The Coddling of the American Mind
Introduction: The Search for Wisdom
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This is a book about three Great Untruths that seem to have spread widely in recent years: The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
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While many propositions are untrue, in order to be classified as a Great Untruth, an idea must meet three criteria: It contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures). It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being. It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.
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Increasingly, however, the rationale for speech codes and speaker disinvitations was becoming medicalized: Students claimed that certain kinds of speech—and even the content of some books and courses—interfered with their ability to function. They wanted protection from material that they believed could jeopardize their mental health by “triggering” them, or making them “feel unsafe.”
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What is new today is the premise that students are fragile. Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe that others are in danger and therefore need protection.
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In seeking treatment for his depression, he—along with millions of others around the world—had found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was the most effective solution. CBT teaches you to notice when you are engaging in various “cognitive distortions,” such as “catastrophizing” (If I fail this quiz, I’ll fail the class and be kicked out of school, and then I’ll never get a job . . .) and “negative filtering” (only paying attention to negative feedback instead of noticing praise as well).
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We are not saying that students are never in real physical danger, or that their claims about injustice are usually cognitive distortions. We are saying that even when students are reacting to real problems, they are more likely than previous generations to engage in thought patterns that make those problems seem more threatening, which makes them harder to solve. An important discovery by early CBT researchers was that if people learn to stop thinking this way, their depression and anxiety usually subside.
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If students succeeded in creating bubbles of intellectual “safety” in college, they would set themselves up for even greater anxiety and conflict after graduation, when they will certainly encounter many more people with more extreme views.
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two. We submitted the article to The Atlantic with the title “Arguing Towards Misery: How Campuses Teach Cognitive Distortions.” The editor, Don Peck, liked the article, helped us strengthen the argument, and then gave it a more succinct and provocative title: “The Coddling of the American Mind.”
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The fault lies with adults and with institutional practices, hence our subtitle: “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” That is exactly what this book is about. We will show how well-intentioned overprotection—from peanut bans in elementary schools through speech codes on college campuses—may end up doing more harm than good.
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Our argument is ultimately pragmatic, not moralistic: Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals if you do the opposite of what Misoponos advised. That means seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).
Chapter 1: The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker
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Peanut allergies were rare among American children up until the mid-1990s, when one study found that only four out of a thousand children under the age of eight had such an allergy (meaning probably nobody in Max’s entire preschool of about one hundred kids).2 But by 2008, according to the same survey, using the same measures, the rate had more than tripled, to fourteen out of a thousand (meaning probably one or two kids in Max’s school).
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It was later discovered that peanut allergies were surging precisely because parents and teachers had started protecting children from exposure to peanuts back in the 1990s.4
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Among the children who had been “protected” from peanuts, 17% had developed a peanut allergy. In the group that had been deliberately exposed to peanut products, only 3% had developed an allergy.
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hygiene hypothesis,9 the leading explanation for why allergy rates generally go up as countries get wealthier and cleaner—another example of a problem of progress.
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But gradually, in the twenty-first century, on some college campuses, the meaning of “safety” underwent a process of “concept creep” and expanded to include “emotional safety.” As an example, in 2014, Oberlin College posted guidelines for faculty, urging them to use trigger warnings to “show students that you care about their safety.”15 The rest of the memo makes it clear that what the college was really telling its faculty was: show students that you care about their feelings. You can see the conflation of safety and feelings in another part of the memo, which urged faculty to use each student’s preferred gender pronoun (for example, “zhe” or “they” for students who don’t want to be referred to as “he” or “she”), not because this was respectful or appropriately sensitive but because a professor who uses an incorrect pronoun “prevents or impairs their safety in a classroom.”
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we turn to an article published in 2016 by the Australian psychologist Nick Haslam, titled “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology.”16
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He found that their scope had expanded in two directions: the concepts had crept “downward,” to apply to less severe situations, and “outward,” to encompass new but conceptually related phenomena.
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As with trauma, a key change for most of the concepts Haslam examined was the shift to a subjective standard.22 It was not for anyone else to decide what counted as trauma, bullying, or abuse; if it felt like that to you, trust your feelings. If a person reported that an event was traumatic (or bullying or abusive), his or her subjective assessment was increasingly taken as sufficient evidence.
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Avoiding triggers is a symptom of PTSD, not a treatment for it.
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Trigger warnings are counter-therapeutic because they encourage avoidance of reminders of trauma, and avoidance maintains PTSD.
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“Safetyism” refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. “Safety” trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger. When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to stay “emotionally safe” while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient.
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She calls those born in and after 1995 “iGen,” short for “internet Generation.”
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First, members of iGen are “obsessed with safety,” as Twenge puts it, and define safety as including “emotional safety.”35 Their focus on “emotional safety” leads many of them to believe that, as Twenge describes, “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault but from people who disagree with you.”36
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the campus trends that led us to write our original Atlantic article—particularly the requests for safe spaces and trigger warnings—started to spread only when iGen began arriving on campus, around 2013.
Chapter 2: The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings
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In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jon drew on Buddha and other sages to offer the metaphor that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict, like a small rider sitting on top of a large elephant. The rider represents conscious or “controlled” processes—the language-based thinking that fills our conscious minds and that we can control to some degree. The elephant represents everything else that goes on in our minds, the vast majority of which is outside of our conscious awareness.
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The rider-and-elephant metaphor captures the fact that the rider often believes he is in control, yet the elephant is vastly stronger, and tends to win any conflict that arises between the two.
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Emotional reasoning is the cognitive distortion that occurs whenever the rider interprets what is happening in ways that are consistent with the elephant’s reactive emotional state, without investigating what is true. The rider then acts like a lawyer or press secretary whose job is to rationalize and justify the elephant’s pre-ordained conclusions, rather than to inquire into—or even be curious about—what is really true.
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but the rider has some ability to talk back to the elephant, particularly if he can learn to speak the elephant’s language, which is a language of intuition rather than logic.
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Beck’s great discovery was that it is possible to break the disempowering feedback cycle between negative beliefs and negative emotions. If you can get people to examine these beliefs and consider counterevidence, it gives them at least some moments of relief from negative emotions, and if you release them from negative emotions, they become more open to questioning their negative beliefs.
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A prime example of how some professors (and some administrators) encourage mental habits similar to the cognitive distortions is their promotion of the concept of “microaggressions,” popularized in a 2007 article13 by Derald Wing Sue, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
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If you bump into someone by accident and never meant them any harm, it is not an act of aggression, although the other person may misperceive it as one. Unfortunately, when Sue included “unintentional” slights, and when he defined the slights entirely in terms of the listener’s interpretation, he encouraged people to make such misperceptions. He encouraged them to engage in emotional reasoning—to start with their feelings and then justify those feelings by drawing the conclusion that someone has committed an act of aggression against them. Those feelings do sometimes point to a correct inference, and it is important to find out whether an acquaintance feels hostility or contempt toward you. But it is not a good idea to start by assuming the worst about people and reading their actions as uncharitably as possible. This is the distortion known as mind reading; if done habitually and negatively, it is likely to lead to despair, anxiety, and a network of damaged relationships.
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More to the point, should we teach students to interpret these kinds of things as acts of aggression? If a student feels a flash of offense as the recipient of such statements, is he better off embracing that feeling and labeling himself a victim of a microaggression, or is he better off asking himself if a more charitable interpretation might be warranted by the facts? A charitable interpretation does not mean that the recipient of the comment must do nothing; rather, it opens up a range of constructive responses. A charitable approach might be to say, “I’m guessing you didn’t mean any harm when you said that, but you should know that some people might interpret that to mean . . .” This approach would make it easier for students to respond when they feel hurt, it would transform a victimization story into a story about one’s own agency, and it would make it far more likely that the interpersonal exchange would have a positive outcome.
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More generally, the microaggression concept19 reveals a crucial moral change on campus: the shift from “intent” to “impact.”
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A portion of what is derided as “political correctness” is just an effort to promote polite and respectful interactions by discouraging the use of terms that are reasonably taken to be demeaning.24 But if you teach students that intention doesn’t matter, and you also encourage students to find more things offensive (leading them to experience more negative impacts), and you also tell them that whoever says or does the things they find offensive are “aggressors” who have committed acts of bigotry against them, then you are probably fostering feelings of victimization, anger, and hopelessness in your students.
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In 2017, 58% of college students said it is “important to be part of a campus community where I am not exposed to intolerant and offensive ideas.”34 This statement was endorsed by 63% of very liberal students, but it’s a view that is not confined to the left; almost half of very conservative students (45%) endorsed that statement, too.
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Should a student saying “I am offended” be sufficient reason to cancel a lecture? What if it’s many students? What if members of the faculty are offended, too? It depends on what you think is the purpose of education. Hanna Holborn Gray, the president of the University of Chicago from 1978 to 1993, once offered this principle: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”40
Chapter 3: The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life Is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People
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flash? There is a principle in philosophy and rhetoric called the principle of charity, which says that one should interpret other people’s statements in their best, most reasonable form, not in the worst or most offensive way possible.
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The bottom line is that the human mind is prepared for tribalism.
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The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., epitomized what we’ll call common-humanity identity politics.
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The common-humanity form of identity politics can still be found on many college campuses, but in recent years we’ve seen the rapid rise of a very different form that is based on an effort to unite and mobilize multiple groups to fight against a common enemy. It activates a powerful social-psychological mechanism embodied in an old Bedouin proverb: “I against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.”46 Identifying a common enemy is an effective way to enlarge and motivate your tribe.
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One of the most important Marxist thinkers for understanding developments on campus today is Herbert Marcuse,
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In a 1965 essay titled “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse argued that tolerance and free speech confer benefits on society only under special conditions that almost never exist: absolute equality. He believed that when power differentials between groups exist, tolerance only empowers the already powerful and makes it easier for them to dominate institutions like education, the media, and most channels of communication. Indiscriminate tolerance is “repressive,” he argued; it blocks the political agenda and suppresses the voices of the less powerful. If indiscriminate tolerance is unfair, then what is needed is a form of tolerance that discriminates. A truly “liberating tolerance,” claimed Marcuse, is one that favors the weak and restrains the strong.
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Marcuse recognized that what he was advocating seemed to violate both the spirit of democracy and the liberal tradition of nondiscrimination, but he argued that when the majority of a society is being repressed, it is justifiable to use “repression and indoctrination” to allow the “subversive majority” to achieve the power that it deserves. In a chilling passage that foreshadows events on some campuses today, Marcuse argued that true democracy might require denying basic rights to people who advocate for conservative causes, or for policies he viewed as aggressive or discriminatory, and that true freedom of thought might require professors to indoctrinate their students:
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In the decades after “Repressive Tolerance” was published, a variety of theories and approaches flourished on campus in humanities and social science departments that offered ways of analyzing society through the lens of power relationships among groups. (Examples include deconstructionism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, and critical theory.) One such theory deserves special mention, because its ideas and terminology are widely found in the discourse of today’s campus activists. The approach known as intersectionality was advanced by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA (and now at Columbia, where she directs the Center on Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies).57 In a 1989 essay, Crenshaw noted that a black woman’s experience in America is not captured by the summation of the black experience and the female experience.58
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Imagine an entire entering class of college freshmen whose orientation program includes training in the kind of intersectional thinking described above, along with training in spotting microaggressions. By the end of their first week on campus, students have learned to score their own and others’ levels of privilege, identify more distinct identity groups, and see more differences between people.67 They have learned to interpret more words and social behaviors as acts of aggression. They have learned to associate aggression, domination, and oppression with privileged groups. They have learned to focus only on perceived impact and to ignore intent.
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The combination of common-enemy identity politics and microaggression training creates an environment highly conducive to the development of a “call-out culture,” in which students gain prestige for identifying small offenses committed by members of their community, and then publicly “calling out” the offenders.69 One gets no points, no credit, for speaking privately and gently with an offender—in fact, that could be interpreted as colluding with the enemy.
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Life in a call-out culture requires constant vigilance, fear, and self-censorship. Many in the audience may feel sympathy for the person being shamed but are afraid to speak up, yielding the false impression that the audience is unanimous in its condemnation. Here is how a student at Smith College describes her induction into its call-out culture in the fall of 2014: During my first days at Smith, I witnessed countless conversations that consisted of one person telling the other that their opinion was wrong. The word “offensive” was almost always included in the reasoning. Within a few short weeks, members of my freshman class had quickly assimilated to this new way of non-thinking. They could soon detect a politically incorrect view and call the person out on their “mistake.” I began to voice my opinion less often to avoid being berated and judged by a community that claims to represent the free expression of ideas. I learned, along with every other student, to walk on eggshells for fear that I may say something “offensive.” That is the social norm here.70
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Lilla argues that the left did that successfully from the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt through the Great Society era of the 1960s, but then it took a wrong turn into a new, more divisive, and less successful kind of politics: Instead they threw themselves into the movement politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation. An image for Roosevelt liberalism and the unions that supported it was that of two hands shaking. A recurring image of identity liberalism is that of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colors, producing a rainbow. This says it all.81
Chapter 4: Intimidation and Violence
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But it’s important to take a close look at the February 1 riots at UC Berkeley, because they marked a turning point—an escalation of conflicts over campus speakers. Berkeley and its aftermath were the start of a new and more dangerous era. Since then, many students on the left have become increasingly receptive to the idea that violence is sometimes justified as a response to speech they believe is “hateful.”
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The “Milo riot” at UC Berkeley caught the attention of the national and international media, not only because of its scale but because of its symbolism. This was, after all, the very place where the campus free speech movement started.
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But if asking for peaceful dialogue is violent, then it seems that the word “violence” is taking on new meanings for some students. This is another example of concept creep. In just the last few years, the word “violence” has expanded on campus and in some radical political communities beyond campus to cover a multitude of nonviolent actions, including speech that this political faction claims will have a negative impact on members of protected identity groups.
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A few weeks later, the president of the University of Oregon’s “State of the University” speech was shut down by close to fifty students who seized the stage, chanting “Nothing about us without us.” A student with a megaphone insisted, “We will not be ignored” and “Expect resistance to anyone who opposes us.” A student protester complained about the oppression of minority students, tuition increases, and indigenous rights, and described “fascism and neo-Nazis” as the reason for the protest.77 (The president, Michael Schill, whose extended family members were murdered by actual fascists during World War II, responded with a New York Times op-ed piece titled “The Misguided Student Crusade Against ‘Fascism.’”78)
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In a widely circulated essay in The New York Times in July 2017, the argument that words can be violence was made by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a well-respected professor of psychology and emotion researcher at Northeastern University.87 Barrett offered this syllogism: “If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech—at least certain types of speech—can be a form of violence.” We responded in an essay in The Atlantic, in which we noted that it is a logical error to accept the claim that harm—even physical harm—is the same as violence.88 Barrett’s syllogism takes the form that if A can cause B and B can cause C, then A can cause C. Therefore, if words can cause stress and stress can cause harm, then words can cause harm, but that does not establish that words are violence. It only establishes that words can result in harm—even physical harm—which we don’t doubt. To see the difference, just rerun the syllogism by swapping in “breaking up with your girlfriend” or “giving students a lot of homework.” Both of these can provoke stress in someone else (including elevated levels of cortisol), and stress can cause harm, so both can cause harm. That doesn’t mean that they are violent acts.
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But if you keep the distinction between speech and violence clear in your mind, then many more options are available to you. First, you can take the Stoic response and develop your ability to remain unmoved. As Marcus Aurelius advised, “Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.”89 The more ways your identity can be threatened by casual daily interactions, the more valuable it will be to cultivate the Stoic (and Buddhist, and CBT) ability to not be emotionally reactive, to not let others control your mind and your cortisol levels. The Stoics understood that words don’t cause stress directly; they can only provoke stress and suffering in a person who has interpreted those words as posing a threat.
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The progressive activist Van Jones (who was President Barack Obama’s green jobs advisor) endorsed this view in February of 2017 in a conversation at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Politics. When Democratic strategist David Axelrod asked Jones about how progressive students should react when people they find ideologically offensive (such as someone associated with the Trump administration) are invited to speak on campus, Jones began by noting the distinction we described in chapter 1 between physical and emotional “safety”: There are two ideas about safe spaces: One is a very good idea and one is a terrible idea. The idea of being physically safe on a campus—not being subjected to sexual harassment and physical abuse, or being targeted specifically, personally, for some kind of hate speech—“you are an n-word,” or whatever—I am perfectly fine with that. But there’s another view that is now I think ascendant, which I think is just a horrible view, which is that “I need to be safe ideologically. I need to be safe emotionally. I just need to feel good all the time, and if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everybody else, including the [university] administration.”90 Jones then delivered some of the best advice for college students we have ever heard. He rejected the Untruth of Fragility and turned safetyism on its head: I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.
Chapter 5: Witch Hunts
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Bergesen notes that there are three features common to most political witch hunts: they arise very quickly, they involve charges of crimes against the collective, and the offenses that lead to charges are often trivial or fabricated.
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They arise quickly:
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Crimes against the collective:
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Charges are often trivial or fabricated:
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Fear of defending the accused:
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We will examine a trend among professors that seems to fit the Durkheimian framework quite well: the use of open letters of denunciation. Professors try to round up hundreds of other professors to condemn a fellow professor or to demand that an academic article be retracted (rather than simply rebutting it). Something has been changing among the faculty, as well as among the students.
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On March 29, 2017, Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy posted to its website an article titled “In Defense of Transracialism.”19
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Within a few weeks of its publication, the article had generated such an uproar that an open letter was published, addressed to an editor of Hypatia and the “broader Hypatia community.”22 The letter demanded that the article be retracted—not rebutted but retracted.
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In August 2017, two law professors, Amy Wax from the University of Pennsylvania and Larry Alexander from the University of San Diego, wrote a short opinion essay in a Philadelphia newspaper titled “Paying the Price for Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture.”31 They argued that many of today’s social problems, including unemployment, crime, drug use, and the intergenerational transmission of poverty, are partially caused by the fading away of the “bourgeois cultural script” that used to compel Americans to “get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness.” The authors included one particular line that caused a firestorm: “All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy.”
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Solidarity can interfere with a group’s efforts to find the truth, and the search for truth can interfere with a group’s solidarity. The Greek historian Thucydides saw this principle in action over two thousand years ago. Writing about a time of wars and revolutions in the fifth century BCE, he noted that “the ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.”35
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One of the most brilliant features of universities is that, when they are working properly, they are communities of scholars who cancel out one another’s confirmation biases.
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By 2011, the ratio had reached five to one.
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The pursuit of “Veritas” which undergirds our intellectual life demands not only that each member of our community be able to debate politics freely, but also that we attend to the multitude of political views that exist in our nation. Stifling this discussion on campus is a disservice to our peers in the campus political minority, and to our own educational growth.49
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In May of 2017, Evergreen slipped into a state of anarchy that is difficult to explain without the help of Durkheim.
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Video of that meeting is startling.74 Student protesters can be heard insisting that Weinstein be fired in order to prevent him from what one white protester later described as “spread[ing] this problematic rhetoric.”75 Students of color who spoke supportively of Weinstein, or who even asked to hear from people not in the protesters’ camp, were shouted down and called “race traitors.”76
Chapter 6: The Polarization Cycle
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Students who graduated from college in 2012 generally tell us that they saw little evidence of these trends. Students who began college at some elite universities in 2013 or 2014 tell us they saw the new culture arrive over the course of their four years. What is going on?
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In Part III, we present six interacting explanatory threads: rising political polarization and cross-party animosity; rising levels of teen anxiety and depression; changes in parenting practices; the decline of free play; the growth of campus bureaucracy; and a rising passion for justice in response to major national events, combined with changing ideas about what justice requires.
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The distance between Republicans and Democrats, on a set of 10 policy questions, has grown very large since 2004. Differences by race, gender, education, and age have not changed much since 1994. (Source: Pew Research Center.)
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Affective partisan polarization. Americans’ feelings toward their own party have barely changed since the 1970s, but Americans have become increasingly “cold” or hostile toward the other party since the 1990s. (Source: American National Election Study,6 plotted by Iyengar and Krupenkin, 2018.)
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The two major political parties have sorted themselves along similar lines: as the Republican Party becomes disproportionately older, white, rural, male, and Christian, the Democratic Party is increasingly young, nonwhite, urban, female, and nonreligious.10 As political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin put it, “The result is that today, differences in party affiliation go hand in glove with differences in world view and individuals’ sense of social and cultural identity.”11
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A third major reason is the media environment, which has changed in ways that foster division.
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Prior to the era of polarization, ingroup favoritism, that is, partisans’ enthusiasm for their party or candidate, was the driving force behind political participation. More recently, however, it is hostility toward the out-party that makes people more inclined to participate.16
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In June 2017, Sarah Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, published an article in an online arts magazine, Hyperallergic, titled “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color.”34
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UNIVERSITY PROF: USING WHITE MARBLE IN SCULPTURES IS RACIST AND CREATES “WHITE SUPREMACY,” read one headline.37 IOWA UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR SAYS “WHITE MARBLE” ACTUALLY INFLUENCES “WHITE SUPREMACIST” IDEAS, read another.38
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After declining for twenty-five years, reported incidents of hate crimes increased in 2015.47 In 2016, those numbers, tracked by the FBI, rose a further 5%.48 One study of major U.S. cities from January to August 2017 suggests a 20% rise in reported hate crimes compared to the first eight months of 2016.49
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The polarization spiral and the growth of negative partisanship are influencing political activity all across the country, driving many Americans to embrace the Untruth of Us Versus Them.
Chapter 7: Anxiety and Depression
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By 2017, however, it was clear we had misunderstood what was going on. Colleges were not the primary cause of the wave of mental illness among their students; rather, the students seeking help were part of a much larger national wave of adolescent anxiety and depression unlike anything seen in modern times. Colleges were struggling to cope with rapidly rising numbers of students who were suffering from mental illness—primarily mood disorders.3 The new culture of safetyism can be understood in part as an effort by some students, faculty, and administrators to remake the campus in response to this new trend.
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The bottom line is that when members of iGen arrived on campus, beginning in the fall of 2013, they had accumulated less unsupervised time and fewer offline life experiences than had any previous generation. As Twenge puts it, “18-year-olds now act like 15-year-olds used to, and 13-year-olds like 10-year-olds. Teens are physically safer than ever, yet they are more mentally vulnerable.”9
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What is driving this surge in mental illness and suicide? Twenge believes that the rapid spread of smartphones and social media into the lives of teenagers, beginning around 2007, is the main cause of the mental health crisis that began around 2011. In her book, she presents graphs showing that digital media use and mental health problems are correlated: they rose together in recent years.
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Twenge finds that there are just two activities that are significantly correlated with depression and other suicide-related outcomes (such as considering suicide, making a plan, or making an actual attempt): electronic device use (such as a smartphone, tablet, or computer) and watching TV. On the other hand, there are five activities that have inverse relationships with depression (meaning that kids who spend more hours per week on these activities show lower rates of depression): sports and other forms of exercise, attending religious services, reading books and other print media, in-person social interactions, and doing homework.
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The previous graphs show that mental health has deteriorated much further among iGen girls than among iGen boys. Furthermore, to the extent that social media seems to bear some of the blame, that may be true only for girls. For boys, Twenge found that total screen time is correlated with bad mental health outcomes, but time specifically using social media is not.27 Why might social media be more harmful for girls than for boys?
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Research by psychologist Nicki Crick shows that boys are more physically aggressive—more likely to shove and hit one another, and they show a greater interest in stories and movies about physical aggression. Girls, in contrast, are more “relationally” aggressive; they try to hurt their rivals’ relationships, reputations, and social status—for example, by using social media to make sure other girls know who is intentionally being left out.33
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percentage of college students who describe themselves as having a mental disorder. That number increased from 2.7 to 6.1 for male college students between 2012 and 2016 (that’s an increase of 126%). For female college students, it rose even more: from 5.8 to 14.5 (an increase of 150%).
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Clearly universities were not causing a national mental health crisis; they were responding to one, and this may explain why the practices and beliefs of safetyism spread so quickly after 2013. But safetyism does not help students who suffer from anxiety and depression. In fact, as we argue throughout this book, safetyism is likely to make things even worse for students who already struggle with mood disorders. Safetyism also inflicts collateral damage on the university’s culture of free inquiry, because it teaches students to see words as violence and to interpret ideas and speakers as safe versus dangerous, rather than merely as true versus false.
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Twenge finds relationships that are statistically significant yet still generally small in magnitude. That doesn’t mean that the effects of smartphones are small; it just means that the amount of variance in mental illness that we can explain right now, using existing data, is small. If we had better measures of what kids are doing and what is happening to their mental health, we’d be able to explain a lot more of the variance.
Chapter 8: Paranoid Parenting
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Putting it all together, from 1960 to 1990, there was a 48% reduction in deaths from unintended injuries and accidents among kids between five and fourteen years of age, and a 57% drop in deaths of younger kids (ages one to four).23 The success of childhood safety campaigns helps explain why modern parents often take a concern about safety to the extreme of safetyism. After all, if focusing on big threats produces such dividends, why not go further and make childhood as close to perfectly safe as possible? A problem with this kind of thinking is that when we attempt to produce perfectly safe systems, we almost inevitably create new and unforeseen problems.
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Exposure to lead and cigarette smoke confer no benefits; being in a car crash without a seat belt does not make kids more resilient in future car crashes. But efforts to protect kids from risk by preventing them from gaining experience—such as walking to school, climbing a tree, or using sharp scissors—are different. Such protections come with costs, as kids miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment. (Keeping them indoors also raises their risk of obesity.) Skenazy puts the case succinctly: “The problem with this ‘everything is dangerous’ outlook
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To understand how social class influences parenting practices, we’ll draw on two books that combine in-depth profiles of families with sociological theory and data: Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau, and Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam.
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This shift did not happen among working-class parents. The change in middle-class parenting norms is crucial for our story. Putnam identifies the shift as kicking in just before iGen was born. To the extent that iGen college students are behaving differently from previous generations of college students, a contributing factor may be that, compared with previous generations, middle-class iGen (and late Millennial) students were overscheduled and overparented as children.
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Skenazy sees discounting positives when parents overmonitor. “Any upside to free, unsupervised time (joy, independence, problem-solving, resilience) is seen as trivial, compared to the infinite harm the child could suffer without you there. There is nothing positive but safety.” Parents also use negative filtering frequently, Skenazy says. “Parents are saying, ‘Look at all the foods/activities/words/people that could harm our kids!’ rather than ‘I’m so glad we’ve finally overcome diphtheria, polio, and famine!’” She also points out the ways that parents use dichotomous thinking: “If something isn’t 100% safe, it’s dangerous.”
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We convince children that the world is full of danger; evil lurks in the shadows, on the streets, and in public parks and restrooms. Kids raised in this way are emotionally prepared to embrace the Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people—a worldview that makes them fear and suspect strangers. We teach children to monitor themselves for the degree to which they “feel unsafe” and then talk about how unsafe they feel. They may come to believe that feeling “unsafe” (the feeling of being uncomfortable or anxious) is a reliable sign that they are unsafe (the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings). Finally, feeling these emotions is unpleasant; therefore, children may conclude, the feelings are dangerous in and of themselves—stress will harm them if it doesn’t kill them (the Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker).
Chapter 9: The Decline of Play
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A key concept from developmental biology is “experience-expectant development.”5 Human beings have only about 22,000 genes, but our brains have approximately 100 billion neurons, with hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections. Our genes could never offer a codebook or blueprint for building anything so complex. Even if a blueprint could be passed down in our genes, it would not be flexible enough to build children who were well adapted to the vast range of environments and problems that our wandering species has gotten itself into. Nature found a better way to wire our large brains, and it goes like this: Genes are essential for getting the various cell lines started in the embryo, and genes guide brain development toward a “first draft” in utero. But experience matters, too, even while the baby is in the uterus; and after birth, it matters enormously. Experience is so essential for wiring a large brain that the “first draft” of the brain includes a strong motivation to practice behaviors that will give the brain the right kind of feedback to optimize itself for success in the environment that happens to surround it. That’s why young mammals are so keen to play, despite the risks. It’s easy to see how this works with language in humans: The genes get the ball rolling on the development of brain structures for language, but the child must actually encounter and practice a language to finish the process.
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IS YOUR CHILD READY FOR FIRST GRADE: 1979 EDITION Will your child be six years, six months or older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction? Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth? Can your child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman, where he lives? Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored? Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five to ten seconds? Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels? Can he tell left hand from right? Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home? Can he be away from you all day without being upset? Can he repeat an eight- to ten-word sentence, if you say it once, as “The boy ran all the way home from the store”? Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly? Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?22
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A checklist from a school in Austin, Texas, has thirty items on it, almost all of which are academic, including: Identify and write numbers to 100 Count by 10’s to 100, by 2’s to 20, by 5’s to 100 Interpret and fill in data on a graph Read all kindergarten-level sight words Be able to read books with five to ten words per page Form complete sentences on paper using phonetic spelling (i.e., journal and story writing)23
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The college admissions process nowadays makes it harder for high school students to enjoy school and pursue intrinsic fulfillment. The process “warps the values of students drawn into a competitive frenzy” and “jeopardizes their mental health,”41
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In a 2015 survey, 95% of students at Lexington High School in Massachusetts reported “a lot of stress” or “extreme stress” about their classes, and in a 2016 study, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the teen suicide rate in Palo Alto, California, was more than four times the national average.44
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The effects of play deprivation and oversupervision may extend far beyond college. Steven Horwitz, an economist at Ball State University in Indiana, took the same research on play that we have reviewed in this chapter and worked out some possible consequences for the future of liberal democracies.47 He drew on the work of political scientists Elinor Ostrom48 and Vincent Ostrom,49 both of whom studied how self-governing communities resolve conflicts peacefully. Successful democracies do this by developing a variety of institutions and norms that enable people with different goals and conflicting desires to resolve their problems while rarely appealing to the police or the state to coerce their fellow citizens.
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Horwitz points out that when adult-supervised activities crowd out free play, children are less likely to develop the art of association: Denying children the freedom to explore on their own takes away important learning opportunities that help them to develop not just independence and responsibility, but a whole variety of social skills that are central to living with others in a free society. If this argument is correct, parenting strategies and laws that make it harder for kids to play on their own pose a serious threat to liberal societies by flipping our default setting from “figure out how to solve this conflict on your own” to “invoke force and/or third parties whenever conflict arises.” This is one of the “vulnerabilities of democracies” noted by Vincent Ostrom.50
Chapter 10: The Bureaucracy of Safetyism
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In 2015, a student at Northern Michigan University (NMU) visited the campus counseling center to get help in the aftermath of being sexually assaulted the year before. She did not mention anything about self-harm or suicidal thoughts during her session, yet the email she received from NMU’s associate dean of students included the exact text we quoted above. And she was not alone; 25–30 NMU students per semester received a version of that letter—whether or not they had expressed thoughts about suicide or self-harm.3 It was NMU’s policy that students could be disciplined (and even expelled) for revealing these kinds of thoughts to other students.
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When the federal Office of Education began collecting data in 1869, there were only 63,000 students enrolled in higher education institutions throughout the United States; they represented just 1 percent of all eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds.5 Today, an estimated 20 million students are enrolled in American higher education, including roughly 40% of all eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds.6 In the 2015–2016 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available, combined revenues at U.S. postsecondary institutions totaled about $548 billion.7 (A country with that GDP, to give a sense of scale, would rank twenty-first, between Argentina and Saudi Arabia.)8 At the end of the 2015 fiscal year, the U.S. universities with the 120 largest endowments held a total of $547 billion.9
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Eric Adler, a classics professor at the University of Maryland, distilled the argument in a 2018 Washington Post article. “The fundamental cause [of campus intolerance],” he suggests, “isn’t students’ extreme leftism or any other political ideology” but “a market-driven decision by universities, made decades ago, to treat students as consumers—who pay up to $60,000 per year for courses, excellent cuisine, comfortable accommodations and a lively campus life.” On the subject of students preventing certain people from speaking on campus, he explains: Even at public universities, 18-year-olds are purchasing what is essentially a luxury product. Is it any wonder they feel entitled to control the experience? . . . Students, accustomed to authoring every facet of their college experience, now want their institutions to mirror their views.
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Overreaction and overregulation are usually the work of people within bureaucratic structures who have developed a mindset commonly known as CYA (Cover Your Ass).
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Some professors end up concluding that it isn’t worth the risk of having to appear before a bureaucratic panel, so it’s better to just eliminate any material from the syllabus or lecture that could lead to a complaint. Then, as more and more professors shy away from potentially provocative materials and discussion topics, their students miss out on opportunities to develop intellectual antifragility. As a result, they may come to find even more material offensive and require even more protection.
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In 2013, the Departments of Education and Justice issued a sweeping new definition of harassment: any “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct.”57 This definition was not limited to speech that would be offensive to a reasonable person, nor did it require that the alleged target actually be offended—both requirements of traditional harassment claims. By eliminating the reasonable-person standard, harassment was left to be defined by the self-reported subjective experience of every member of the university community. It was, in effect, emotional reasoning turned into a federal regulation.
Chapter 11: The Quest for Justice
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Today’s college students have lived through extraordinary times, and, as a result, many of them have developed an extraordinary passion for social justice.
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Intuitive justice is the combination of distributive justice (the perception that people are getting what is deserved) and procedural justice (the perception that the process by which things are distributed and rules are enforced is fair and trustworthy).
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Developmental psychologists Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin, and Paul Bloom reviewed the research on fairness in children and concluded that “humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones,” and “when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality.”9
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Some conservatives and libertarians have argued that “social justice” is a useless term—there is only justice, and tacking on the word “social” adds nothing.17 We don’t agree. We think there are two forms of social justice identifiable in modern political debates across the Western world, one of which is a subset of intuitive justice and one of which is not.
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More generally, equal-outcomes social justice activists seem to believe that all institutions and occupations should mirror the overall U.S. population: 50% female, roughly 15% African American, 15% Latino, and so on. Any departure from those numbers means that a group is “underrepresented,” and underrepresentation is often taken to be direct evidence of systemic bias or injustice.
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An outcome gap is a kind of correlation. But if someone quotes from a study or otherwise asserts that one group is overrepresented in a job category or that there is a gap in pay, often the implication is that being a member of one group caused members of that group to be preferentially hired or to be paid more. It would indeed be evidence of improper or illegal discrimination if there were no other reason for the outcome gap aside from group membership. For example, if someone notes that computer programmers at elite tech firms are mostly male, often the implication is that being male caused those employees to be more likely to be hired or promoted, which is obviously unjust if there are no other differences between male and female computer programmers. But are there other differences? Are there other causal pathways? If you suggest an alternative explanation for the gap, others may take you to be saying that the problem is not as severe as the speaker believes it is—and if anyone in the room is displeased by that suggestion, then you may be accused of committing a microaggression (specifically a “micro-invalidation”40). If your alternative hypothesis includes the speculation that there could be differences in some underlying factor, some input that is relevant to the outcome (for example, a sex difference in how much men or women enjoy sports or computer programming),41 then you may be violating a serious taboo. In an article titled “The Psychology of the Unthinkable,” social psychologist Philip Tetlock calls this the use of “forbidden base rates.”42 But if this kind of thinking is forbidden and social scientists don’t work as hard to challenge the theories that are politically favored, then “institutionalized disconfirmation,” the process of challenging and testing ideas, breaks down.
Conclusion: Wiser Societies
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From our conversations with students, we believe that most high school and college students despise call-out culture and would prefer to be at a school that had little of it. Most students are not fragile, they are not “snowflakes,” and they are not afraid of ideas. So if a small group of universities is able to develop a different sort of academic culture—one that finds ways to make students from all identity groups feel welcome without using the divisive methods that seem to be backfiring on so many campuses—we think that market forces will take care of the rest.
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This is a book about education and wisdom. If we can educate the next generation more wisely, they will be stronger, richer, more virtuous, and even safer.