the leader of the campus’s conservative political organization forced to hide in a bathroom for her safety.

These events are not isolated incidents; in the past few years, it has become relatively common to see large and occasionally violent protests on college campuses when controversial, usually right-wing, speakers are invited.

However, shouldn’t we be prioritizing free speech at institutions that are supposed to be bastions of knowledge and inquiry?

Obviously, nonviolent protests against ideological opponents are productive and important in a democracy such as ours, and if you believe a speaker is promoting hateful or incorrect ideas, you have a constitutional right and a moral imperative to protest them. However, your free speech rights end where someone else’s begin. Why are we seeing an increase in students attempting to shut down speech or intimidate opponents into silence?

And what about other recent trends regarding “bias response teams”, trigger warnings, and safe spaces? Why do people seem to believe that words they don’t like are equivalent to violence and a threat to their safety? Are those darn kids these days just too sensitive? Is this a real issue or is the right just exaggerating it to fan the flames of the culture war and generate more outrage about “the intolerant left”? And how does all this tie in to larger trends about Gen Z?

These are the questions that The Coddling of the American Mind attempts to answer.

About the Book

Title: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure

Authors: Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

Published: 2018

Genre: nonfiction, psychology, politics, sociology, philosophy, many things

My Rating: 4/5 stars

The Premise

Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):

“A timely investigation into the campus assault on free speech and what it means for students, education, and our democracy.

The generation now coming of age has been taught three Great Untruths: their feelings are always right; they should avoid pain and discomfort; and they should look for faults in others and not themselves. These three Great Untruths are part of a larger philosophy that sees young people as fragile creatures who must be protected and supervised by adults. But despite the good intentions of the adults who impart them, the Great Untruths are harming kids by teaching them the opposite of ancient wisdom and the opposite of modern psychological findings on grit, growth, and antifragility. The result is rising rates of depression and anxiety, along with endless stories of college campuses torn apart by moralistic divisions and mutual recriminations.

This is a book about how we got here. First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt take us on a tour of the social trends stretching back to the 1980s that have produced the confusion and conflict on campus today, including the loss of unsupervised play time and the birth of social media, all during a time of rising political polarization.”

My Thoughts

I finished this in a day, and I thought it was a pretty comprehensive analysis of… a broad range of topics.

First, the authors establish “Three Great Untruths” that they believe are being taught to students, implicitly and explicitly:

1) The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
2) The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings
and 3) The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people

The book then goes into an analysis of each of these “untruths” and how the authors believe they are manifesting in students’ lives, and various societal trends that they believe are contributing to the formation of these attitudes in Gen Z.

Some of these trends include the rise of social media, Trump’s election and increased visibility of the alt-right, parents not letting their kids play outside (yeah that one was a bit of a stretch), increased political polarization and political homogeneity on campus, volatile events in the 2010s (and as this book was published in 2018, all I could think while reading was “oh if you only knew what was coming”)

This book spends a long time analyzing campus protests in terms of social psychology and the political context that we have right now, which was very interesting to read. They offer a rebuttal as well to the idea that progressives should adopt the ideas of micro-aggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings, etc. and evaluate whether these are actually going to help the people whom they’re supposed to help.

It also is a call for universities to renew their commitments to free speech and ideological diversity in addition to cultural diversity. The proposed solutions weren’t terribly realistic but I don’t think this is a very easy problem to solve.

The Verdict

Overall, The Coddling of the American Mind was an intriguing read and I agreed with a lot of the stuff they said.

I would consider myself something of a free speech absolutist– with some exceptions, of course, like direct threats of violence– but I think free speech is one of the most important things in society, so I was interested in that aspect of the book. I’m definitely going to look more into some of the organizations referenced in the book, like FIRE, which defends free speech on campus.

Have you read The Coddling of the American Mind? Any similar books? Feel free to let me know in the comments!

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18 comments on “Book Review: The Coddling of the American Mind | Right-Wing Outrage or Well-Written Treatise?”

  1. Free speech is a treasured value of our nation but, as Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, there are limitations.

    I believe that our current situation arises from the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine by Reagan. It provided an opportunity for opposing viewpoints to be presented through the same media platform as the original article.

    Without that guardrail, we now have myopic viewpoint-centered organizations passing themselves off as “news” when in fact they are only one-sided opinions.

    This situation led to what we see today. Any group that can put resources together can promote stupidity, hatred, and conspiracies as news. There is no counter-balance to call stupidity what it is.

    Stupidity, hatred, and racism are not valid points of view in a civilized society.

    Like

    1. well stupidity, hatred and racism are still covered by free speech, it’s just dumb if people believe it
      But yes it now can be very hard to stop people from believing harmful things like that or seeking out “evidence” for conspiracies if they are determined to dismiss or ignore real evidence. And it’s so easy to get in an echo chamber now that a lot of news is very partisan/biased

      Liked by 2 people

    2. The Fairness Doctrine only applied to radio and broadcast television. As we were already moving into an era of cable channels followed by the internet (mediums where the doctrine would not have applied), removing it had only minor, short-term impacts. Can you imagine how limited the internet would be if the Fairness Doctrine had been extended onto the web? Would this blog post and discussion have to wait for a competing view to be published on WordPress before Emily could post or before we could reply? The Fairness Doctrine didn’t just allow opposing viewpoints, it required equal broadcast time for them. Why would anyone post their opinions on line if they had to be subject to that requirement?

      In response to your last sentence… Stupidity is usually a subjective judgement. All hatred is invalid? Hatred of evil? What if I hate squash? Racism has no useful definition at this point, it is a more subjective term than stupidity.

      Free speech is never helped or supported by limitations because some human being gets to set those limits and there is no one that should ever be trusted with that authority. All the ‘valid’ examples of limitations on free speech are situational and have centuries of common law behind them – libel, slander, threats, etc.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. “Free speech is never helped or supported by limitations because some human being gets to set those limits and there is no one that should ever be trusted with that authority.” Yes, I completely agree. True, if everyone can say whatever they want some people will be misled, but I think this is still better than the alternative, which could potentially place control of the narrative in the hands of a corrupt entity

        Liked by 1 person

      2. At no point did I call for their speech to be limited or censored, I called for the echo chamber media to be replaced with what we used to have, and yes I am old enough to remember pre-cable and pre-internet.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. ah I see
        Yeah. I am too young to know any time before the internet and hyper partisan cable channels, so it is difficult to imagine a more neutral media outlet. I found this one website called Ground News that I like to use though because what it does is it takes every story and shows you a graph of which outlets are covering it and how. It shows you the different kinds of headlines that are being used and what percent of coverage is from the right, left, and center

        Liked by 2 people

      4. I’m not claiming things were perfect “back in the day”, just campaigning for some common sense self-censorship before people in the media open their mouths and report opinion instead of news.

        Like

      5. Dreamer, thanks for the clarification. Clearly the discourse has become courser and journalism is, at best, a lost art. I don’t have a solution, but doubt the world or even the nation (USA) will be able to agree on a source of unbiased or balance news. I also see freedom of the press as an individual right and, in the digital age, inextricably entwined with freedom of speech (e.g. we are acting as ‘press’ in this conversation as it is published on line), so I conflated the two in my response.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Emily, it is wonderful to read these opinions from a person your age. I hope you have time to keep posting on these topics through your college years, it will be very interesting to see what you think of the climate on campus!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I just ordered this! The college I graduated from just had a “political prisoner” aka the guy that called 911 in the 70s and murdered the cops that showed up, coming to speak, and while the community went crazy, the students were like …. Well can we hear him? But they protest conservative speakers! Oh my blood boils at this new generation, maybe this book will help explain it to me

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yeah the videos that come out of the protests when conservative speakers come on campus really disturb me as it’s concerning that students are unwilling to even let people speak I think that even if you really disagree with a person and you hate what they are going to say you still need to respect their right to free speech

      Like

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