A Shallow, Leftist Critique of “The Coddling of the American Mind”

By Wade Lee Hudson

Google’s top result for reviews of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is Moira Weigel’s scathing criticism published by The Guardian. Numerous well-credentialed pundits lauded the essay for having “eviscerated” and “systematically demolished” the book.

But Weigel’s review illustrates the problem Lukianoff and Haidt document: leftists often violate liberal principles. Many conservatives also violate their own principles. Condescending authoritarianism across the political spectrum sows division.

Until activists stop being so defensive and learn to be more self-critical, they’ll continue to undermine massive popular action. Prospects for establishing compassionate policies supported by super-majorities of the American people will fade.     

Cornel West co-authored a positive blurb for The Coddling of the American Mind. On Amazon.com, 287 customers gave it a composite rating of 4.7 out of 5. Most critics have praised it. In his The New York Times review of the book (which focuses on elite universities) Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote:

If we are going to beat back the regressive populism, mendacity and hyperpolarization in which we are currently mired, we are going to need an educated citizenry fluent in a wise and universal liberalism. This liberalism will neither play down nor fetishize identity grievances, but look instead for a common and generous language to build on who we are more broadly, and to conceive more boldly what we might be able to accomplish in concert…. And so we will need citizens who are able to find ways to move on…, without letting their discomfort traumatize or consume them. If the American university is not the space to cultivate this strong and supple liberalism, then we are in deep and lasting trouble. [emphasis added]

In Inside Higher Ed, John Warner reports, Lukianoff and Haidt

argue that children suffer under a culture of “safetyism” where parents endeavor to protect their offspring from harm, and in doing so, prevent them from developing the necessary skills of resiliency. They believe this plays a factor in some of the campus speech disputes as students are acculturated to fearing anything that may prove challenging and react accordingly.

Lukianoff told Warner, “We [society at large] have unwittingly taught a generation of students the mental habits of anxious, depressed, polarized people, and we need to rethink how we do everything from parenting in K-12, through, of course, higher education.”

Lukianoff and Haidt argue that well-intentioned adults teach three falsehoods:

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

These messages help explain many controversies about speech on campus, as well as the recent increase in emotional distress among young people. These difficulties are especially prominent among middle and upper class students at elite colleges. Lukianoff and Haidt recommend to students that they do not:

  • Try to avoid everything that “feels unsafe.”
  • Always trust your initial feelings.
  • Assume the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality.

From this perspective, they examine recent events that have helped fuel Donald Trump’s campaign against political correctness. Those incidents include efforts to protect “fragile” students from “micro-aggressions” and “mini-traumas” by suppressing free expression.

These attacks are often based on confused “concept creep.” Aggression requires intent. If you did not intend to hurt me, your actions weren’t aggressive. Micro-aggression, therefore, as commonly used, is a contradiction in terms. Traumas by definition are severe and extremely stressful, but now the term is used loosely to refer to routine events. There’s more than a kernel of truth to the charge that some “social justice warriors” are overly sensitive “snowflakes.” When people are offended, rather than hurling ad hominem labels based on mind reading, they can communicate their feelings more constructively.

These issues are not easy to resolve. The Coddling of the American Mind could have considered more fully the overall social context. But the book is a helpful contribution that deserves more understanding than Weigel offers in her dismissive, poorly reasoned review.

In “The Idioms of Non-Argument: What happens when reviewers spend more time focusing on the motives of authors than the merits of their claims?”, The Atlantic convincingly challenges The Guardian’s review. In that piece, Conor Friedersdorf argues:

The balance of the review is scathingly negative not in its arguments—a few pop up along the way, some concerning peripheral matters—but in its ad hominem attacks and other rhetoric disguised as argument as though its mere trappings confer heft…. What unfolds over the body of the review isn’t quite a character assassination of the authors so much as a series of premeditated assaults.

Weigel claims Lukianoff and Haidt target “identity politics and intersectionality,” aim to “rescue students from…identity politics,” and “argue that intersectionality theory divides people into good and bad”—even though “the scholars they quote do not use this moral language; those scholars talk about privilege and power.”

That account is amazingly inaccurate, In fact, Lukianoff and Haidt write:

Intersectionality is a theory based on several insights that we believe are valid and useful: power matters, members of groups sometimes act cruelly or unjustly to preserve their power, and people who are members of multiple identity groups can face various forms of disadvantage in ways that are often invisible to others.

Our purpose here is not to critique the theory itself. It is, rather, to explore the effects that certain interpretations of intersectionality may now be having on college campuses.

And in their conclusion, they call for a “better identity politics.”

Weigel’s simplistic distortions of Lukianoff and Haidt’s stance on intersectionality and identity politics indicates the poor quality of the entire review. Its irrationally is revealed by her frequents reliance on ad hominem arguments, such as:

  • Perhaps they merely resist change that might undermine them.
  • Perhaps, [they wrote the book] because an article that they published in The Atlantic went viral.
  • These pundits, like the white suburban Dad in the horror film Get Out, would have voted for Barack Obama a third time.
  • For all their self-conscious reasonableness, and their promises that [Cognitive Behavior Therapy] can master negative emotion, Lukianoff and Haidt often seem slightly hurt.
  • Bad is how these men feel when someone suggests they have had it relatively easy.
  • As this new left-liberalism gains strength, a growing number of white men who hold power in historically liberal institutions seem to be breaking right.
  • Right-liberal pundits also, implicitly, expressed frustration at how web platforms were breaking up their monopoly on discourse.

Rather than engage the ideas straight up, Weigel resorts to many of the counter-productive modes of thought that Lukianoff and Haidt critique incisively, such as mind reading, labeling, blaming, and inability to disconfirm. Unfortunately, as reflected in the popularity of her review, that approach is widespread on the left, which demonstrates the urgent need for close attention to The Coddling of the American Mind.

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