Underrated: Jonathan Haidt

A bold critic of our present academic malaise

Daniel Johnson

Jonathan Haidt: Following the evidence regardless of politics (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Jonathan Haidt is hardly a household name on this side of the Atlantic — not yet, anyway. But among those who know his work, he is revered as a social and moral psychologist who follows the evidence, regardless of his own or anybody else’s politics. He is only underrated by those, mainly on the Left, who feel threatened by and hence resist the force of his logic and the wisdom of his insights.

Haidt has set himself three main tasks. He tries to understand the sources of “our natural self-righteousness”, in order to overcome it and teach respect for other points of view. He aims to use science, especially moral psychology, to transcend the culture wars. And he intends to dismantle the culture of “coddling” that he believes is “setting up a generation for failure”. Moreover, his work has only just begun. It’s a racing certainty (if a bad pun) that Haidt will scale even greater heights. He first made headlines six years ago with The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt argued from a coolly scientific, even-handed perspective, demonstrating that our political and religious convictions are deeply rooted in human nature and hence largely impervious to rational analysis. We are ingenious at finding reasons to justify our gut feelings: “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.”

It wasn’t just his application of new psychological research to our most cherished attitudes that seemed fresh and exciting, however. Haidt showed that whereas the Left tends to discount religious, familial or patriotic convictions, most people in every time and place have been motivated by authority, loyalty and sanctity — including the workers and minorities on whom the Left relies for its main support. Conservatives instinctively sympathise with these “moral tastes”, but liberals focus more narrowly on compassion, social justice and fairness. The Right shares these concerns too but has what he calls “the conservative advantage” of six rather than three moral “taste buds”.

This analysis feeds into Haidt’s broader critique of the liberal world view, for which he coins the acronym “Weird” because it is shared exclusively by Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic people. He wants Weirds to be tolerant of difference and patient with those who are deeply attached to a traditional way of life. Long before Hillary Clinton made her fatal mistake of sneering at “deplorables”, Haidt was warning liberals against self-righteousness.

His new book, The Coddling of the American Mind (Allen Lane, £20) takes his argument much further. Its title alludes to Allan Bloom’s celebrated blast from the past, The Closing of the American Mind, perhaps the most enduring of all the polemics engendered by America’s culture wars. But since Bloom was writing in the late 1980s, the focus of concern has shifted. Today, cultural relativism and amnesia take entirely new forms, as does the suppression of open debate, while the debasement of intellectual life has been hugely accelerated by the reduction of reading to surfing the web. Bloom could not have conceived the impact of online trivia on the young. It is not so much that their minds are closing as that they have never had a chance to open in the first place.

Haidt tackles these problems head-on. His book (written with the free speech activist Greg Lukianoff) is written as a “social science detective story”: while it compresses a huge quantity of data, it’s highly readable. Haidt and Lukianoff identify three Bad Ideas that have done great damage to iGen or Generation Z, those born since 1995.

The first Untruth concerns overprotection: “paranoid parents” are raising children to believe that what does not kill them will make them weaker, not stronger; the result is a fragile and overanxious generation. The impact of such “coddling”, combined with what they call “antisocial media”, can be measured in the huge increase in teenage depression and other mental illnesses in the West, especially among girls.

The second Untruth is the idea that you should always trust your feelings, which they call “emotional reasoning”. One consequence of this form of irrationalism is an extremely negative view of the self, those around one, and the world. Emotional reasoning also impacts on campus: any speaker who challenges students is likely to be seen as “dangerous” and disinvited.

The third and perhaps most pernicious Untruth concerns Us versus Them, a mindset that divides the world into “good” and “evil” people and exacerbated by identity politics and intersectionality. The dangers of such Manichaean indoctrination for children and young adults should be obvious: violence and intimidation, witchhunts, self-censorship and a constant fear of ostracism. 

Fortunately, the authors offer a range of solutions, from CBT techniques to an emphasis on “common humanity” to escape the polarisation of identity politics. Above all, Haidt stands for the intellectual virtues:  curiosity, open-mindedness and humility. He is rare among liberal intellectuals in eschewing self-indulgent posturing in favour of what Max Weber called “the ethic of responsibility”.

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