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?

Rethink Your Righteousness

Have you ever gotten into a political argument with someone on the other side of the aisle? With the 2016 tire-fire-election still burning, I can guess the response to that question. Liberals think Conservatives are uneducated and unsympathetic. Conservatives think Liberals are bleeding-hearts and unpatriotic. Around and around we go till Uncle Fred is blue in the face and millennial Sally is red with furry. Growing up I was more conservative because of my parent’s love for the Republican party and in my college years, I swung more liberal because of inequality enlightenment. So what are my views now? Well, that is complicated because I just read an excellent book by Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt is a moral psychologist and has made it his life’s work to figure out what defines personal, community, and world morality. Let’s test your own morality…

A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They have heard that dog meat is delicious, so they cook it and eat it for dinner. Is this wrong? Why?

Or how about this one…

Julie and Mark are a brother and sister who, one night on a vacation together, decide to make love. Julie is already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. Was it wrong for them to have sex?

One more just for fun…

A woman cleaning her bathroom decides to cut up an old American flag and use it as a rag to scrub the toilet. Is this morally wrong?

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So what do you think? Is it OK that the brother and sister have sex or the old lady scrubs the crapper with the American flag? Some may say that if the actions are not harming others, then there is nothing immoral being done. Others would say that there is a sanctity to specific objects and the human body, so those previous scenarios are entirely immoral. Haidt found that these questions are answered very quickly by people based on their intuition or “feelings”; reasoning in morality is an afterthought and falls short of ever explaining a knee-jerk reaction. Put in another way, we are tiny riders on large elephants. The elephant is our moral and emotional intuition that is powerful and somewhat wild. The rider is our reasoning and rational brain that tries to steer the elephant in the right direction but does little of the actual legwork.

Riding The Elephant

Our elephant is an amalgamation of life experiences, evolution, genetic predisposition, and worldviews. Haidt discovered through years of research that there are six “taste” buds of morality: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. People have different moral tastes just like they have different tastes for cuisine. Liberals are concerned with the care and fairness tastebuds and are much more likely to accept the above questions as moral because they do not harm others. Conservatives actually have a wider moral palate with the proclivity for liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. This is why historically, conservative candidates receive more votes because those politicians can run on a wider platform. In general, worldviews outside of the West focus more on the last four moral tastebuds because the social fabric of society is far more important than self-expression or “American Individualism.” The point here is not that Conservatives are better than Liberals or more righteous. The point is that both sides of the aisle have legitimate moral concerns that complement the spectrum of human good.

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So what should we do with all this information? First, we need to train our rider to control the elephant. Realize that your beliefs may not always be 100% correct and that listening to others is an excellent exercise in understanding. Realize that your liberal/conservative foe is not someone to defeat but actually someone to embrace – a ying-yang effect that covers the entire moral spectrum. Realize that there are many worldviews out there and that yours is only one type of lens. Hadit makes this recommendation for liberals – progress is good, but it must be taken with caution to protect the traditional pillars of society (Hadit is a Liberal). Hadit makes this recommendation for conservatives – use the liberal  “care and fairness” attributes when businesses prey on others with entrenched interests. Overall, the point is that both sides have important things to offer and neither is entirely righteous. Let’s control our elephants and steer our beliefs from their normal head-on collision to a more amicable side-long saunter.