“There’s Now a Clash of Moral Values”

A new entry in the debate over whether campus identity politics are to blame for ruining America.

College students work and read.
Are kids too coddled these days? Rawpixel/iStock

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Jonathan Haidt, the co-author, with Greg Lukianoff, of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Haidt, a social psychologist who teaches at NYU’s business school, and Lukianoff examine what they consider to be a dire situation on college campuses, with identity politics running rampant and students unable or unwilling to listen to different viewpoints, especially conservative ones. The book examines why, at least in the authors’ view, kids today are so coddled and what impact that coddling might have for society at large. Haidt and Lukianoff also widen the picture to include an analysis of how different versions of campus identity politics are likely to play when taken up by politicians and public figures.

Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss whether college students are really less supportive of free speech than other Americans, why Haidt thinks liberals can’t reach middle America, and how he explains the rise of Donald Trump.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: What do you think is happening on college campuses today, and why do you think it’s happening?

Jonathan Haidt: What Greg and I think is happening is a kind of subtle change in the dynamics that has far-reaching effects. It’s not that a generation has lost its mind, or a generation has turned against free speech. So, we try to avoid using the word crisis or we don’t talk about snowflakes. It’s really a clash of moralities. With the goal of being more inclusive and welcoming, some students have become much more sensitive to the use of words and the presence of ideas and speakers. So, it’s not that students are turning against free speech, it’s that there are now conflicting goals on campus, and it’s leading to a “call out” culture: a culture in which some students feel that they can criticize or even shame people who say things that they deem offensive. And this has led to more fearfulness among both students and professors.

Do you think this is intimately connected to what’s going on in our politics, or do you think this was starting before the past three years and has kind of been exacerbated by it?

Oh, it is definitely exacerbated by the current political situation. So, the way we think about it in the book is that there’s this surprising change that begins to happen around 2014. This is when the New York Times and the New Republic start writing the first articles about trigger warnings. This is when we see the first references to students at Brown and other places wanting safe spaces in their classrooms.

[Greg] noticed that while, of course, students have been politically active for a long time, for the first time around 2014, they were saying not “this is offensive,” or “this is racist,” or “this is unjust,” or “this needs to be stopped,” but “this is harmful, this will traumatize some students, this will damage some students.” It was the medicalization. … So that’s what’s new.

You write about iGen, which is people who are aged 18 to 24 now, is that correct?

It’s kids born after 1995. Yes.

You wrote in an online debate that they’re a little less tolerant but that “The skeptics are also right that the data don’t show a sudden giant change. We do not have a Lost Generation. Young people have not suddenly turned against free speech in such numbers that we see cliffs in the data.” I’ve looked through a ton of the data trying to get ready for this interview, and I’m trying to make out trends. What I see is that on racial matters, millennials or people in the iGen generation seem to be more sensitive, thinking that people who say things that are racially offensive should be banned from speaking. But then there are other issues, like whether professional athletes should be able to express political opinions, or the president should have the authority to close down news outlets, or building mosques, things like this, which we consider First Amendment things where, in fact, this generation is more tolerant. And so, it’s hard to kind of come up with one big takeaway. What have you found?

The debate was started when a political scientist in Canada named Jeff Sachs analyzed some data from the General Social Survey. He pointed out that you don’t see a big change in attitudes about free speech in questions going back to the 1970s. And it was a wonderful debate. What came about as a result of the debate was, I think, the general consensus that it’s not that a generation has turned against free speech. It’s that there’s now a clash of moral values.

On campus, a lot of it has to do with diversity and inclusion. So, I don’t talk a lot about free speech in the abstract, I talk about what are the sacred values of any group. And around the sacred values, you’ll often find a ring of ignorance and intolerance. So, on a college campus, and there are many subgroups, if some subgroups act like, well, this is our sacred value, and we will not allow anyone on campus to question it, well that’s kind of illiberal. It makes life difficult for the rest of the university. And if it was someone coming out to campus to spout racial slurs, well, of course, there’d be a lot of consensus to keep them off. But when it extends to people presenting data, or ideas, or a professor questioning the gender gap in pay, the things that should be debatable, if people get upset and say, “This is not permissible,” well that chills academic discourse.

Absolutely. So, you’re not trying to say the sky is falling, but your book is also subtitled “how bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.” You start one chapter talking about the Cultural Revolution in China and about getting to a place where things are not allowed to be said. So, clearly you think that we might be in a place to say we’re setting up a generation for failure. I assume you don’t think previous generations are a failure? What is it about this generation when you look at this data that sticks out?

We don’t have really good national data on the attitudes and behaviors of kids born after 1995. On all sides of this, we’re trying to figure out what’s going on. But the place where we have really good data, and the reason why we do think that there is a danger of something fairly big is that the rates of depression and anxiety have gone up very substantially for boys. The suicide rate for boys is up 25 percent, between the first decade of this century and the last few years. For girls, it’s a 70 percent increase in suicide for teenage girls.

And so, we think that if we are trying to accommodate them by telling them, “You are fragile, you’re vulnerable, we will protect you from books, speakers that you think are threatening, we will protect you.” This is the worst thing we could do.

There’s a point in the book where you’re talking about Martin Luther King, and you’re talking about ways to win people over. “Martin Luther King Jr. understood this,” you write. “Instead of shaming or demonizing their opponents, they humanize them and then relentlessly appealed to their humanity.” It seems like what you’re saying here is that if liberal people want to appeal to the average American, that they must appeal to their good side. That they shouldn’t demonize them, they shouldn’t shame them, they shouldn’t tell them that they’re all racist, or whatever else. It seems like there’s a little contradiction there, because when we’re talking about college students you’re saying, “Why can’t these people toughen up? Why can’t they hear the real truth? Isn’t it good for them to hear what we perceive as honesty?” But in this case, it seems like you’re saying, “No, the way to win people over is actually to kind of tiptoe a little bit.” Is there a contradiction there?

It’s two separate psychological issues. On the issue of anti-fragility, you’re right that we think that in general, overprotection is bad. But the issue here … is the basic psychology of tribalism.

What Martin Luther King and [other civil rights leaders] understood is if you start by using a vocabulary of brothers and sisters, if you activate what you have in common first, and then you make your case that some of our brothers and sisters are being denied equal dignity, they’re being denied equal access to the fruits of their labor and of the American society, that is a psychologically effective way to make the case. Whereas what we argue in Chapter 3 is identity politics is not bad, you have to have a politics of identity. But you can have an identity politics based on common humanity, which is what we say works. Or you can have one based on a common enemy, which is where you try to unite people in hatred of, let’s say, a dominant group. That might feel good and there may be some truth to it, but it is not an effective way to bring about change, especially within an institution like the university, which really, really wants to work with you.

It seemed effective in winning the last election, though.

That’s right. There are times when if the goal is to get out the vote and crush the other side, there are times in national politics, there are times in opposing racial injustice in the criminal justice system when very forceful methods are all that will work. But if you have an institution like a university, our argument is that a lot of the strategies are backfiring, not just within the university, but my God, are they providing material that right wing news sites use to stir up anger, outrage, and disgust against universities and against the left. There’s a kind of expressive politics, which feels good and which plays into right-wing narratives about universities, but it doesn’t get the job done.

If these types of stories are driving right-wing people into paroxysms of rage, and getting them to support people like Donald Trump, it does seem like then we can make somewhat of an argument that words do have an impact on people, right?

Oh, they certainly do.

That things people perceive as hurtful can get them to vote for authoritarians, or can get them to do really, really, really awful things. So, maybe we should be worried about the fragility of people because words really can hurt.

So, the argument that is debated on campus is, “Are words violence?” Nobody doubts that words can hurt. Anybody who has ever been broken up with by the person they love knows that words can hurt sharper than knives. The question on campus is, should we consider words that are hurtful to be violence? And that is a line that no democratic society should cross. Because as soon as you label your opponent’s words as violence, that entitles your side to use violence. And as soon as your side uses violence, research and common sense show you lose. Especially in an age of smartphones, you lose. Videos of your side being violent get played all over the place. Boy, does that energize the other side. There’s research showing that violent protest, at least in the American context, is less effective than nonviolent protests.

The last year that this data is available, which is a 1966 Gallup poll, Martin Luther King had an approval rating of 32 percent and a disapproval rating among Americans of 63 percent. How do we understand that, given the type of politics he was preaching?

Well, what little I know of that history is that when he took a plunge in the polls, he was working on various economic issues that were not powerful. So, I don’t know how to track the polls. But I think we have enough examples. And certainly, we have enough people like Nelson Mandela and others taking the long view and saying, “In the long run, you’re going to win. You’re going to win with love and dignity, not by demonizing your opponents.”

Well, right. But Nelson Mandela was also the head of what we would consider a terrorist group in terms of a group that carried out terrorist actions for a political cause that I’m sure both of us think was in the long run a good one. The African National Congress was not just a peaceful group.

No, that’s right. Again, I don’t know the history to know whether the violent methods were effective, or it would have been effective, or whether it was ultimately the more inclusive appeal that Mandela made after he got out from prison. I remember watching him and watching those early speeches and just the thrill of someone coming out from prison and preaching forgiveness, preaching working together. I thought that was incredibly powerful. And in the long run, it seems to have worked.

I’m not trying to be glib asking this question, but: Do you think that the left has more of a responsibility, or for practical reasons, more need to appeal to these things than the right, which has seemed certainly in the past few years to be able to win with precisely the opposite of what you’re putting forward as an effective strategy to win hearts and minds?

My own work on moral psychology: I began it in 2004 after John Kerry lost. I thought that the Democrats just repeatedly showed they didn’t know how to talk about American morality; they didn’t know how to appeal to voters.

Over and over again, we see that if you take people and you put them together in groups where they can only talk to each other, they are not able to understand the truth. They end up making ineffective appeals and bad policies. This is what truly motivated Mark Lilla, the frustration of seeing Democrats make what many of us think are mistakes. There is a quote from Steve Bannon, I forget the exact quote, but he says, “The more Democrats talk about raising identity politics, we win.” So, it’s easy to trigger an authoritarian reaction, an authoritarian alarm in voters.

Democrats need to understand the authoritarian dynamic, stop playing into it, and I think the more inclusive form of identity politics shuts that down. It turns off the authoritarian alarm.

Why did eight years of Obama not shut that down?

Well, eight years of Obama … let’s see. When you say shut it down, you mean why wasn’t America changed completely?

No, I thought you used the phrase shut it down just now to say that Democrats can try to shut down right-wing authoritarianism by not using identity politics, by appealing to common humanity, and so on. It seems like we had a president for eight years who did not spend his time appealing to identity politics and did speak to our common humanity in very—

Oh, no, that’s right. He did. Yeah.

And he doesn’t seem to have avoided the rise of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.

No. The authoritarian dynamic is a preparedness or it’s the reactivity in the minds of about 20 to 30 percent of the population. And so, Obama was great at appealing … he was just brilliant, especially in his first campaign at appealing to American values, American traditions, the founding fathers, so he did turn it off. Now, you can’t make the button disappear. You can’t remove from the minds of the 30 percent or so who have it. But Obama did not press the alarm. And in return, he won majorities in both elections.

Now, obviously, Clinton won a majority of the national vote, but against Donald Trump, it should have been a landslide. She was complicated. She made a number of different appeals. But a lot of what she did, she did play up identity politics much more than Obama did. And the right-wing media was able to exploit that and exaggerate it. But they did get very high voter turnout on their side, even without much of a ground game. They didn’t have a big operation.

But look, Donald Trump got 46 percent of the vote, which in a two-party system is about as low as you’re ever going to get. So, you could say, maybe without Hillary Clinton’s appeals to identity politics, he would have gotten 45 or 44 and a half percent. But Donald Trump also won the Republican nomination around the same time Hillary Clinton did, and had already conquered the Republican Party. The rise of Donald Trump, the rise of right-wing authoritarianism, to ascribe it to a couple speeches Hillary Clinton made—

Oh, no. No, I’m not ascribing the rise of it to the Clinton speeches. I’m just saying that I think Clinton played it in a way that left her open to …. it made it very easy for operatives on the other side. But no, she didn’t cause that to happen.

You mentioned briefly that you were interested after the Kerry election in writing about why Democrats can’t appeal to moral values, is that what you said? What was the phrase you used a couple minutes ago?

I used to write all kinds of memos and tried to get Democrats to read them about how Democrats can speak to American values, and I didn’t get anybody to read them. But later, those ideas turned into The Righteous Mind.

I guess what’s frustrating about trying to figure this out is that when I grew up in the ’90s and early 2000s, there was a sense that Democrats need to learn to speak to family values. They need to understand patriotism. They need to understand respect for law enforcement and the military. And if they don’t do these things, they’re not going to win as many elections as they should. And then you have a guy come along, who has no respect for family values, who attacks law enforcement agencies basically every day, who makes fun of POWs, who tells voters he’s smarter than them and exhibits every form of elite condescension that you could imagine. And now it’s sort of, well, now it’s Democrats need to learn to do this or that, or they’re never going to win the undecided white voter, basically. It makes me wary of any analysis that says, this is what liberals are doing wrong today to not win over the Trump voter.

I see. I see. Well, first of all, on Trump, yes. He is an incredible hypocrite. And if voters were consistent in their values, conservatives and Republicans would turn him out.
But a really important change in our politics happened over the last 10 or 15 years. Political scientists call it negative partisanship, in which it used to be that you would vote for a candidate primarily because you like the candidate. And sometime in the last 10 to 15 years, we shifted to voting primarily because we hate the other candidates. And so, Donald Trump doesn’t have to deliver on promises, he doesn’t have to be consistent, all he has to do is say, “I’m the one who hates the people that you hate.” And he’s very good at hating people on the left and hating Hillary Clinton and hating the coastal elites like you and me. So, it is an ugly and unfortunate change in our politics, that we are so deep into negative partisanship that the Republicans elected an incredible hypocrite like Donald Trump.