The Coddling of the American Mind.
A coddle is an Irish dish comprising layers of roughly sliced pork sausages and bacon rashers with sliced potatoes and onions. I initially wondered if the book title was subtle reference to the American mind being somewhat overloaded with fatty deposits with a slightly sour edge. But apparently the etymology of Coddling is cooking vegetables just below boiling point. I am not expert enough to make a comment on the connection between slowly cooked vegetable and the American mind, so I’l just go with the idea that the American mind has been slow cooked to a soft state in order to be palatable to people without teeth. At least I think that was the general theme of the book.
When a professor of ethical leadership and social psychology (Haidt) joins minds with an attorney for individual rights in education who wrote a book called, “Unlearning Liberty”, you know it going to be good and controversial at the same time. It did not disappointed.
Much of the structure of the book is framed around identitarian groups; the idea that group thinking provides both a sense of meaning but also the provision of personal identity. When groups generate a common bond and find a political voice, they are not just seeking to be heard, but rather seeking to be seen as separate from the majority with legislated rights that can not be questioned. Lukianoff and Haidt use this modern group phenomenon to describe what is happening in universities: the seeking of truth has been replaced by advocating wealth and ideology. Haidt calls it binding and blinding. We bind ourselves relationally to the ideology of an activist, after which we are blinded to all details that threaten the relationship by threatening the ideology.
The capacity to share and critique ideas is no longer possible if offence is taken. Students can scuttle thinking with emotional responses – You don’t agree with me then I feel violated, offended and unsafe. Subsequently, a difference of viewpoint becomes what is commonly referred to as a micro-aggression against another party; micro-aggressions that professors and educators are acutely aware could end their careers. The word “unsafe” has become the antidote to the newly formed psychological “triggering” commonly experienced in identitarian groups. However, Haidt, Lukianoff and other psychologists are all claiming that pandering to this new phenomenon is creating weak minds. The feeling of being unsafe in multivariate discussions is little more that politicised protection against what used to be “feeling uncomfortable”, and that, say Haidt and Lukianoff, is precisely the role of the professor.
These identity political groupings and the conflict they face are nothing new. Haidt suggests that they are indeed required and need to be recognised in all areas of life. The problem is not so much the disagreements, but it is the “how” of the disagreements that causes the most concern. So the authors suggest it is worth denoting the two types of identity political frameworks. One is good, the other, not so.
The two versions are rather simple.
- Rather than recognising small groups as separate, we draw a larger circle to incorporate as many as possible and ask the question, “What do we have in common?” At the that point we then say, “some of our brothers and sisters are being denied equal access, opportunity and dignity. It’s an approach that works in tougher times like the civil rights movement.
- We break into “common enemy” identity politics. It becomes me against my brother and sister. Me and my brother against our cousin. Me and my brother and cousin against our sister. In this case we are united against our common enemy and we need to stick together. It’s a dangerous thing in a multi-ethnic society. A quick look at the story of Beirut will convince anyone.
Certainly the first of the two modes of attending to disagreement makes more sense, but it is not nearly as satisfying as hating your enemies, and that is why the first model is such a difficult option to attain.
Though the book is principally designed to address issues surrounding free speech, it is by no means an attempt to say all speech is good, nor should all speech be acceptable. In the end it is a book of attempted wisdom. It’s about finding a way forward for universities and those teaching young and old alike to see each other’s differences as the basis for conversation and learning, not as the warning signs of a dangerous enemy. Learning this from a young age is the key to robust minds – minds that can cope with challenge, difference and personal security without hate, anxiety, depression. The final chapter offers a way forward that puts legs on the wisdom that unfolds in the book. But will anyone listen?
As I read, I was acutely aware that this book is equally required in churches and denominations. It is missing any theological reflection because it’s audience is secular, but it does push Christian leaders to ask how the same applications can be considered in the theological, moral and structural debates that plague the church; debates and disagreements that send Christians into their own identitarian groups that function around a model of “common enemy”.
The general trend of Christians in conflict tends toward avoidance, passive aggressive behaviour, maligning others or simply leaving the church. It is a rare experience watching people move toward the difference of others, in fact wonky theology even declares we should avoid people of difference. In part this is because Christian teaching has trained weak, coddled minds. Pastors, like professors, are called to be prophetic, called to teach discomfort, called to build and maintain diversity. In Ephesians the Apostle Paul called Jesus the “Prince of Peace who breakers down the walls that divide”. Jesus said, “Blessed are the Peacemakers (not peacekeepers). Jesus perpetually moved towards people of difference, because the circles of community he created always encompassed those who were different. It didn’t mean agreement, but it did mean the constant friendship of God. Though Jesus was without sin, he did commit the greatest human sin of all: He managed to offend everyone equally, that’s why we hung him on a tree. Despite that, He still moves towards us in the Holy Spirit. Baptised into Christ, we are called to do the same to the world of people we live among.
 Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2018. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Kindle Edition. Penguin Press.
 Lukianoff, Greg. 2014. Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. New York: Encounter Books.
 Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2018. 254
 Haidt, Jonathan. 2013. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Kindle. London: Penguin. 221-222
 Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2018. 260
 Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2018. 138
 Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2018. 59ff