Dissecting the 21st century’s Great Untruths
Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 14 September 2018
It had to take an evolutionary psychologist and a lawyer to dissect (some of) the craziness of modern society and polity.
Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s new book The Coddling of the American Mind is required reading for anyone wishing to understand 21st century politics, not just in the US but globally.
At first sight, the book is about good intentions, bad parenting, and the education system.
It shows how young people are being damaged by an emotional ‘safety first’ culture. Victimhood is the new moral status symbol and it is creeping into the public discourse to shape our politics.
According to the authors, three Great Untruths have taken hold among the younger generation. Superficially appealing, each has the potential to hurt those who accept them.
First among these untruths is the untruth of fragility: What does not kill you makes you weaker. This defies millennia of experience that it is through challenge that we grow stronger. For example, the human immune system needs early encounters with pathogens to build up resistance. Similarly, the mind needs challenge to develop the ability to reason.
Modern society, meanwhile, tries to shield us from both. Both peanuts and uncomfortable ideas have been hidden away from kindergartens and schools for decades now. As an ironic result, peanut allergies have increased, and critical thinking has given way to fearmongering.
The second untruth of emotional reasoning asks you to always trust your feelings. It is the logical consequence of our growing rejection of the need to think, let alone rationally. Instead, we are allowing emotions to dictate our actions. Evidence and reason are out, window-dressing and virtue-signalling are in.
In such a socio-political climate, the final untruth of us versus them is inescapable: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. Once we are subsumed by emotions and intentions, it is no longer possible to have constructive arguments across the divide. Anyone with an opposing view is ignorant, if not downright evil.
Taken together, the three Great Untruths embody the opposite of Enlightenment values. Yet they are increasingly ‘informing’ (lacking a better word) what students are ‘learning’ these days, turning society and politics into a moralistic, symbolic and emotional theatre.
Ironically, Haidt and Lukianoff have put their dissent into a book, possibly hoping some people still think.