DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

American Intelligence and Vegetables

Written by: on May 16, 2019

The Coddling of the American Mind.[1]

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”,[2] 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and Haidt use this modern group phenomenon to describe what is happening in universities: the seeking of truth has been replaced by advocating wealth and ideology.[3] Haidt calls it binding and blinding.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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

Notes:

[1] 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.

[2] Lukianoff, Greg. 2014. Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. New York: Encounter Books.

[3] Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2018. 254

[4] Haidt, Jonathan. 2013. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Kindle. London: Penguin. 221-222

[5] Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2018. 260

[6] Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2018. 138

[7] Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2018. 59ff

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

7 responses to “American Intelligence and Vegetables”

  1. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Thank you for the Irish cooking lesson Digby!

    The authors suggest students learn debate skills in schools, do you see this approach as helping an individual to better understand the political frameworks in which they are forming an identity?

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      You are very welcome.
      Yes, I think debate from an early age is crucial. I grew up with it and really did remove my fear of difference of opinion. Certainly, debates are adversarial, but I haven’t yet seen a better way of establishing veracity, rationality and the seeking of verifiable truths. However, the best outcome is people no longer fearing debate and disagreement. In my debating days, at the end of ferocious debate, we’d all go down to the pub for a beer. Good times.

  2. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby,
    Thank you for the image of my undercooked mind not being able to fully appreciate your razor wit. While everything you said was brilliant, your reminder, “Pastors, like professors, are called to be prophetic, called to teach discomfort, called to build and maintain diversity.” was profound. You have an amazing ability to take a stimulating “secular” source and apply the nuggets to the local pastorate. I admire and appreciate this about you. Your thoughts provoke my undercooked mind to return to the rigors of the oven.

  3. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Wow Digby! This is a brilliant sermon and your congregation is blessed to have you. 🙂 I love the connection of moving it from differences politically to our differences theologically. The Church is divided in the US – have wondered and heard that this is part of what happens when you have a lot of power but that as the power shifts away and we become more and more post-Christian as a society, we won’t be able to afford the time spent disagreeing with each other. I wonder. Happy to see you in a couple months!

  4. mm Mary Mims says:

    Digby, I love that you pointed out that Jesus offended everyone equally. The church has gone too far to not offend and in doing so is not tell the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By not telling the truth about Jesus we do violence to the world. Thank you for the profound post.

  5. mm Sean Dean says:

    To a certain extent you could argue that Protestantism has always been a group defined by offence. If I (as a parishioner) do not like what you (as spokesperson for a denomination) says or believes, I can break off and create my own denomination. I suspect that’s is why there are now 12,000+ Protestant denominations. The question is what will help Protestants calm themselves and find community in difference rather than in homogeneity. We’ve had 500 years, it’s about time we all grow up.

  6. Digby Wilkinson says:

    This might seem like a trite response, but Protestantism is the birth child of renaissance and enlightenment thinking. It was a time of questioning everything and the forming of theological identities that fought against the mainline and corrupt system. The problem is we forgot what the faith was really about: love of God through Christ. That love of God was conflated with correct theology and moral competence. Believing came before belonging, which wasn’t very helpful, and still isn’t. I think we are are going through another reformation, we just don’t know to what.

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