081: Jonathan Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind (transcript)

September 4, 2018 by Joshua
in Podcast

Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, comes out today which is why I’m releasing this episode today. We talked a lot about his last book also, The Righteous Mind, which may have influenced me in the area of leadership in the environment more than the work of any other guests I’ve had so far. Jonathan Haidt works on people’s motivations especially when there’s a moral tinge. And one thing that we’ve learned over and over again from guests who are effective leaders on a podcast is that effective leadership rests on the other person’s motivations. What they care about? What motivates them? What their values are? And Jonathan Haidt talks about and works on researches and writes about other people’s values, what they are, how we understand them and that’s critical for leadership because a lot of people working on environmental issues, whatever they’re intending to do, a lot of what they’re doing is leading to populists getting elected which is moving us in the opposite direction of what most of us probably listening to this podcast want. So let’s listen to Jonathan talk about what I consider critical. He can put it better than I can. So let’s listen.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Jonathan Haidt. Jonathan, how are you?

Jonathan: Very well. Thanks. Very pleased to be here with you, Joshua.

Joshua: Glad to have you. And I guess we met about a month ago. You’re speaking at the World Science Festival here at NYU and up until then your work has been something that I’ve kind of known about. Since then I’ve been very interested in because when we’re talking about the environment there’s lot of moral thinking that goes on, I don’t usually use the word moral but as you defined in your book it’s very useful. And so now I’ve read your stuff and gotten into it and it’s fascinating, it’s relevant to leadership, it’s relevant to the environment and also your book is coming out today. So we are recording this a little bit earlier but September 4 is when I get the chance to release it. It’s when your book comes out and I’m kind of torn between reviewing The Righteous Mind and talking about The Coddling of the American Mind.

Jonathan: OK, let’s start with The Righteous Man because that’s the psychological background that people need to understand what’s going on on-campus, on the one hand, and why everyone doesn’t just get on board with efforts to protect the environment. It seems kind of obvious that we should care for the planet. So why are some people not persuadable? So let’s do The Righteous Mind first.

Joshua: OK. And may I indulge myself and maybe I could try to summarize it quickly? Not because it will be oversimplified and the goal is not total accuracy because the book is accurate and I’m sure you would’ve made the book shorter if you could.

Jonathan: I’d love for you to summarize it with an eye towards how it can help environmental activists. Go for it.

Joshua: OK. And also with an eye toward listeners. I hope it makes you interested in reading more because you will be rewarded. The writing is very accessible, very fun to read and surprisingly full and rich. I read a couple of paragraphs and I think, “Oh, that was really fun to read.” Then I realized I really got a lot there. Okay. So I think that a lot of people think when they judge or something happens in the world and they decide, “I will now judge that thing” and they think that they say they go into some truths inside and they actively judge. And evidence seems to show as well as strains of history of historical philosophical thought show that it’s more that we automatically judge, it’s some intuition, some emotional reaction that happens inside of us and then afterward we explain why that happened in the way it’s sort of like the tail wagging the dog.

Jonathan: That’s right. Moral judgment is a lot more like aesthetic judgment than it is like mathematical reasoning. Just as you see someone’s face or you see a sunset and it takes less than a quarter of second for you to decide that it’s beautiful or not. We actually make rapid automatic judgments about social actions as well.

Joshua: Okay. So these judgements, what are they based on? It seems that it’s based on we’ve evolved certain ways of thinking in our mind that some people have I guess they have inherited some way of looking at things and then their environments lead to a certain set of ways of looking at things and others others. And so you talk about liberals and conservative for example or people who got themselves as liberal or conservative. Liberals will have a certain set of values that they look at things and conservatives have others, or actually more, it looks like.

Jonathan: More different taste buds as it were. Yes.

Joshua: I guess it’s sort of some people go through the world looking at things as if they’re looking at only two flavors and there’s five.

Jonathan: To avoid overloading their memories I think we should give your listeners the 5 or 6 foundations right now, if that’s OK. So what I found in my early work on moral judgment across culture this was not about politics. This was about societies around the world is that there are a lot of different foundations of morality. Morality isn’t just about altruism and caring for the vulnerable. That’s one foundation. We call it the care foundation related to taking care of intense that’s where it comes from evolutionarily. But there’s also fairness. Every society cares a lot about fairness, reciprocity, justice. So those two are universal and those two are the basis of the great majority of progressive morality not just in the U.S. but wherever you go you’ll find arguments mostly about care for the vulnerable and fairness but especially fairness as equality. The lesson that people on the left need to or what they seem to find most useful about The Righteous Mind is that I go through these other foundations of morality that everybody understands but they’re just not as developed in left leaning systems and those are loyalty, group loyalty, authority, respect for authority, the value of tradition and stability, that’s the fourth foundation, liberty, liberty versus oppression. And then the last one is sanctity or purity. This one is absolutely crucial for the environmental movement because as I said everyone has access to these. Everyone understands what it means to be loyal to a group.

But if left leaning groups tend to be more universalistic and cosmopolitan, they tend to not like group boundaries, they tend to not like nationalism or patriotism but they understand what it means to be loyal to a group. It’s the purity and sanctity are the ones most crucial. That’s the one that you understand if you read the Bible, if you read the Hebrew Bible and The Book of Leviticus or you read the Koran or the Hindu scriptures, a lot of religions talk about the body as a temple and you have to protect it from defilement and you have to avoid impurity or pollution. You have to guard something that’s sacred. The environmental movement is made up of people who are motivated especially by care and compassion, clearly. A lot of people it’s care and compassion for animals, sentient beings for the Earth as an organism as it were but for a lot of people there is also a lot of sanctity thinking on the left.

Normally, we study sanctity thinking on the right. Why should sex be so regulated? Why can’t people just do what they want if they don’t hurt anyone? So we can talk more about this later. But you have to understand that people had this idea of purity and guarding something, keeping it pure. It seems irrational from the outside but it seems obviously necessary for people in religious communities that the kosher laws or the rules of purity but that same, same thinking is applied very often to think about the environment you can see it especially about say GMOs. Now leaving aside the issue of Monsanto you know using s to enhance its profits. There’s all kinds of problems with what Monsanto does. But in principle GMOs could be used for great environmental and human benefit. Some people on the left think, “Great, let’s do it!” but more are afraid of this unnatural meddling with nature, putting species out there that don’t belong. And so that is sometimes sanctity thinking.

Joshua: When I think of sanctity the first thing I think of is taking purity vows or chastity vows as something conservatives do. So sanctity appeals broadly?

Jonathan: So the whole idea of moral foundations is that human beings evolved certain sort of low level social cognitive abilities and then cultures built on those to create these vast structures of moral understanding and regulation. There is what’s called Attachment theory. All mammals, if you look at puppies and kitties you know dogs and cats and humans we interact with our offspring in the same way we have this attachment system that regulates protection while giving them room to play and explore. It’s very low level, it’s common to all mammals. Well, this psychological system becomes the basis of our thinking about compassion, care, care for the vulnerable, protection. Same thing for reciprocity and fairness. We all evolve to do reciprocal altruism. Now with sanctity it’s really interesting because it doesn’t seem to evolve from a social interaction origin, it seems to evolve from disease avoidance. So human beings, not other primates, but only human beings with our gigantic brains and our ability to process information we keep track of the history of objects. So if somebody defecate, there’s like a place where people defecate in the camps, in the campground or wherever are our tribe lives and an animal hangs out there, we quickly go, “Oh, god, that animal is polluted. Never eat that animal even if you see it elsewhere. “

We keep track of the history of things. We imagine invisible essences that get transmitted. A lot of religious rituals about that. You see it very clearly in Hindu ritual puja, the ritual of puja. There’s a lot of touch. You take a pure food, it has to be a very pure food you touch it to the God, the object that is God and the physical touch is essential. Properties are transmitted back and forth across the lines of touch. The worshiper takes the offering back. It has now been touched by God, it’s blessed by God. It has God in it and then you eat it. Jewish rituals have some of this to washing and purity. So we have a very elaborate psychology of purity and pollution which evolved to deal with disease threats. We evolved in a world of bacteria and parasites but now we use it to think about the environment.

Joshua: Let me see if I get this right about…One of the differences between liberals and conservatives is that if you don’t realize that other people are working with different moral foundations then if you think I care and that person disagrees with me, what they actually they’re caring about something different. Well, I shouldn’t use the word care. But if they’re working on something, if loyalty appeals to them about something and I don’t see that and I think they just don’t care when actually they’re caring about something different.

Jonathan: That is exactly right and that is the reason for one of our more interesting empirical findings here. We developed a scale, my colleagues and I, so I work with five other social psychologists. Our research site is called yourmorals.org. So if listeners go to yourmorals.org., you can take our surveys. Our basic survey is the moral foundations questionnaire. It gives you scores on five of the six. We didn’t include liberty on that. We’re working on that.

Anyway. In one study run by Jessie Graham we ask people to take one of our foundations questionnaires but one third we’re told, “Pretend you’re on the left. Take this as a leftist.” While another third were told, “Pretend you’re on the right. Take this as a conservative.” Another third just look it themselves. And what we found was that people on the right, people who say that they themselves are on the right are able to accurately guess how people on the left or the right would take it. People who are centrist also pretty accurate. It’s only people on the left, and especially people who said on a seven-point scale I am very liberal, they picked the leftmost point, those people were very inaccurate for exactly the reason you said which is they understand care, compassion and fairness but if somebody does something that seems disloyal to the group in order to help somebody else a conservative will still say that that’s wrong, it’s disloyal, people on the left couldn’t empathize. They couldn’t see the world that way.

And I think part of it is because conservatives have all of the foundations, and everybody has all of that, but conservative morality has developed and articulated all of them whereas people on the left think, “Well, if it’s not about caring for the vulnerable, then it’s not morality. And conservatives must do the things they do, they must not like immigrants because they’re just racists who want to hurt people” or whatever. So yeah, there’s a larger empathy gap for the left and there is for the right. Related phenomenon is that because left controls creative industries, the arts, entertainment, media and newspapers so you can’t grow up in America without being exposed to a lot of left leaning ideas. Everybody knows what the left thinks but people on the left often don’t know what the right thinks. There’s no opportunity to read them. I was always on the left growing up and it wasn’t until I started writing The Righteous Mind that I started actually trying to read conservative stuff that I realized, “Wow, I’m 44 years old – 45 years old. I never knew any of this stuff.”

Joshua: You said it literally floored you because you’re reading the book and like you sat on the floor.

Jonathan: I literally had to sit down and say, “Oh, my god, this is amazing.” Let me be clear, I’m not talking about the Republican Party. The Republican Party is a moral and policy disaster. I thought they lost their mind five or 10 years ago and now I think they’ve lost their soul. Nothing I say should ever be taken as a defense of the Republican Party. But there are conservative intellectuals stretching back to Edmund Burke that I think have had enormously important insights into human society. And I think if you have insights from the left and the right it’s like yin and yang. You really need both perspectives to get a good society. So that’s one of the missions I’ve been on is to try to help people understand we are all so flawed, so biased, so prone to just to post hoc reasoning to defend what we think or what our group thinks. We need critics, we need well-meaning intelligent critics to improve our own thinking.

Joshua: Each of your work seems to have the seeds of the next one in it. I feel like when you read your work it’s hard not to imagine I guess it’s accurate of a growth and development on a personal level of view.

Jonathan: That’s exactly what happened.

Joshua: And I think it’s leading increasingly to being active and not just writing about stuff and studying stuff but taking on a leadership role.

Jonathan: That’s correct, yeah. The basic story is very simple. My first book was called The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. It grew out of a course I taught at the University of Virginia and I took ten, I read a lot of ancient writings, took out all the best psychological ideas. It was 10 chapters on ten ancient ideas. Things like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

So I wrote this book on ancient wisdom and it’s totally not political and I was very much on the left then. And then as American polarizations started increasing and as the Democrats kept losing in 2000 and 2004 I couldn’t stand it. I thought the Democrats don’t know how to talk about morality. I’ve got to help them. And so I started doing the research for The Righteous Mind to apply my research on moral psychology to help the Democrats win. In the process I at least came to understand the right and libertarians also. So I write The Righteous Mind. By the end of the book it’s not how can the Democrats win, it’s “Oh, my God, we’ve got to all understand each other because this country is in big trouble.” And I was saying this in 2011 as our polarization was increasing and trust in the political system was decreasing.

So I write these two books and then the universities begin to melt down in 2015 actually right after I wrote an article with Greg Lukianoff on I’ve called The Coddling of the American Mind. He wrote that article based on just some weird things that were happening. We didn’t have any hard data, just a lot of weird stories were coming out of universities about the need for safe spaces and people shouting down speakers and all sorts of things like that.

Joshua: This was in the Atlantic?

Jonathan: In the Atlantic, on August 2015 and then in the fall 2015 began the wave of student protests at Yale and [unintelligible] and Missouri. So basically, the way I see it is this. If you took universities and you said, “Let’s run a university by completely contradicting everything that Haidt said in the first two books, let’s ignore ancient wisdom, let’s teach the opposite. And let’s ignore moral psychology, let’s ramp up tribalism, let’s ramp up confirmation bias and let’s destroy the processes that keep us honest and modest.” If you disregarded everything I said in my first two books, I think that’s the direction we’re going in with our universities and that’s why Lukianoff and I wrote this book The Coddling of the American Mind.

Joshua: I can’t help but wonder asking what does it feel like to watch this happening in front of your eyes? You’re in the middle of it. And having a glimpse of what’s going on and I think a lot of people think, “I’m right. They’re wrong. All we need to do is make sure that they get them to see them that I am right and then problem solved.” But that’s not the issue at all.

Jonathan: That’s right. As for how I feel about it the metaphor that I like to use it for those who remember Jurassic Park there is a moment in the first movie Jurassic Park where they go to the island and the husband [unintelligible], the husband sees the dinosaur and his wife, she’s a botanist, she’s like, “Oh my God, they’ve got extinct plants here you know.” And the husband says, “Honey, look.” And she’s totally focused on the plants. And he grabs her head and tilts it up so she can see the dinosaur. OK, that’s the way I feel. I feel like…

Joshua: No head to tilt though.

Jonathan: Well, OK. You’re right. But what I mean is like in theory I’ve been studying this stuff in theory and then in theory this country could break up, in theory this country could end. Things could get that bad. Like in 30 or 40 years I thought. And then a couple of years later it’s like oh my god, like we really could break up like this. This could be incredibly serious. Democracies are not really very stable and we’ve been kidding ourselves because we only know the high point of American democracy when all the forces happened to be converging on keeping us together. But they couldn’t last and they’re not lasting. And there is a real risk we’re going to come apart. So you asked me what’s it like. The answer is it’s completely terrifying. I’m very pessimistic about the future of America, at least in the next 10 or 15 years. 50 years, who knows. But it is also kind of thrilling to be a social scientist right now because it’s the most interesting time since the 1930s.

Joshua: This sounds a lot like how I feel about the environment because everyone’s like, “This is a really important issue.” Like I had this conversation with a woman at a cafe and she’s, listeners can’t see this but I’m holding my hand next to my face, and she’s saying to me, “You know people don’t even realize how much [unintelligible] using disposable stuff and throwing it away.” And there’s like [unintelligible] the disposable coffee cups she’s holding. And I feel like that’s our world, everyone is full of understanding.

Jonathan: OK. Right. That’s a good example. So this is one of the key psychological ideas I like to give to all your listeners is people are not unified logical creatures. We do different things. We’re like a committee, our mind is like a committee that doesn’t necessarily talk to each other. I study moral judgment. I don’t study moral behavior. And the reason is because human behavior is really complicated and the things that make us do things are often unrelated to our moral judgments, unrelated to our values.

Joshua: You mean things about our reputation?

Jonathan: Exactly. That’s right. So people can be very passionate in judging others for using disposable products and be very angry about that. But they don’t connect it to their own behavior necessarily. What really makes us act is social forces, social pressures. We want to fit in. We want to be respected. So if that becomes salient in the group, then people will change their behavior. But if it’s just like, “Hey, let’s yell and scream at these people” and that binds us together, you know we’ll do that but that doesn’t necessarily connect to my behavior.


Joshua: So I’d love to hear you comment on my strategy of bringing as influential people as I can get on this podcast because I think that there’s a lot of people saying, “Well, I want to do something but if no one else does, what difference does it make?” But if there are influential people doing things and they can say, “Oh, I think that will influence them more than a bunch of logic or scientific data.”

Jonathan: But let me introduce a metaphor that runs through all three of my books – the rider and the elephant. When I wrote the happiness hypothesis truth number one known by every ancient society is that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict and it’s common to illustrate these parts as Plato did as the rational part is reason is the charioteer and the passions are the horses is a metaphor from the Dialogue Phaedrus, so a horse and rider or horse and charioteers.

Joshua: One’s really active and the other is thoughtful.

Jonathan: That’s right. That’s the standard metaphor but based on research and social psychology I thought, “No, that’s not quite right.” That makes the passions look stupid. And what I want is that what the passions to be smarter and much, much bigger. And so I picked the elephant of a small boy or a rider on top of a large elephant. Elephants are really smart and really strong and at times the elephant and the rider can work together and the rider can see further into the future, the rider can steer but only if the elephant wants to go. If the elephant wants to go the other way, there’s nothing the rider can do to stop him from doing that. And so that metaphor seems to be really sticky there is a lot of psychotherapists in particular like it and it came out of my own experience in romantic relationships like, “Oh, I should break up with that woman” but then I don’t do it. You know it’s like I couldn’t make myself do things because…

Joshua: The rider didn’t have a horse to…


Jonathan: Exactly, exactly. And so why this is important is you can do a podcast, your podcast is mostly speaking to the writer that is where reasons and evidence and arguments to the extent that you trigger passions or feelings you are speaking the elephant somewhat. So speaking, reading these things are usually not enough on their own but they’re not irrelevant. What I mean is the key lesson from The Righteous Mind is talk to the elephant first. If you’re talking to people and their gut feelings are against you, they don’t trust you because they think you’re a lefty pinko you know no tree hugger or whatever it is. If their gut feelings and their emotions are against you, there’s almost not there’s probably nothing you can say that will change their minds. You have to speak to the elephant first and that could mean talking about other things developing rapport, finding some area of common interest. And once they’re no longer against you then they’re open to reason. And so what you’re doing in this podcast is putting ideas out there that will be useful to people. But of course, this podcast on its own isn’t going to persuade people and my hope and your hope is that this podcast and our conversation will better equipped people to be more effective activists using more psychologically sophisticated means and not just throwing arguments at people.

Joshua: Yeah, definitely I hope I’m not throwing arguments at people. If you listeners feel I am, tell me so I can stop. There’s one thing you didn’t mention because you’re talking about all of it being talk related and this is audio only. But one of the big things that I don’t see out there that made the biggest influence on me was changing my behavior and finding out the results. So listeners know that one of my big changes in the beginning was what began as an environmental thing was to avoid packaged food and it was really a big challenge. But after I learned how to cook it became really delicious. And so that change, that forced me to think in new ways that didn’t come from me telling me things. It was just I started thinking this feels so natural like eating these vegetables taste really delicious. But I vowed to eat them. And I bet this is how it should be.

Jonathan: Yes, so in that case it sounds like you made a change in your habits. You changed the elephant as it were, the elephant includes the force of habit patterns. But it also sounds like you are deeply committed to the environment and so to see feedback, to see like “Oh, I’m making progress, I’m doing something good” that was rewarding for you. Most people are not so committed and I think for them social forces and social factors will be more important.

Joshua: Yeah, it’s nice to reinforce the beliefs of people I agree with but it’s the people who don’t agree with are people who are doing things, that’s the challenge.

Jonathan: That’s right. So I have two specific suggestions for all of your listeners to be more effective. Number one, read Dale Carnegie How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s really, it’s absolutely brilliant. He’s a great social psychologist. Every human being should read it just if they’re going to deal with other human beings. That’s number one. And some parts of Carnegie’s ideas are in Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of The Righteous Mind so I think, all right, read The Righteous Mind also I guess I should say because I think that also will give people a lot of ideas.

The other thing is if you go to righteousmind.com, the website for the book and you click on About the Book or Discussions of the Book, there’s a section on environmentalism and there have been several research studies a really interesting one by Feinberg and Willer. In fact, it’s called The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes. It shows that messages that speak to conservatives’ morals narrow the partisan gap on the environment. So their research shows that if you tell people, here you’re going to talk to you you’re on the left, you can talk to the person on the right, talk to them about the environment. What they spontaneously do is talk about liberal values. They talk about care and compassion, they talk about protecting the vulnerable but if you say to them, I think they told them about moral foundations theory, and they say here talk to them and use loyalty, authority and sanctity, people can do that and then they’re more effective.

So the basic lesson is we tend to speak using our own moral vocabulary in part because we’re not really speaking to our enemies. When we speak about morality we’re mostly concerned with our friends, with impressing our friends. So we speak in the language of our group which makes us ineffective at talking to the other group. But if you just remember to speak in their language, what I used to say before Trump was talk about American greatness. That is talk about what makes America great and our nature, our natural parks, our vast country, the beauty of the continent. Talk about environmental preservation. I mean obviously conservatives care about conserving. So there are all kinds of angles to talking about the environment although of course you know Trump has corrupted some of them you know “Make America great” it’s not exactly… Maybe it would work even better now.

Joshua: When you think about the environment what do you think about? What do you care about? Do you if you do?

Jonathan: Well I care especially about animal suffering and factory farming and I’m a hypocrite. I know that I should not eat any factory farmed animals and I try to reduce it but I have tried going without meat and it’s hard and I wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices. And so I care a lot about animal suffering. I care a lot about systems that get out of whack. That is we live in a complex dynamical system where at a certain level as we’re seeing in the oceans you know the pH can go up and up and up or whatever in a certain point it’s going to be catastrophic change. So I’m very afraid of those and those are the main two things for me is animal suffering and then catastrophic system changes.

Joshua: For either of those you said “hypocritical” and that’s you said it, not me.

Jonathan: I’m a hypocrite. We all are.

Joshua: And you’ve tried. I wonder is there something that you haven’t tried that might be… Here’s what I say to people. I invite them at their option to take on a challenge or an opportunity to act on a value that they’re not already. And I have to put on a few things. You don’t have to solve all the world’s problems all by yourself overnight. It can’t be something you are already doing and it can’t be telling other people what to do. Would you be interested in doing something like that?

Jonathan: Well, I don’t want to commit to it on the air here if you’re basically acting as my conscience and saying, “I should change my eating behavior to better match my explicit morals.” You’re right, I should.

Joshua: I’m not saying that because there are competing values or competing things going on. And this is something that kills me is I talk to people and they say, “You’re judging” or even saying “should”.

Jonathan: No, you’re not. Well, you’re exploring, you’re exploring ways to get people to change their behavior and making a challenge. in fact, it’s in Dale Carnegie one of his methods is throw down a challenge, that’s a leadership technique to give people a challenge.

Joshua: I think it was try before you buy it.

Jonathan: Oh, ok.

Joshua: You sample something. I like that and then that’s my hypothesis.

Jonathan: OK. There is a little difference because yeah, I love the taste of meat and I can’t digest soy so it’s difficult for me to. It’s a challenge that I should think about that again and see what adjustments I can make to improve my behavior. Sorry, that’s not what you’re saying. I’m still working out what I’m thinking about.

Joshua: This process I think is very valuable to listeners because I don’t want to present a Disney version of, “It’s so easy. All I have to do is this” and you’re done. And to hear people struggle through things I think is more valuable. I find that the more effective the leader, the more they share these things as opposed to showing some strong external exterior. And you are also making me think, I interviewed a little while ago the guy who started the Impossible Burger. His goal is to make..

Jonathan: Oh is that the factory… The lab made meat?

Joshua: Okay, so there’s two ways people who are doing this. There’s lab made meat and then there’s what he’s doing is he’s trying to make a burger that in blind taste tests people can’t distinguish from beef.

Jonathan: Is it made from plant proteins and it’s not soy?

Joshua: I think it’s not soy and his goal is to make meat without it going through an animal first.

Jonathan: Wonderful. Yeah. That will change the world.

Joshua: Until I heard that way of looking at it I thought, “Oh, he is just trying to make a different veggie burger” which I think…Have you had the Superiority Burger in East Village?

Jonathan: No.

Joshua: Oh, man. He’s an artist with the stuff. I’m going to do something that I don’t want to do which is to say maybe you could substitute a couple of meals and try out these other things but I try to let you come up with it.

Jonathan: I will check that. It’s a half mile east of where we’re sitting right now. I’ll try the Superiority burger.

Joshua: Actually, the Impossible Burger is at Bear burger which this one on.

Jonathan: Oh yeah, right on the corner.

Joshua: So what worked out as a challenge for you.

Jonathan: Beyond changing my eating habits I’d have to think about it.

Joshua: People do a lot of temporary ones too. I’m not saying change your whole life right here right now.

Jonathan: Yeah, I do what I can. I think I live in New York City, I hardly ever drive a car. I walk up the stairs. So you know I think I’m a fairly low impact life. Well, I shouldn’t say that especially not on the air because I travel by plane and other things so I have to do a full audit I think.

Joshua: One thing I’ve found is that it’s less important how big or small what someone does is if they do something. I’m increasingly seeing the skills that you develop and if you try to start with something too big you know you go to the weight room and you try to lift the weight you can’t lift, it doesn’t work and you think, “Well, I never can do it” or a lot of people conclude that. Whereas if you just start with something at all and then you develop the skills and then eventually the heavyweight becomes easy. So I try to let off…I think people have a lot of beliefs maybe back justify it like that if they feel “I can’t do something,” they say, “Well, I can’t. There’s reasons why I can’t.” If they can experience doing it, then they get some off of that.

Jonathan: Where there’s a will, there’s a way and if the motivation is strong enough people can do almost anything. But I guess part of I’m saying is that our moral behavior and our moral judgment are only very loosely coupled. And we care a lot more about showing off to people than we do about actually changing the world. Most people on most issues obviously someone like you is deeply committed. For you what I just said is not true and for many of your listeners it won’t be true either. For most people you’re trying to reach. Yeah, they care about the environment. They care about a lot of things but it’s not going to be so high on their priority list that they would really do something costly, difficult, challenging for themselves.

Joshua: So The Coddling of the American Mind, we haven’t really talked much about it. How much of it is leading into…I feel like there is a broad move from analysis to action and to figure out what to do. Is this book…Where does it go in there? Is it just analysis or is it also…

Jonathan: The book analyzes what’s been happening on-campus, how the dynamic has changed. The average student isn’t that much different. It’s not as though the young generation is radically different. But the dynamics on-campus have changed in terms of because of social media what people are afraid of and the ways that one false word, one false like can get people to criticize you publicly and we care more about reputation than just about anything else. So the book analyzes what’s going on on-campus. It shows that there is a real problem for the young generation. This is not about millennials. Millennials are not different from previous generations. This is about kids born after 1995 known as either I Gen or Gen Z. They have much, much higher rates of anxiety and depression, especially the girls. They have very different notions of safety. They have been raised on the idea of emotional safety which my generation never heard of. I asked my kids if they’d ever heard sticks and stones will break my bones and they said no, they have not. They were you know fifth grade and second grade at the time. Nobody says that anymore.

So we’ve been raising kids. The subtitle of the book is How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. And if parents and teachers have been acting as though kids are fragile and need to be protected from exclusion. In my daughter’s school the teacher has forbade groups that exclude other kids on the playground. Everybody has to play with everybody so that seems very nice. But it means kids don’t have experience with being excluded so then they get to college and any little thing they’re not as used to it. They’re not as basically when we banned peanuts from schools we increased the number of kids with peanut allergies because if you don’t let kids’ immune systems encountered peanuts, then they become allergic to peanuts. We’re doing the same with small upset, small conflicts.

So there is reason to think that kids today coming… The kids born after 1995 I should say, kids born after 1995 are more reactive. They are more easily hurt by words and ideas. There is some reason to think that. And so the book then analyzes six different threads, six different reasons why things are changing on-campus including changes in childhood but also the rise in political polarization which has led to much greater nastiness. The decline of political diversity on-campus, the increasing bureaucratization of campuses. And we show how what we’re doing well it seems well-intentioned it’s really bad for students, it’s really bad. We’re producing kids who are not as able to go out into the world and deal with people who are different from them and deal with people who hold ideas that they think are hateful.

Joshua: So this is an incredibly hot topic with voices going crazy in all directions. But I feel like you’re coming through with a perspective that’s not a crazy voice and could bring…

Jonathan: The book is all about how to get systems working. Human beings are really bad reasoners on their own. And if you put us in groups who think just like us, we get even worse. This is especially important for activist movements who tend to create a very thick bubble around them. If you want to bond tightly with your group, draw thick walls around your cells. If you want to actually change people, draw a circle around [unintelligible] that includes them. We need systems that work. We need systems that expose people to people who are different from them. Our reasoning, our thinking gets better when we are challenged even by people who believe things that are false because we have to defend ourselves. That’s what John Stuart Mill said On Liberty and I would urge listeners to go to heterodoxyacademy.org/mill and you can download a book. We created a beautiful edition of John Stuart Mills On Liberty just the second chapter. It’s a free PDF as well as a three-dollar Kindle version of it. And I think anybody who’s involved in persuasion should understand Jon Stewart Mill’s arguments for why viewpoint diversity is good.

Joshua: Jonathan, thank you very much and I can attest that the writing is accessible, it’s fun to read. I find it incredibly valuable. Any last words for the listeners?

Jonathan: Recognize that we are going through an extraordinary time in which social media and other recent changes are turning us all into self-righteous jerks. Our combined jerk-attitude threatens to destroy society. We all have to tone it down, be more humble. We don’t know the truth. We don’t have privileged access to the truth and we have to give each other the benefit of the doubt. So I guess those are my parting words. The environment is important. By all means act to preserve it. It is arguably the most important issue that we face. And I want activists to be as effective as possible, not as passionate as possible.

Joshua: Thank you very much.

Jonathan: My pleasure, Joshua.


On a personal note, I greatly admire Jonathan’s publicly going through a transformation from more abstract to more personal. That’s a leader’s journey and he’s entering a crazily partisan area with a calm voice. I greatly support the direction he’s going with The Coddling of the American Mind. Also, I’ve read the articles that he’s listed. I’ll put a link on the podcast page and they’ve changed my approach too. I’m now starting to work at getting guests who disagree with me. I’m talking more about cleanliness and purity and seeing that perspective. Of course, I care about cleanliness and purity but in a different way. I’m realizing when I talk to more conservative people than it matters to them in new ways that I hadn’t thought of. I’m noticing sanctity and disgust and seeing how to bring those into the game. I highly recommend reading The Righteous Mind. I’ll put the links to his page plus the articles that I read that changed my approach to how to talk to people who disagree with me. If your goal is to lead others and to be able to work with people that disagree with you and to influence them and be open to being influenced by them, I think his work will help a lot.

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