Haidt: The Fragile Generation

Jonathan Haidt discusses ‘The Fragile Generation’:

‘I’m very concerned about a phenomenon called “concept creep” – which has been happening to a lot of psychological terms since the 1990s’, he says. ‘When a word like “violence” is allowed to creep so that it includes a lot of things that are not violence, then this causes a cascade of bad effects. It’s bad for the students themselves because they now perceive an idea that they dislike, or a speaker that they dislike, as having committed a much graver offence against themselves – which means that they will perceive more victimisation of themselves. And it’s also really bad for society because, as we are seeing in a spectacular way in the United States this year, when each side can point to rampant occurrences of what they see as violence by the other side, this then justifies acts of actual physical violence on their side. And there’s no obvious end to this mutual escalation process.’

He adds: ‘Everybody involved in education needs to be dampening down violence and the acceptance of violence. Telling students that words are violence is counterproductive to that effort.’

Most interesting is Haidt’s speculation that SJW Overdrive is limited to elite schools:

While incidents of protests getting out of hand and the censorious policies of student bodies get a lot of press, Haidt points out that these problems do not involve the vast majority of students. ‘The political problems are mostly confined to elite schools where people live together for four years. The problems don’t seem to be arising very much at community colleges or places where people leave the college community to go to work or to go home to their families. So the problems are localised, especially in intense communities that co-create a particular moral order’, he says.

‘I don’t know if most college students, even at those elite schools, are more fragile. What we do know is that rates of depression and anxiety [have been] sky-rocketing since around 2011.’

Such elite schools, however, are naturally highly influential to Culture, to a level of disproportionality normally reserved for class-of-nobility societies.

The heightened vulnerability of college students has had a chilling effect on discussion in the academic world, and Haidt sees this in his day-to-day experience on campus. ‘There is a rapidly spreading feeling that we are all walking on eggshells, both students and faculty. That we are now accountable, not for what we say, but for how anyone who hears it might take it. And if you have to speak, thinking about the worst reading that anyone could put on your words, that means you cannot be provocative, you cannot take risks, that means you will play it safe when you speak… This is what I’m seeing in my classes when topics related to race or gender come up – which we used to be able to talk about 10 years ago, but now it’s painful and there’s a lot of silence.’

This is disastrous for academic life, as Haidt points out: ‘A university cannot function if people will not put their ideas forth, will not contest ideas that they think are wrong, will not stand up for ideas that they think are right.’

Increasingly, I have been thinking about the parallels here with late Soviet-era communism, where even Party members (behind closed doors and after a few drinks) would lampoon the core propaganda premises of Communism.

This disconnect from social reality didn’t end well for the official programme of Soviet Communism; in fact, it ended quite badly.

Let’s see if the same thing happens to the P.C. balloon currently casting an oblong shadow over our society.

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