Is Your Mind Coddled?

Since there is so much in the news right now about the Supreme Court, I wanted to post this commencement speech from Chief Justice John Roberts…

Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

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First and foremost, this is not a speech related to the Kavanaugh fiasco or any type of sexual assault. It is a speech addressing the problem in today’s world of “speech” censorship. From the left and the right, people are becoming “offended” by opinions that don’t fit their worldview. On the left, this is destroying universities with call-out cultures and “trigger warnings;” students are being taught that opposing views do not have to be debated but rather chased down like a modern-day Salem Witch Trial. On the right, opposing views are looked at as “Fake News” or a conspiracy theory which gains credibility in dark corners of comment sections. Our echo chambers have gotten worse within the past decade because of our tailored media outlets.

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The real problem arises once we start teaching children – and ourselves – that the echo chamber is how the real world should operate. Instead of preparing the next generation to grow mental muscles, we are taking all the weights out of the cerebral gym. Instead of strapping on a good pair of mental hiking boots we are paving the jungle of differing opinions. This blog is a direct result of my most recent book: The Coddling of the American Mind – How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (both self-professed liberals). These two authors wrote an Atlantic article on this very subject, and that article morphed into a book after it became one of the most read articles in the magazines’ history. I highly recommend this book and the authors speak about three “Untruths” that are being taught in our society…

  1. “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” or the idea that exposure to offensive or difficult ideas is traumatic
  2. “Always trust your feelings,” or the notion that feeling upset by an idea is a reason to discount it
  3. “Us versus them,” or homogenous tribal thinking that leads people to shame those whose views fall outside that of their group

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Let me give you an example of these “Untruths” in action. Imagine an Asian student at a college and a white student innocently asking him for help with math homework. On many campuses, this question could be construed as racist and the Asian student would be supported by a Campus sponsored policy to reprimand the white student. Continuing the story, the Asian student could voice this example through social media where friends could voice “Us versus them” remarks with little rational argument: {copy-paste the following} white bigot, white privilege, misogynist, xenophobic, etc. This may sound far-fetched, but worse examples have happened on campuses. This was an example from the “left” but the antagonism from the “right” is just as bad – think about Trump’s Twitter feed. These “Untruths” lead to greater anxiety, depression, and anger among all political groups. I am not condoning hate speech or being an outright ass. I am condoning thoughtful dialogue and a thick skin because the world is not an echo chamber – our democracy depends on differing viewpoints and a populace with a good pair of hiking boots. What do you think?

Scoop

I may sound like a broken record but I am going to say it again, “news is crap.” Most news is just gossip that does nothing for our life except waste our time or make us more depressed. For example, I turned the nightly news on and it was all about a murder that had taken place the previous night. How do I benefit from knowing about this murder? Am I going to change my habits? Should I buy a gun? Should I refrain from drug deals at 3:00 AM? The only thing that will change is my equanimity – from peaceful to paranoid. I don’t listen to the news and I know very little about current events. Does this make me ignorant? Yes and No. I am oblivious to trivial matters but if the news is important enough – the word will eventually reach me; but when I do hear about it, I have a breadth of knowledge to contribute which the news could never provide. I am ignorant about Donald Trump’s myriad mishaps but I am not ignorant about the mishaps of the French Revolution. I am ignorant of the most recent natural disaster but I am not ignorant about Plato’s philosophy on human suffering. It is better to study the past so that you have a foundation to understand the present. This point is best illustrated by a toddler who is told by an older brother that an evil clown lives in his closet. With no background information or knowledge of clown behavior, the kid pees himself for the next month.

I bring this topic up because my 5th classic, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, is a satire on the news business and how the news “supposedly” educates the public. Scoop was written in 1938 and is acclaimed for its portrayal of the Fleet Street culture in London. Fleet Street was the mecca of England newspapers and there was a lot of money to be made from constant news. The problem in Scoop is that there is a lack of stories happening in the world and the bigwigs are anxious to keep the printing press hot. They end up sending, by mistake, a part-time columnist to an obscure country to report on a potential war; the dilemma is that there is no real turmoil to report on. Journalists keep flooding the small nation in search of a “scoop” – in the end a story has to be partly falsified and exaggerated in order to sell papers. Scoop is actually pretty funny and is a critique on the deplorable state of new’s media and their incessant need for sensationalism – seemingly stamping “news” on everything. This book parallels our current media’s incessant need for material and the subsequent decline in reporting. Not even speaking of “fake” news, the “real” news is rarely ever worth a second glance; like a Shepard eternally crying wolf! Waugh could never have imagined the internet age but his novel is more applicable today than when it was published. Instead of chasing our tails, let’s spend more time in well researched books and periodicals which are respected. Don’t take the bait and believe your brother – “Breaking News: Killer Clown Discovered to be Vacuum Cleaner!”

“‘You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news. Of course there’s colour. Colour is just a lot of bulls’-eyes about nothing.'”
-Evelyn Waugh Scoop