If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve likely seen headlines about the tumultuous atmosphere on many college campuses in the United States, which primarily centers around what is and isn’t okay to say or express. The interesting thing is that not too long ago, it was the students who were protesting against the administration placing controls on free speech. But a few years ago, my guest noticed that things had gotten flipped: the students had started protesting that administrators weren’t doing enough to limit speech. What happened?
Well, my guest explores the answer to that question in a book he co-authored with Jonathan Haidt entitled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. His name is Greg Lukianoff and he’s the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Today on the show, Greg tries to explain what’s going on on college campuses with the trigger warnings, microaggressions, protests, and sometimes violent clashes between social justice warriors and far-right provocateurs. He argues that there are 3 great untruths that have become woven into childhood and education that are leading the rising generation astray. Greg gets into where these untruths come from and how they’re creating a culture of “safetyism” that’s not only affecting intellectual discourse but the normal process of maturation.
If you’re looking for some thoughtful, non-polemical insights about some of the craziness you see going on at college campuses, this episode is for you.
- Examples of “cognitive distortions” on college campuses
- Why this is actually a problem of progress
- How young college students came to want controlled speech on their campuses
- The role of social media in these cultural changes
- The 3 “untruths” that have taken hold of this young generation
- What is “safetyism”? Why is it a problem?
- Speech and violence
- Why you shouldn’t always trust your feelings
- Catastrophizing, black and white thinking, and the lies we tell ourselves
- Why you need to learn how to talk back to your emotions
- How did we get to this point? What factors play into young people thinking like this?
- Raising kids who have resiliency and an internal locus of control
- The fear pervading professors and students on college campuses
- What do you do when you encounter a zealous ideologue?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The original article that appeared in The Atlantic
- Microaggressions and the Rise of Victimhood Culture
- Why Insults Stings and How to Handle Them
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Freedom From Speech
- The Milo riots at Berkeley
- iGen by Jean Twenge
- AoM series on honor
- AoM series on overprotective parenting
- Quit Catastrophizing
- Jim Livingston, Rutgers, and the Limits of Free Speech
- My interview with Nicholas Nassim Taleb about having skin in the game
- My podcast with Lenore Skenazy about free-range kids
- The gift of failure
- Achtung Baby
Connect With Greg
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve likely seen headlines about the tumultuous atmosphere on many college campuses in the United States, which primarily centers around what is and isn’t okay to say or express.
The interesting thing is not too long ago it was the students who were protesting against the administration for placing controls on free speech. But a few years ago, my guest noticed that things had gotten flipped. The students had started protesting that administrators weren’t doing enough to limit speech. What’s going on here?
My guest explores the answer to that question in a book he co-authored with Jonathan Haidt entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” His name is Greg Lukianoff and he’s the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Today on the show, Greg tries to explain what’s going on on college campuses with the trigger warnings, microaggression, protests, and sometimes violent clashes between social justice warriors and far-right provocateurs. He argues that there are three great untruths that have become woven into childhood and education that are leading the rising generation astray. Greg gets into where these untruths come from and how they’re creating a culture of safetyism that’s not only affecting intellectual discourse but the normal process of maturation.
If you’re looking for some thoughtful, non-polemical insights about some of the craziness you see going on at college campuses, this episode’s for you. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at AOM.is/coddling, C-O-D-D-L-I-N-G. Greg joins me now via Clearcast.io. Greg Lukianoff, welcome to the show.
Greg Lukianoff: Thanks so much for having me.
Brett McKay: You co-authored a book with Jonathan Haidt, who’s a psychologist or a professor. Is that what we call him? Professor of psychology?
Greg Lukianoff: A professor of ethics, actually, at NYU Stern Business School.
Brett McKay: Okay, but he delves into psychology, and you guys delve …
Greg Lukianoff: Oh, yeah. No, he has a PhD in psychology. He’s a famous psychologist.
Brett McKay: Right, but you guys came out with a book, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” What was the impetus behind this book, because this started originally as an Atlantic article, and then it passed around a lot. What was the impetus behind the article? What are you guys describing here?
Greg Lukianoff: That’s really, frankly, a long story, but it starts with me working on college campuses as a defender of First Amendment and freedom of speech, going back to shortly after I got out of law school in 2001. For almost my entire career, the most pro-free speech constituency on campus were the students themselves. They seemed to be more or less telling administrators, even professors, “Lighten up,” that you’re not in constant threat, that you should be able to tolerate jokes that might be racy, et cetera, et cetera.
It was sometime around 2013 and 2014 we noticed a real marked change, and the students were suddenly the ones who were pushing the most forcefully for speech codes and for disinvitations and for trigger warnings and new speech codes in the form of microaggression programs. That was a real shift, and it seemed to happen almost overnight in 2013.
This led me back to something that I’d been thinking about for years, which … I’ve had issues with depression and anxiety pretty much my whole life, and the thing that really saved me was something called cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s basically applied stoicism. You look at the really exaggerated voices in your head that tell you, “Oh, my god, I’m going to die,” in a situation where it’s just a bad date, and you get in the habit of actually answering back with, “That’s irrational,” basically naming these things as cognitive distortions and moving on.
I’d been making the argument for a while that it seems like we were teaching a generation the habits of anxious and depressed people, good thing the students aren’t listening. But then sometime around 2013 and 2014, we started seeing this kind of exaggerated sense of danger, this overgeneralization labeling, all these things that are called cognitive distortions in cognitive therapy, being mouthed by students as if they were positive, not negative, intellectual habits.
So that led me to talk to Jon Haidt, who I already knew because we have a weird position in the cultural wars given the books we write. He really liked the idea of writing an article about how you could shine a light on what’s going on on campuses using CBT as a lens, and it was a very popular article. It was the second most-read cover story in the history of The Atlantic at the time. We were really pleasantly surprised by it and were like, “That’s good. Our job is done. Let’s go back to our regular day jobs.” But all the problems we talked about in that 2015 article just seemed to get worse over the years, and after a little while we decided that we’re going to need to write a book about it.
Brett McKay: Right. I think everyone has heard of the microaggressions and the trigger warnings. We actually had Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning on the podcast a while back ago, discussing their theory about this rise of victimhood culture. Besides that, what are some of the examples, because you guys point out a lot of examples of these cognitive distortions that are going on on campus.
It’s kind of scary. You think it’s like The Onion? Is this really happening? I guess we can talk about the extreme examples because they’re funny, but on maybe some not-so-extreme ones that are still troubling.
Greg Lukianoff: One thing I always like to … A caveat is to say that I see these things as problems of progress. I wrote a short book called “Freedom from Speech” back in 2014, and I talk about these kind of problems as problems that get bad partially because other things are getting better, like obesity is a problem caused by having too much access to calories.
I think some of the anxiety that we’re seeing is having too much time to fixate on, in some cases, smaller problems, but also it’s made worse by the fact that we can increasingly live in communities that are more politically homogeneous than they used to be. We can be on cyber-communities that are exclusively people who already 100% agree with us.
All of these things that if you looked at them from the point of, say, 1974, you’d be like, “Wow, that actually sounds like a pretty cool future,” they have real downsides and they can make people more partisan, they can make people more polarized, they can make people more anxious.
Brett McKay: Got you. Yeah, some of the things people have probably seen in their Facebook feeds showing protests at college where there’s the heckler’s veto, where speakers who were invited get booed out and taunted. I think there was one really bad one where some lady got her hair pulled and she had a concussion. Some pretty scary stuff.
Greg Lukianoff: Definitely, I think, the mood of the book changes very much depending on what part you’re in. We tried to open it with a light opening, to not make the book feel quite so heavy and to give people a little sense of distance from some of the problems we’re talking about, but as you get towards the middle of the book, we cover in a great amount of detail some of these really scary cases that have happened on different college campuses.
We went into depth, for example, in the Milo riots. When Milo Yiannopoulos tried to speak at Berkeley, there were riots at UC Berkeley. I don’t really care what people think of Milo, but watching the videos and getting testimonies from people who were actually there … By the way, our chief researcher, Pamela Paresky, did some real original reporting on this. It was amazing, the stuff that she uncovered.
It was way worse than I understood from just hearing about it secondhand. Those riots, they were very lucky that people didn’t get killed. One of the people who was there … A lot of people who were there not even because they liked Milo, they were just bystanders, were assaulted, including someone, a young woman, smashed in the face with a metal flagpole. Her husband, right on the top of the head with the same pole. Big pool of blood. They’re really lucky nobody got killed during these things, and this was in response to something that they just as easily could have had a protest or even more radically, simply chosen not to attend.
Brett McKay: Right. I think this is an important point you make, that this is something that’s happened relatively recently. 2013, you really start seeing students being the ones like, “We want control on speech.”
Greg Lukianoff: Right.
Brett McKay: I thought that was an important point you made, because oftentimes when people see this stuff happening, they’re always like, “Oh, it’s those Millennials, those Millennials and their avocado toast.”
Greg Lukianoff: The avocado toast comes up a lot.
Brett McKay: This actually isn’t the Millennials. This is the generation after them, right?
Greg Lukianoff: Exactly. And to be fair to particularly the older listeners, this comes in waves. Certainly, when you think about the last moments in protest violence on campus, and student-led violence on campus, that was the ’60s and ’70s, and it was much more severe than it is now. There were literally thousands of bombings across the country, mostly against property, thankfully enough.
It was really nuts, some of the protests in the end of the ’60s and early ’70s. Then, of course, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a lot of what would be later dubbed the political correctness movement was really strong. But for most of my career, for most of the time, and most of my career has been dealing with Millennial students, I think Millennials get a bad rap. When it came to the main complaint that people had about them on campus was more apathy as opposed to activism in the name of censoring speech.
But sometime around 2013, 2014, something, it was almost like a switch was turned and things got a lot worse. By 2015, while we were happy to see a lot more … This was after the article came out, almost just a couple months after the article came out, we saw nationwide protests on college campuses, which, of course, as a First Amendment person, we were like, “Great, this is great. We’re overcoming apathy.”
But the problem was that some of these protests and some of these protesters were also, at the same time, using their freedom of speech to demand new speech codes, to demand that professors be fired for their freedom of speech, and for administrators and, as we talk about in the book at some length, an administrator who really was trying to send a nice, well-meaning email but didn’t phrase it perfectly, ends up getting chased out of a job.
That puts the First Amendment people like me in somewhat of a funny position, because while we … Sure, you have a freedom of speech right to oppose freedom of speech, we still think you’re wrong. You have the right to say that, but we’re definitely going to disagree. This really became much more intense around 2013, 2014, and has kept on going since. Really, if you think about what the book is all about is trying to get to the bottom of what changed, what was different about the class that started entering around 2013, 2014.
Brett McKay: Right. This is this iGen. I think Twenge is this sociologist. She came up with the idea that these are iGen-ers, these are people who were born when the internet already existed. They have not experienced the world without the internet. There’s that factor, but you …
Greg Lukianoff: Really, one of the major distinctions, because some Millennials pretty much are that way too, at least they can’t remember a time. The big difference that Twenge points to is the fact that they all had … The first generation having a smartphone was really common, and the first generation which being on social media started at a very early age.
Twenge notes the really dramatic rise in depression and anxiety and suicide, which has just happened in the past few years. There’s graphs in the book that are really dramatic discontinuities of rates of suicide and anxiety and depression and self-reported mental illness on campus. She notes all of that, which one of the reasons why we felt like we really needed to write the book was finding all of that stuff out.
But she puts most of the cause on social media, and our point is essentially yeah, it seems like from the evidence you can’t really question social media plays a role, but it doesn’t have enough explanatory power.
Brett McKay: Okay, let’s go into what you all think is behind all this. You say there’s three untruths that this generation, this generation of young people, that’s taken hold of them. The first one is, “That which doesn’t kill me makes me weaker.” That’s a play off of Nietzsche, which he said, “Doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” What is this idea? How did we go from “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” to “What doesn’t kill me makes me weaker”?
Greg Lukianoff: I see that as largely a problem of progress, too, and the way we encapsulate that idea is by a term that also Pamela Paresky coined when we were talking about trying to figure out what to give this a name, that we call safetyism, that essentially safety’s all well and good, and definitely we’ve made huge strides in childhood safety, for example, by being focused on real physical safety, but safetyism is when you treat it almost like a … When you treat safety itself almost like a sacred value.
Where that gets even worse is if, when you start watering down what safety means not just to mean physical safety, but to mean a state of being emotionally unperturbed, essentially. Unfortunately, on campuses in the past 10 years, we’ve seen a lot more acceptance of people using the word “safe,” that “I feel or I don’t feel safe,” to simply mean “I feel somewhat uncomfortable.”
We point out that this is playing, to forgive a pun for the name of my organization, which is FIRE, but this is playing with fire, because it creates a situation where you are conflating a real danger with simple emotional discomfort. But that’s a predictable outcome if you let the concept creep all the way into “Am I in physical danger?” to “Am I uncomfortable?”
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, this concept creep, that was interesting too. Besides safety moving from just being physically safe to emotionally safe, there’s other places concept creep has crept in. The idea of violence. Violence used to be like, “Okay, it’s just physical.” Someone punches you, that’s violence, but now speech is violence.
Greg Lukianoff: Yeah. My whole career, there’s always been someone trying to say, “Speech is violence.” That’s been an argument that people have returned to over and over again. But the thing that’s funny to me is not the novelty of the idea that speech is violence, is that the people who act like this is a new concept don’t seem to get that for most of human history, speech was treated as violence.
What I mean by that is, most of human history you’d get beheaded, you’d get burned at the stake, you’d be forced to drink hemlock, you’d be crucified, for saying things that went against public morality, that were considered blasphemous, which was generally just the norms of the community. Censorship and believing that words are also just another form of violence is the norm in human history.
When people point out that the distinction between speech and violence is just an invention, I’m like, “Well, it is an invention, but it’s one of the best inventions civilizations has cooked up.” Because once you’d accept that … Basically, you’re essentially allowed to have any opinion you want, and I’m not going to kill you or arrest you for what your opinion is, and draw a bright line distinction between speech and violence. You actually create a wonderful opportunity for a pluralistic society that’s peaceful and rational and figures things out.
There have been even pretty well-educated advocates now in the past couple years advocating for this “We must understand hurtful or hateful speech as also being a form of violence” who don’t get that they’re really channeling this ancient, ancient urge to censor those who we don’t really like.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I never thought about that. That’s an interesting point, and I think it makes sense, because going back to that whole idea of trigger warnings, microaggressions, those guys talked about how we’ve gone through three phases of morality. First it was honor culture, and right, in an honor culture, words are violence. If someone says something about you that offends you or hurts your reputation, you could, if you wanted, kill them. That was acceptable.
Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: Then we moved to a dignity culture, and that was that …
Greg Lukianoff: Cultures of honor, they play well in movies but you don’t particularly want to live in a time when dueling’s expected. I’m definitely, a lot of First Amendment people are cultures of dignity people, which essentially, the idea of culture of dignity, to really boil it down, is essentially that we’re on our own. It’s up for us to … We can’t resort to violence in dealing with each other. We have to figure out ways to cooperate, collaborate, or choose not to do any of those above. Violence is not an option, but generally you try to handle things one-on-one and you appeal to power and authority minimally.
The difference that we talk about in the book that Bradley and Campbell talk about is when you get to moral dependency, or essentially you see authority’s role as an intermediary between you and practically everybody else to resolve all conflicts that come up. There’s a lot of things to be really worried about when you create a culture of moral dependency, because that’s really how you end up with a desire for a strong man or a dictator or all these other anti-democratic approaches to problem-solving.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and also, you point out in this whole section, this idea that “That which doesn’t kill me makes me weaker,” that idea actually … They think they’re making themselves safer by having safe spaces, by limiting microaggressions, et cetera, but in the end, you just make yourself more vulnerable to those offenses.
Greg Lukianoff: Yeah. It’s interesting. A lot of people don’t know the self-fulfilling prophecy is actually a term that even psychologists use to talk about problems you can create by believing you have a problem. That’s something that I really want to emphasize, is sometimes when people say that we’re creating all this anxiety and depression, that people are …
This is quote-unquote, “just in people’s heads,” but if you’re told your whole life that you’re not competent, that you need an authority figure to take care of you, that by the way, if you hear something that’s really offensive you’re going to be injured forever, and if you experience trauma you will never really recover from that, which I think is a message we’re essentially telling to some students hopefully without meaning to, it’s incredibly disempowering, for one, but it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You end up having people who believe at their core that essentially they are much more fragile than we have any actual reason to believe that they are, but it’s sufficient that you believe that. It’s only sufficient that you believe that to actually become someone who is, in effect, depressed, anxious, and fragile.
Brett McKay: All right. We’ll talk about, later on, what’s going on there, why kids these days think they’re vulnerable and fragile, but let’s get to the next untruth. The other one is the untruth of always trusting your feelings.
Greg Lukianoff: Right.
Brett McKay: How has that led us astray?
Greg Lukianoff: That’s one of the ones that sounds the most appealing for people who like movies or who have a romantic streak. What’s wrong with always trusting your feelings? But when you think about it a little bit more, you think about all the either anxious or angry impulses that you have, some of them … There’s a great social psychologist, Susan David, who came up with a great way to think of this.
Emotions are information, they’re not directions. Just immediately doing whatever your feelings tell you is a formula for not a great life, and just being dragged by your teeth through your life. But it’s also a formula for anxiety and depression as well. When we talk about this, this is really where we get most back to the theories we had in the Atlantic article, where we talk about cognitive behavioral therapy and why you shouldn’t engage in emotional reasoning.
This is something that is just a fact, but nonetheless, people find sometimes jarring, when you practice CBT, is just remembering, sometimes when you think you’re in danger, you’re not. Sometimes when you feel like you’re under threat, you’re not. Sometimes when you think someone’s out to get you, they’re not. Part of the great philosophic tradition, one of the great therapeutic traditions, is being able to talk back to these feelings, to interact with them and question yourselves, “Is this rational? Does this make any sense?”
But if you look at some of the ways we argue, both now on and off campus, it’s all emotional reasoning. It’s basically saying, “The most important thing is that I feel this, and therefore it’s true.” Meanwhile, it sounds cold-hearted, but I end up having to say a lot, “Being offended is an emotional state. It is a statement of an emotional state. It’s not an argument of itself.”
Brett McKay: Right. Some of these distortions you talk about … Because we’ve had psychologists who specialize in CBT on and we’ve talked about some of the distortions. Catastrophizing is one.
Greg Lukianoff: Sure.
Brett McKay: How does that manifest itself with these college kids on campuses?
Greg Lukianoff: Catastrophizing’s one of those ones that I first pinpointed on campus over and over again coming from administrators before I felt like students were really catching on to this. You see these insane arguments sometimes made by campus administrators. I remember one case in which an administrator was trying to argue with a straight face against being allowed to carry protest signs on campus, because they could be used as axes and weapons, for example. It’s like, in what world are students going around using their signs like battle axes, clomping off people’s heads? This is catastrophizing, and sometimes it’s done disingenuously to get your way.
But we had another case where … Definitely look in the book for this one. A professor posted a picture of his daughter wearing a T-shirt with a quote from “Game of Thrones,” which is something like, “I will take what is mine with fire and blood.” They suspended the professor because an administrator at that college argued that that was essentially a threat because the fire in the quote on the T-shirt could mean the fire of AK-47s, that’s actually what the administrator referred to, as opposed to the fire of the dragons in “Game of Thrones.” Catastrophizing is really easy to see. Essentially it’s “The sky is falling” mentality that makes molehills into mountains.
Brett McKay: Right, and there’s also black-and-white thinking.
Greg Lukianoff: That’s mine. What I mean by mine, I mean when I talk about going through cognitive behavioral therapy myself, my wife thinks it’s very funny that I have a tendency to see things as either all or nothing, binary, zero or one, and that’s something that I really have to convince myself out of. It’s either all good or all bad.
Not that I actually, intellectually, believe that, but it’s the cognitive distortion that I’m the most prone to. Either this night’s going to be great or it’s going to be a failure. Honestly, most nights are somewhere in between.
Brett McKay: Right, right. But you see this manifest on campus, where people are just like, “If this person comes and speaks, people are going to die.”
Greg Lukianoff: Sure. I’ll even go …
Brett McKay: That’s catastrophizing and black-and-white.
Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, and that’s something that, when you see people arguing against commencement speakers, for example, they will sometimes make very legitimate arguments about why they don’t like a particular speaker, but they make it sound like people will lose their humanity if Bill Maher shows up on campus to tell some jokes.
I find this particularly inappropriate when people talk about commencement speakers. Let’s take someone who you can understand why people find her controversial. Condoleezza Rice, the Iraq War, very controversial. I understand and defend people’s right to protest her. But at the same time, not being able to realize that someone who grew up in Jim Crow Alabama, who became the provost of Stanford, could have something interesting to say at a commencement speech … I’d be interested to hear what she has to say, but both due to polarization and also due to this kind of binary thinking, it’s like either you’re good or evil, and if you’re in my evil camp of course nothing good can come from listening to you.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s funny. Understanding how to talk back to your emotions, that’s part of becoming resilient, mentally healthy. One thing I’ve done with my son … Because kids, it’s like their prefrontal cortex is still developing, so they do a lot of emotional thinking. I always tell my son, “Look, you got a dog brain and you got a human brain. Your human brain’s still weak, and so whenever you feel upset, that’s your dog brain, and you got to tell your human brain, ‘Hey, everything’s okay.'”
Greg Lukianoff: Right. Yeah, learning how to talk back to your own ideas and your own emotions is an, I think, crucial part of maturation and also of mental health. But the reason why I’m such an advocate of CBT even beyond the realm of therapy is because if you look at the list of cognitive distortions, they’re also just good rules to live by when it comes to arguing with everyone else.
Should you be overgeneralizing, should you be labeling, should you be catastrophizing, if you want to have a serious discussion about stuff? The answer is no. If we as a nation decided to look at the list of cognitive distortions and say to ourselves, “You know what? I’m probably going to stop myself before I make this overgeneralization,” I think we’d be living in a much saner society at the moment.
Brett McKay: The next untruth is the untruth of us versus them. How is this playing? I think we all know how this is playing out, because we see it in our social media feeds.
Greg Lukianoff: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. In a lot of ways, the book itself is an extension, and going much deeper into some of the ideas we talked about in the 2015 article. But one of the ones that makes it really different is the third great untruth, us versus them, because one of the aspects we added to and went very deeply into in the book was how much polarization makes things so much worse, that essentially we have given into our tribal instincts and, as I said earlier, since we live increasingly in communities that don’t have as much viewpoint diversity, people get much more tribal and it creates a very black-and-white, good-versus-evil, once again also binary-thinking approach.
What we’ve seen happen just in the past year or two is that we’ve seen this play out on campuses over the years, particularly if you look at, like I said, disinvitation lists or what professors can get in trouble for. But you also have the alt-right echo chamber, and it was almost like there was a collision between the two just in the past two years, and unsurprisingly, it’s pretty ugly.
Brett McKay: Right. You talk about the alt-right. When people see this stuff on campus, usually people who they would describe as SJW, social justice warriors … But what’s interesting, you talk about in the book, these two groups, the SJWs and the alt-right, they’re like the two sides of the same coin, right? The alt-right also takes part in these mental distortions where it’s all or nothing or everything’s terrible. And so these two things collide and just craziness happens.
Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, the most recent trend, and we have almost a whole chapter about this in the book that’s about polarization, that is of more left-leaning professors saying something on Twitter or Facebook or going on Fox News and getting death threats in some cases, getting fired in others.
The most recent case is a professor, Jim Livingston, at Rutgers, who was visiting Harlem, like a lot of New Yorkers, complained about gentrification, and complained about some white teenagers he thought were acting like jerks, so he did a little bit of an angry rant. And this is a white guy in Harlem arguing about gentrification in Harlem. He was found guilty by Rutgers of racial harassment against whites for his privately complaining about gentrification in Harlem.
We want people to understand that what’s happening now is like this next level where it was bad enough when you could get in trouble for what you said in class when it was just students coming from one side of the spectrum, and certainly we wanted to end that. But now it seems like you’re running a gauntlet between these two different extremes, and if the social justice-minded students hear you you’re in trouble, and if this gets out into the conservative blogosphere you’re in trouble, so what exactly are we allowed to say on campus now?
Brett McKay: Right. It’s not even on campus sometimes, just something you said privately.
Greg Lukianoff: Right, yeah, and that’s something that, in my short book “Freedom from Speech,” which I wrote back in 2014, I was already getting concerned about, even though it’s not a First Amendment issue, there is something troubling about people getting fired for something they wrote on Facebook or some nominally private activity or joke getting revealed.
I’m an executive producer of a movie called “Can We Take a Joke?” which is comedians talking about how the call-out culture we see on the internet makes comedy difficult, and there’s just countless examples of people losing jobs or getting in trouble for things that they thought were funny at the time.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about them. Besides making comedy harder, this whole call-out culture that happens on campuses, it makes thinking about really hard issues much more difficult, because you have to be careful that you don’t do the wrong study or say the wrong …
Greg Lukianoff: Oh, yeah.
Brett McKay: That gets in the way of advancements in learning about different ideas.
Greg Lukianoff: Yeah. One of the reasons why the book got a little bit delayed in when we released it is because we kept on getting additional examples of horror stories added, and more and more added each day. The chapter on professors really changed as we were writing the book, partially because we saw some really horrible stories about the treatment of different professors for publishing articles that were controversial.
My guesses probably would have been barely controversial maybe five or 10 years ago, but for example, we talk about the case of Rebecca Tuvel, a well-respected, well-meaning philosophy professor, and she wrote an article. “I’m talking about if we accept the idea of transsexuality, what does that mean for someone who thinks of themselves as transracial, who actually has an identity that’s … What does that mean? Can these two ideas be rectified?” It was a thoughtful article on a provocative topic.
She was treated very much like a heretic. It’s a really depressing story, because she even relates, or at least I don’t know if she related it, but we found out that some of the people who signed letters condemning her and demanding that the publication withdraw her article, which I think they actually did, would write her privately and say, “Listen, I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” It’s like, that’s awful.
Right around the same time, there was a professor who wrote a … You can understand why this would be controversial, but he wrote a defense of colonialism, partially as a provocative … On purpose, with the idea that this is a really unpopular argument, let’s do what professors do best, let’s actually make an argument for the indefensible as far as academia’s concerned. The professor withdrew the article and the journal talked about just getting death threats for an academic article published on an academic topic, which one of the things we’ve been talking about is that retraction has become the new rebuttal.
There’s other ways other than death threats and demanding that that article not be published that you can deal with arguments you dislike, but in a situation of moral dependency, the argument is the person in charge has to put an end to this.
Brett McKay: Right. You’re thinking that’s the whole point of science, of research, is you might have to test controversial ideas, and you expect other people to rebut you and say why you’re wrong, and not just shut it down.
Greg Lukianoff: Right.
Brett McKay: Then also, I think it’s weird too, because when I went to college, I went to college expecting I’d have my viewpoints challenged. It sounds like young people, that’s not what they’re … They don’t go to college for that. They want to go to college to have their ideas reinforced or kept safe.
Greg Lukianoff: I’m sure there are plenty of young people who would like to have their beliefs challenged, but as Nassim Taleb has even pointed out mathematically, it only takes a relatively vocal minority of students who feel very strongly about about it, or a minority of people in any situation, to shift over the people who don’t feel that strongly one way or another over to their side.
We don’t really know if this is a problem of a vocal minority, illiberal group of people, or if it’s more widespread, but we do know that it just isn’t … In some cases, to really create an intolerant atmosphere, it just takes people not fighting back.
Brett McKay: Right. Let’s talk about how we got here. We talked about smartphones as one of the things that … Access to smartphones, one of the big differences between, say, Millennials and this iGen. What else has changed? What else was different about iGen and the way they were raised that would give them these cognitive distortions, like that life is either black or white, thinking that the worst things could possibly happen to you if you don’t prevent them, so what’s going on there?
Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, that’s actually at the real heart of the book, is trying to figure out these other explanatory threads, because we definitely think social media plays a role. We think it plays a role in the increasing anxiety and depression for younger people and across the country in general, but we also talk about, as we’ve already mentioned, polarization, and it is worse than it was. It’s not just in people’s heads. The polarization has gotten worse within the past several decades. It shows up very strongly in the data.
There were scholars who are looking at the data, and I think they still sometimes interpret it this way, who are trying to say, “There’s nothing really to see here,” because when it came to voting issues, Americans were not quite as polarized as people thought, that actually there was a surprising amount of agreement on any number of voting issues. But really, if you want to check out what polarization means, you have to look at how intensely they hold those views and how much they dislike people who disagree with them. That’s what polarization really is. It’s not about the issues per se, it’s about how much you dislike the heretic.
Some of the interesting studies show whereas once upon a time, people would be the most hostile to their children dating someone of a different race or religion, now they’re the most hostile to the idea of someone dating someone from the other party. Cass Sunstein dubbed this “partyism.” The polarization really has gotten worse. So that’s one thread.
Paranoid parenting, we have a whole chapter on that, and it’s kind of like it sounds. We’re mostly talking about the parents of the kind of kids who go to college and particularly elite colleges, but the intensification of helicopter parenting over the past couple decades is something that we hear from practically every expert we talk to. We have a great interview with Julie Lythcott-Haims in the book. She wrote a book called “How to Raise an Adult.”
She comes at it from being the dean of freshmen at Stanford and watching this rapid progression from students very rarely showing up with their parents to almost all of them showing up on the first day with their parents, and their parents continuing to have a daily decision-making power in those students’ lives, which is really not good, if you think about what you’re trying to develop for students, which is a sense of independence, a sense of locus of control, of being able to have autonomy over their own lives, which also goes a long way to explain some of the anxiety and depression and catastrophizing that essentially, if you’re not used to handling things on your own, everything looks like a catastrophe.
One of the most interesting explanatory threads we talk about is the decline of free play. We have a whole chapter on the importance of play in which children direct it themselves and with minimal, if no, adult involvement, stuff that all of us took for granted growing up, but it actually turns out that if you deprive kids of unstructured free play time, it can harm everything from their psychological outlook to their creativity.
In researching this book and some of the people we talked to, that was the finding that screamed the most at me, because I read a lot of books about this and Erika Christakis’s book, “The Importance of Being Little,” really hits you over the head with this. I’m like, “Wow, so if we know that free time and free play is so essential to developing strong, independent, resilient kids, why the hell are we telling people, telling children, what to do from 6 AM to the time they go to bed until they get into Harvard?” It seems to be the research and the practice are completely at odds with each other, and it turns out they pretty much are.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ve had Lenore Skenazy on the podcast, talked about her free-range kids stuff, and she highlights the same research. Kids are playing less. I think it’s weird, because iGen, I imagine these kids are the kids of Gen X parents, primarily. These are the latchkey kids in the ’70s when crime was high and they were out on their BMX bikes playing with rusty nails, I don’t know. For some reason, I guess they go, “I don’t want my kids to have that childhood, so I’m going to take care of them extra.”
Greg Lukianoff: I tried to figure this out myself, because I started working at a restaurant when I was 11. I have all sorts of childhood neglect horror stories, but some of them are happy, funny stories as far as I’m concerned. But in researching and trying to be compassionate and understanding where it was coming from, I realized that those of us who were around before 1993, we were around during a time where it was a pretty safe bet that the murder rate was going to go up almost every year. Things were getting worse, and it did in terms of murder rate, pretty consistently from about the late 1950s to about 1992 and ’93, depending on what city you were in.
So there were reasons for why, in the upbringing of these kids, that their parents could actually, having not adjusted their model to a much safer reality we live in now, could be understandably more paranoid. There’s some glimmer of the way you were brought up could actually have some influence on why parents would actually be more paranoid.
But the thing that really kicks this stuff into high gear is social pressure, that once it becomes a value, once you have safetyism in place, you’re suddenly the bad mom or dad if you don’t act like you’re completely obsessed with safety and it spirals out of control. But the scariest stuff of all is the fact that people sometimes get arrested for letting their kids play in the playground while they’re at work, for example, or for letting their kids walk home.
Lenore actually also appears quite a bit in the book. We did some great interviews with her, and she’s a friend of ours as well. If you’ve reached the stage where people are actually getting arrested for doing stuff that we took for granted any kid should be allowed to do when we were kids, you have to start there and then make sure people aren’t getting arrested for it, but then also empower parents to realize there are other parents who think like you and form a free-range kids association and make sure your kids can go out and play.
Brett McKay: Let’s recap. This lack of unstructured play, the helicopter parenting, it sounds like what that does is it doesn’t allow kids to develop that human brain, their prefrontal cortex, right? So they don’t have to make choices where they have to manage risk on their own. They basically rely on their parents for that, and that stunts them.
Greg Lukianoff: That’s where we bring in the whole locus of control idea. Essentially the research is pretty strong on this, and it makes perfect sense, that if you feel like you have no control over your own life, that’s a formula for anxiety and depression. It even turns out that giving people in elderly homes and facilities, even giving relatively small choices regarding their daily lives and the art that’s in the room and stuff, really improves people’s sense of happiness and well-being.
So obviously, if you make a 22-year-old feel like they can’t have much control over their own life or for that matter, even a 14-year-old, you’re really undermining their ability to feel like they’re competent as a person.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s interesting. I think iGen, one issue that’s been really big for them are the school shootings. Safety.
Greg Lukianoff: Yes, absolutely.
Brett McKay: Which makes sense. School shootings are terrible. I remember after the one in … What was it? Parkland. There was a kid in high school. He was probably 16, and he was like, “We’re children. We shouldn’t have to deal with that.” I remember I heard that, and I was like, “Man, when I was 16, I never would have been like, ‘I’m a kid, take care of me.’ I’d be like, ‘I’m 16. I can drive. I got a job.'” I never would have thought of myself as a kid. It’s an interesting shift in mindset, maybe, between generations.
Greg Lukianoff: It is a flip in mindset, and I have seen a lot more of students thinking of themselves in a younger way than we would have when we were 15 or 16, but it also does come to the fact that when people ask more or less, “Is all of this political outrage all in their heads?” It’s like, actually, of course, when I was a kid, we weren’t seeing semi-regular videos of unarmed black people being shot by police, or choked or whatever.
So partially due to social media, we’re a lot more aware of some of the stuff that’s out there, and school shootings are terrifying. As far as just even no matter how much you tell people about stats, since I grew up near Newtown, Connecticut, it doesn’t change the fact that you still, as a … And I’m a recent parent myself, that you’re like, wow, the school … Someone came and attacked little kids with guns, is something that really can mess with your head.
So we do try to do as much as we can to nod at … Yeah, we’re not saying that everything’s peachy and people should just get over it, but what we are saying is no one is helped by some of these intellectually unhealthy habits that we’ve developed. If you really want to address some of these problems, you’re not going to be able to do it if you’re in a constant state of panic.
Brett McKay: What can we do to mitigate this? What can colleges do? This is hard for colleges, because there’s a lot of … There’s PR they have to handle.
Greg Lukianoff: Oh, sure, yeah.
Brett McKay: There’s lawsuits. What can they do about this?
Greg Lukianoff: That’s one of the factors that we have in there. There’s completely non-ideological factors, like whether or not they’re bringing lawsuits or federal regulations. I am proud of the fact that we do have a section at the end where we talk about solutions, but one thing I really want to stress in the solutions section is we want people to read the book and we want them to come to us with more solutions, because we think that there are ways, surprisingly, deceptively easy ways we can help at least ameliorate some of these problems.
But when it comes to campuses, there’s a lot of throwing up people’s hands about, “Oh, we’ve got this intolerance of students on campus, and we’ve got this completely unpleasable contingent off campus, and it’s all just rotten.” The instructions for university presidents, they’re easy to say, they might be hard to follow, is don’t fire a professor in the face of an outraged mob. Get used to doing that, because the first time you break that rule, the next group that comes to you is going to be like, “But you fired this guy, why won’t you fire the next one?” So really planting your feet firmly on that.
Adopt something like the Chicago statement on academic freedom is a good way to start, which you can find out more about in the book. When people really lament about the lack of respect for free speech and academic freedom on campus, I’m like, “So why don’t we teach people about that?” Because if you look at the orientations at universities, we could find only one or maybe two schools that spent some serious time talking about freedom of speech, academic freedom, free inquiry, all of these, where frankly, although we may take them for granted, are actually pretty sophisticated and in some ways counter-intuitive concepts that someone needs to directly explain to you, and if they don’t actually get them, you can’t complain if you’ve never actually explained it to them. The easiest way to start is actually start teaching some of this stuff.
Brett McKay: Right, and I imagine it also … Professors have to band together instead of doing the whole call-out thing, or if they see a professor getting called out, don’t just be silent, try to defend them.
Greg Lukianoff: Oh, yeah. As far as something that has just been a huge disappointment for me working on campus is in some cases we’re talking about tenured professors here, and one of their colleagues might get in trouble for something that they said in class or said outside of class, or a student, for that matter, might get in trouble, and it’s really rare that a tenured professor comes forward and say, “Enough is enough, no way, my student should not be expelled for that.”
There’s barely a more secure job that exists in the country than a tenured professor, and that’s why it’s so disappointing that it can be so rare for tenured professors to take a stand in the name of free speech and academic freedom. Which is ironic, of course, because the justification for tenure was to defend academic freedom.
Now, there are notable exceptions. Of course, Alan Kors at Penn, who was one of the founders of FIRE, was always standing up for both the rights of professors but also, importantly, the rights of students as well. I think that groups like Heterodox Academy, that Jon Haidt helped start, my co-author, play an important role. FIRE has been engaging with professors more often. We actually have an annual conference with professors. And yeah, having each other’s back a little better can make a big difference.
Brett McKay: What can parents do?
Greg Lukianoff: In terms of what parents can do is, to me, the repeated findings that free time and free play are really healthy for the development of kids should be greeted as not just good news but a good message for the lives and happiness of parents themselves, that essentially, in some ways, as we find time and time again, in some cases doing less is actually doing better. Not scheduling every minute of your kid’s day, making them achieving a sense of independence is important.
There’s a great book called “Achtung, Baby,” which is about how Germans raise their kids, and despite our stereotypes of Germany as a very authoritarian country, partially because, or actually largely because of its authoritarian past, the ethos in German parenting at least as described in this book is that you really want to have independent, resilient kids who are able to take care of themselves, because they see that as a penance for their Nazi past, but also a bulwark against authoritarianism in the future. I think they have it exactly right. This is a good way to defend your students’ sense of resilience, and it’s also not coincidentally a way to help defend a free society.
Probably the recommendation that we came to just very naturally by the end of it was a cultural expectation of a gap year. We don’t want this to be mandated or anything like that, but I do think that nothing can quite help students feel like they have that locus of control, like they have that independence, like they have that judgment, like having a year when you’re not actually in school, where you’re working a job, maybe in some other part of the country, maybe in some other part of the world, but working a real job for a little bit, but having some kind of real-life experience before you actually go into college. I think that could help a lot.
Brett McKay: As I was reading this, I was thinking, what do you do when you encounter one of these … Again, I think the point I want to make, these people, often they’re in the minority, but because of social media, it can just seem like everyone is like this, everyone’s crazy.
Greg Lukianoff: Right.
Brett McKay: What do you do when you encounter a zealous ideologue online or maybe in your own family? Maybe you got a cousin or a nephew that’s taking part in this distorted thinking. Should you even engage? Do you engage with them? Do you use CBT on them? It’s like, what do we do now with these people, with this conversation that’s going on that just seems crazy?
Greg Lukianoff: Honestly, it always depends. It depends on how far gone someone is, if they’re actually willing to talk to you at all. Becoming a good listener, as lame as that may seem, is a pretty good place to start. I have a peculiar position in the culture war, between sides that really hate each other, and I’ve gotten used to being able to sometimes just turn off my opinions and try to figure out where people are really coming from.
What’s funny is, when you look at people who might be more progressive on campus, they get why they should do that if they’re in a foreign country. Both my parents … My dad grew up in Yugoslavia, and that used to piss off people at Stanford, by explaining it this way. Listen, I know if I were just explaining the culture that Serbs or Croatians have about different things, you would try to be understanding and figure out where they were coming from. Why can’t you try to do that for people from Kansas? Why can’t you try to do that for Americans who come from backgrounds that are different than yours?
I think that we do … That some of the people who are the most zealous and the most morally absolutist do have some intellectual habits that value things like empathy, just getting them to actually try to show that for the Republican they disagree with honestly and not just dismiss them as a stereotypical monster.
Brett McKay: Greg, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Greg Lukianoff: We have a web site called TheCoddling.com. We actually intentionally named it that way to sound like a horror movie, partially to make a little bit of light of it. I think people get really hung up on the title, and it’s an opportunity for us to say, “The Coddling is coming for your children,” like “The Blob is coming.” Really what we’re saying is something much more nuanced.
Brett McKay: Greg, thanks so much for coming on. It’s been a great conversation. My guest today was Greg Lukianoff. He’s the co-author of the book “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find more information about the book at TheCoddling.com. Also check out our show notes at AOM.is/Coddling where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness web site at ArtOfManliness.com, and if you enjoy the show, you’ve gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it.
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