Given the political turmoil on many college campuses, and in America more broadly, what should incoming college students read before they arrive next September?
My publishers at Random House asked me to write up something they could hand out at the annual convention of people who pick common reading books for universities, and who plan out “first year experiences” to give all incoming freshman a shared set of ideas and experiences. I think the case for The Righteous Mind is pretty clearly stated in its subtitle: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Below is the text that Random House has posted to accompany the book. It may be of use to any professor picking readings for next fall for any course with political content.
Americans have long known that they have racial, ethnic, class, and partisan divides. But the 2016 presidential election has forced all of us to recognize that these gaps may be far larger, more numerous, and more dangerous than we thought. Americans are not just failing to meet each other and know each other. Increasingly, we hate each other—particularly across the partisan divide.
Hatred and mistrust damage democracy, and they can seep onto campus and distort academic life as well. In these politically passionate times, and with all students immersed in social media, it’s no wonder that students, as well as faculty, often say that they are walking on eggshells—fearful of offending anyone by offering a provocative argument or by choosing the wrong word.
If you could pick one book that all incoming college students should read together— one book that would explain what is happening and promote discussion about how to bridge these divisions, what would it be?
My suggestion—The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
1) The Righteous Mind is non-partisan, and teaches cross-partisan respect. I’m a social psychologist who has studied moral and political psychology for thirty years. I first began research for The Righteous Mind in 2004, motivated in part by a desire to help progressives do a better job of connecting with American moral values. But after immersing myself in the writings of all sides and doing my best to find the good on all sides, I became a non-partisan centrist. As I show clearly in my book, the three major philosophical camps—left, right, and libertarian—are each the guardians of deep truths about how to have a humane and flourishing society. I treat all sides fairly and respectfully and help students to step out of their “moral matrix” in order to appreciate the ways that ideological teams distort thinking, and blind us to the motives and insights of others.
2) The Righteous Mind makes big ideas accessible to eighteen-year-olds. The Righteous Mind takes students on a tour of the history of life, from bacteria through the present day, explaining the origins of cooperation and human “ultrasociality.” I explain what morality is, how it evolves—both biologically and culturally—and why it differs across societies and centuries. The book explores the fundamentals of social and cognitive psychology to explain why people are so susceptible to “fake news,” or anything else that offers to confirm our pre-existing judgments. In short, it is a book about some of the biggest and most pressing questions addressed by scholars today. This is why the New York Times Book Review hailed it as “A landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself.”
The Righteous Mind has been widely praised by reviewers on the left and the right, many of whom noted that the book conveys the grandest ideas in language that makes it fun and easy to read.
From the left, The Guardian (UK) said: “What makes the book so compelling is the fluid combination of erudition and entertainment.”
From the right, The American Conservative said: “The author is that rare academic who presents complex ideas in a comprehensible manner.”
3) The Righteous Mind links together most of the academy. Like sexuality, morality is too multifaceted to fit within a single department, and I have drawn on scholarship from across the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. The Righteous Mind is one of the most interdisciplinary, trade books in recent decades, making it ideal as a common reading that professors across the university will be able to draw on. Students will be thrilled to find so many links among their classes—they’ll see that knowledge is often unified, and that the insights from each field often complement those of others. This table shows which disciplines are drawn on to a substantial degree in each of the three parts of the book:
4) The Righteous Mind comes with lots of supporting materials. I maintain and update regularly a website for the book: RighteousMind.com. The site has a tab of materials labeled “Applying Moral Psych.” There you’ll find a page of resources specifically for professors who are using the book in class. The page has links to videos to show with each chapter, links to projects, and videos created by students. It also has links to research sites, such as YourMorals.org, where students can obtain their own scores on the “Moral Foundations Questionnaire.”
5) The Righteous Mind will make all other conflicts on campus more tractable. In a time of rising conflict and tension on many campuses, The Righteous Mind will calm things down and teach students skills they can use to engage in difficult conversations. As I wrote in the introduction:
Etiquette books tell us not to discuss [politics and religion] in polite company, but I say go ahead. Politics and religion are both expressions of our underlying moral psychology, and an understanding of that psychology can help to bring people together. My goal in this book is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with a mixture of awe, wonder, and curiosity.
There is no better way to prepare for discussions of race, gender, climate change, politics, or any other potentially controversial topic than to start your students’ college experience by assigning The Righteous Mind as the “common reading” to your incoming class.
p.s., Short of asking students to buy the book, you could send them to my “politics and polarization” page, where there are many essays and videos. Also, Random House created a very short and inexpensive “Kindle Single,” which is basically just the last chapter, here.Read More
Tom Edsall has an excellent column in today’s NYT titled: Purity, Disgust, and Donald Trump. He begins with the work that I and my colleagues at YourMorals.org have done on the role of disgust in political life. How else can we explain Trump’s twin obsessions with bodily fluids and closing the borders to keep out human contaminants (see Bruni’s “Blood, Sweat, and Trump.” You can also read more about our empirical work in Donald Trump and the Politics of Disgust).
But even more important than purity and disgust, I believe, is the psychology of authoritarianism. That term is somewhat contested, but it’s striking that most of the experts Edsall interviewed agreed that that however you define it, Trump exhibits and exploits it. In this blog post I just want to point readers to what I think is the best treatment of authoritarianism out there: Karen Stenner’s 2008 book The Authoritarian Dynamic.
Here’s the full quote I sent to Edsall, trying to steer him to Stenner’s work;
I’d say the key to understanding Trump’s appeal is to look beyond values. We’re all accustomed to thinking about a range of conservative and progressive values, and Trump’s phenomenal success can’t be understood just by re-arranging values into a new recipe. The key is to be found in the work of political scientist Karen Stenner, whose research showed that there are three very different psychological types of people who have been supporting the Republican party since the 1980s: the “laissez faire” conservatives, who are not conservative at all, they are classical liberals who oppose government intervention in markets (like Rand Paul); the “status quo” conservatives, who are the classic Burkean conservatives, cautious about change, and highly responsible and conscientious (Jeb Bush and John Kasich); and the authoritarians, who are the most malleable or changeable depending on the political environment (Trump).In times of low moral threat, when they perceive that the country is relatively unified and the moral order is not being subverted, they are not particularly intolerant (Stenner finds). But, when they perceive that the moral order is falling apart, the country is losing its coherence and cohesiveness, diversity is rising, and our leadership seems (to them) to be suspect or not up to the needs of the hour, its as though a button is pushed on their forehead that says “in case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant.” So its not just rising immigration and diversity that has activated American authoritarians — it may be our rising political polarization itself, which has activated and energized a subset of the electorate that is now lionizing Trump as the first major candidate in a long time who has spoken to their fears and desires. In short, Trump is not a conservative, and is not appealing to classical conservative ideas. He is an authoritarian, who is profiting from the chaos in Washington, Syria, Paris, San Bernardino, and even the chaos on campuses, which are creating a more authoritarian electorate in the Republican primaries.
Stenner’s book is long, but she has produced a much shorter synopsis in a 2009 article titled Three Kinds of Conservatism. It is behind a paywall, but I’ll see if I can contact Stenner to get her to post a manuscript version.
The only slight correction I’d like to add to Edsall’s column is that he goes from my claim that Trump is not a conservative to my older writings about social conservatives and disgust, including my attempts to make sense of the widespread focus in ancient moral texts on food, sex, and bodily functions. I actually don’t know whether disgust is really characteristic of “status quo conservatives.” It’s possible that it is the authoritarians who drive the general correlation of disgust and self-declared conservatism. Given Hitler’s obsessive focus on disgust and vermin in Mein Kampf, and the general absence of such talk in classical conservative writings, I would guess that it is most characteristic of authoritarian psychology. I will have to look into this in the YourMorals dataset, and I hope other researchers can address that question.
I close by emphatically agreeing with Edsall’s concluding lines:
Whatever happens next, he has remade the landscape on which these conflicts will be fought — for better, or, more likely, for worse.
One of the things that most bothers me about the modern “victimhood culture” of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces is how directly it flies in the face of the world’s greatest wisdom, which I reviewed in The Happiness Hypothesis. For example, chapter 7 is about the uses of adversity: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” as Nietszche put it. Mencius explained the idea more fully in the 3rd century BCE:
When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, […and] place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent
Nasim Taleb nailed the idea with his recent book “Anti-Fragile.” A carton of eggs is fragile, so you’d better handle it with care. But many things in our world are anti-fragile: they are systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. The immune system is anti-fragile: If you protect your kids from dirt and germs, you’ll weaken their immune system and set them up for more autoimmune diseases. Similarly children and teenagers are anti-fragile. If you protect their feelings with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and micro-aggression training for everyone in the community, you weaken them, you make them fragile.
I was making a list in my mind of all the ways that victimhood culture violates ancient wisdom when I was invited to give a talk at the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale. In my talk, I run through three sets of ancient ideas that many modern “coddling” universities (and high schools) violate, and I imagined what a university would look like if it was built on ancient wisdom instead. I called this mythical university “Strengthen U.” In the video, I pretend to be admissions officers from the two universities, trying to recruit high school students to apply.
Here is the video (30 minutes):
Here is a link to a condensed transcript of the talk, including most of the slides.
Incidentally, I thought the Buckley program was terrific. It’s a student organization for conservatives, but in my visit I found that it has some real political diversity in it. The audience at my talk was roughly a third right of center, a third left, and a third libertarian — this is the most political diversity I have ever seen when speaking at a university. These students are engaging with arguments from all sides, and doing it civilly. They will emerge stronger and smarter. Progressive Yale students who don’t get involved with Buckley have few other chances to be exposed to conservative ideas or conservative faculty. (That’s what happened to me when I was at Yale in the 1980s.) If they go on to careers in law, politics, or business, where they must engage with conservative ideas and arguments, they will not know what to say, and will fall back on the kinds of Marcusian rhetorical devices that I describe in the video, and which you can see in action in the Twitter exchange at the bottom of this post. For more on the benefits of political diversity at universities, please see HeterodoxAcademy.org.Read More
Below is the letter to the editor that Greg Lukianoff and I submitted to the New York Times in response to an op-ed by Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne, which defended the use of trigger warnings.
The Times did not respond to our submission, so here it is:
To the Editor:
Re: “Why I use trigger warnings” (Opinion, Sept. 19): Kate Manne’s efforts to alert her philosophy students about potentially upsetting course content shows her to be a caring teacher. But her critique of our essay condemning trigger warnings begins with a non sequitur. She is surely right that “the evidence suggests” that some of her students “are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma.” But that does not logically imply that “the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant.” We have not found any empirical evidence that trigger warnings yield any psychological benefits, whereas there is empirical evidence suggesting that they might be harmful. So it is more logical to conclude that if trauma is common, then the harms caused by trigger warnings might be significant.
Manne then offers an analogy: “Exposing students to triggering material without warning seems more akin to occasionally throwing a spider at an arachnophobe.” This is not a valid analogy. Asking students to read novels or Greek myths that include sexual assault is like saying the word spider in the presence of an arachnophobe, which anxiety experts tell us is a good way to reduce the long-term emotional power of spiders. If well-meaning teachers and friends work together to help an arachnophobe avoid exposure to the word spider, or to pictures of spiders, spider webs, and Spiderman, they will strengthen the arachnophobe’s conviction that mere reminders of spiders are dangerous. This is how a temporary and reversible phobia can be hardened into a lifelong and debilitating identity.
Manne also asserts that “there seems to be very little reason not to give these warnings.” It’s simple courtesy, no? Trigger warnings are like “advisory notices given before films and TV shows.” But those warnings are given so that parents can keep their children safe from material for which they are not yet emotionally mature enough. This is why the American Association of University Professors has condemned the use of trigger warnings as being “at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”
Furthermore, once a few professors start giving these warnings, students will begin to request them from their other professors, and this may lead to a cascade of caution among the rest of the faculty. Last year, seven humanities professors from seven colleges penned an Inside Higher Ed article stating that “this movement is already having a chilling effect on [their] teaching and pedagogy.” The professors reported receiving “phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings.”
There is a more subtle harm caused to students when professors use trigger warnings. One of us (Haidt) teaches in New York City. Suppose Haidt took his students on field trips all over the city, but every time he took the class to the Bronx, Haidt took additional steps: he gave the class a warning, weeks in advance, and he hired a paramedic to ride with them in the bus. Just in case. What effect will this have on the students, and on their future willingness to visit The Bronx on their own?
Do we really want to tell our students that some of their fellow students could end up in emergency care if they were to read certain novels without being properly steeled for the task? This message would reflect and strengthen the “culture of victimhood” that sociologists have identified as emerging on our most egalitarian college campuses. It could weaken students to the point where we might, someday, really need paramedics in our classrooms.
For the record, below is the Twitter exchange I had with Manne as a result of this blog post. Note that Brad Wilcox’s tweet was not part of this exchange — it just happened to be posted during my exchange with Manne.
[Below is a guest post from Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, in response to my previous blog post on their article]
Jonathan Haidt’s discussion on this blog of our article “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” led to a number of comments here and elsewhere. We are grateful for everyone’s insights and observations, and especially for those that have directed us to some very useful resources (commenter D.M. Ryan was especially helpful, as were the blog posts of Ronald Bailey and Alan Jacobs). Many of the commenters brought up important objections and questions that we’d like to address more thoroughly.
1) Is the culture changing? What’s your evidence?
Some have questioned whether the changes we discuss have actually occurred. These questions tend to deal with our conception of moral culture, our evidence, or both. Commenter Sarah, for example, asks about whether all three cultures we discuss are actually distinct moral cultures, and Steve Ruble wonders “what the objective evidence for an actual shift in the cultural moral code would look like.”
One thing to keep in mind is that our concept of moral culture is just shorthand for identifying clusters of traits that are more prevalent in one setting than another. The “moral cultures” we identify are in that sense both a simplification and a matter of degree. This is true of the honor and dignity cultures identified by previous scholars as well as the victimhood culture we view as divergent from each of these. When we talk about a new moral culture arising, we mean that a cluster of traits has become frequent and prominent enough that we think it ought to be distinguished from the others.
What we are interested in is what people have conflicts about and how they handle them. Certainly many of the things we identify as characteristic of victimhood culture can be seen in the past. Just about every society in history has had people complaining and appealing to third parties. For that matter, just about every society has had violent aggression, direct negotiation, tolerance, avoidance, and so forth. And one can still see honor conflicts and violent retribution in the contemporary United States. But we doubt college students today are as likely to worry about maintaining a reputation for toughness and pugnacity as young men in the antebellum South, and they’re certainly less likely to fight duels. Similarly, we think they are more likely than young people 50 or 60 years ago to complain to the public or to authorities about being hurt by offensive remarks.
These are empirical matters, and perhaps someone will find evidence to counter or to support our claims. In science, a single paper is rarely the last word on any subject, all the more so when the paper involves general theoretical ideas like the principles of conflict and social control employed in our paper.
But for now the evidence we do present – the microaggression complaints, the calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces – seems to us to illustrate well enough the emergence of a fairly distinct kind of moral thinking. Consider too that some very stark examples are too new even to have made it into our article, published just nine months ago. Since then university administrators have begun to heed the cries of the microaggression complainants. The University of California system, for instance, has issued a set of guidelines for faculty listing a number of statements that might be microaggressions, and its regents are now considering a policy guaranteeing the right of everyone in the university community to be free from “expressions of intolerance.” There seems to be a change in social control and moral life afoot.
2) Don’t people other than campus activists complain about microaggressions?
The term “microaggression” comes from the campus left, and it is there that we see victimhood culture at its peak. But we certainly see manifestations of it elsewhere, and many of our readers have, in person or online, pointed to various examples of conservatives, evangelical Christians, or others complaining about minor slights, portraying themselves as oppressed, or in some other way claiming victim status. This is something we point out in our article – that if victimhood confers status, then all sorts of people will want to claim it. But the extent of this is something worth investigating. As Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, asks, “To what extent are non-collegians engaged in policing microaggressions by another name? How are their actions the same as and distinct from Oberlin Microaggressions [a microaggression website he discusses] and its analogs at other campuses?”
One reason microaggression complaints illustrate so well the cultural change from a dignity- to a victimhood-based morality is the name itself. Microaggression complainants differ from others who complain about often unintentional slights or other verbal offenses in that they label these offenses as a kind of “aggression.” Someone asking you a normal question, perhaps inappropriate for the occasion, like “Where are you from?” is thus not friendly and well intentioned, or even awkward and ignorant, but an “aggressor” who has victimized you. It is this terminology, in part, that makes these kinds of complaints so appealing to the complainants and their supporters and at the same time so outrageous to others. What might otherwise be understood as the rudeness or cluelessness of individuals is now cast as a way in which dominant collectivities marginalize and oppress minority groups.
Still, as Alan Jacobs notes, “Friedersdorf’s post encourages us to consider whether these habits of mind are characteristic of society as a whole.” We think they are to some degree, and this is likely to increase. True, there may be a backlash. And yes, it’s always possible social conditions will change in ways that send the course of moral evolution down some other path. We cannot see the future in a crystal ball. But what we do see is that the conditions we claim give rise to a full blown victimhood culture among circles of campus activists are present to lesser degrees elsewhere and show few signs of abating. And it seems that victimhood begets victimhood, as those accused of oppression and privilege find it easiest to defend against such accusations by claiming victimhood themselves. For instance, someone taken to task for being blinded by privilege might be able to silence a critic by labeling his criticism an instance of mansplaining or some other microaggressive offense. And even those most opposed to the morality of victimhood might become similar to their opponents in the course of the conflict, as they increasingly focus on minor and verbal offenses. A complaint about a microaggression complaint is, like the microaggression complaint itself, a complaint about a matter most people would see as trivial.
Under the right social conditions, social behaviors reproduce themselves like a seed crystal dropped into solution. Introduce one violent gang into a lawless setting, and it won’t be long before other gangs form to defend or compete against it. Victimhood culture might self-replicate in similar ways, with the clash of victimhood and dignity giving way to clashes between competing victims.
3) Is the term “victimhood culture” appropriate?
The supporters of microaggression complaints, trigger warnings, and safe spaces commonly object to the term “victimhood culture.” As commenter Andrew puts it, “I don’t think anyone in this emerging set of norms, frameworks, and models for reactivity to speech would describe it as a culture of ‘victimhood.’” Is our use of the term therefore pejorative rather than descriptive? We think it is not, though the question is a fair one. Elsewhere we have noted our own moral preference for dignity culture and commitment to academic freedom, but we don’t find the moral assessment of moral cultures nearly as interesting as the descriptive sociology of moral cultures. As sociologists we are fascinated by alternative moralities such as those of honor and victimhood. Honor is interesting because it is such a peculiar type of status, one associated with a reputation for bravery. So is victimhood, which involves the conferral of a kind of moral status on those designated as victims of oppression. Since this is what best distinguishes this emerging morality from others, we see “victimhood culture” as the most appropriate name.
We do understand why some might see the term as pejorative, though. There is an asymmetry between this term and the terms honor and dignity: People in honor cultures openly refer to their honor and judge it a good thing, people in dignity cultures openly refer to their dignity and judge it a good thing, but people in victimhood cultures would not likewise openly refer to victimhood as a kind of status and judge it a good thing.
We believe this could not be any other way, as there is an inherent tension – a cultural contradiction if you will – in demonizing the privileged and valorizing the oppressed. Supporting one side in a conflict – judging it as virtuous and throwing your weight behind the cause – accords that side a kind of status. The contradiction is that support goes to those who lack privilege, but the ability to attract support is a kind of privilege. It is perhaps then quite difficult – a source of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance – to openly acknowledge this: that a reduction in oppression – however limited in context and extent – comes from being recognized as oppressed. If this is the case, it is not really the term “victimhood culture” that people are objecting to, but the very idea that victimization is increasingly valorized, or that anyone might find it attractive to gain recognition as a victim or member of a disadvantaged group.
It is likewise difficult to admit that privilege can ever be a liability. What Lukianoff and Haidt call “vindictive protectiveness” creates “a culture in which everyone must think twice before they speak up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” But the advocates of this type of morality seldom acknowledge they are harming anyone at all. This is especially so since, while everyone can have dignity, not everyone can be a victim. As commenter Andrew puts it, the culture “seems to separate people into those-who-harm, those-who-are-harmed, and those-who-protect-from-harm.” And as Jake Was Here adds, in response to Andrew, “Those Who Harm can NEVER become Those Who Are Harmed, and Those Who Are Harmed can NEVER become Those Who Harmed.”
Designating one group as protected implicitly designates others as unprotected. While some advocates justify this inequality as serving the purpose of counterbalancing other systemic inequities, such as the continuing effects of historic oppression, it seems that others have difficulty recognizing that the distinction creates any inequality at all. For example, recall the policy the regents of the University of California are considering – to guarantee a right to be free from verbal expressions of intolerance. The policy also says that it “does not apply to the free exchange of ideas in keeping with the principles of academic freedom and free speech.” But obviously these two things cannot both be true. To say someone has a right to be free from some type of speech means someone else is prohibited from speaking. Which groups fall into which category is the only question. They do not answer that question explicitly, of course, since, as Megan McArdle points out, it’s “hard to establish a rule that only some groups are entitled to be free from offense.” The groups on the losing end “will not take this lying down.” They might even start complaining of their victimization and launching campaigns to sway authority figures and the public to their cause.
Owing to these contradictions, we believe, any accurate description of this moral milieu is bound to offend. As sociologists of morality, though, we must discuss these things as clearly as we can. Others can choose whatever terminology they like, so long as they too try to be clear and descriptively accurate as well. Again, our main purpose is neither to make ethical arguments nor to quibble over terminology. Our concern is with the grievances that people have, how those grievances are handled, and how these things vary across different social settings. It’s an endlessly fascinating topic, and we invite others to join us in exploring it.Read More
President Obama spoke out forcefully yesterday on the purpose of college and the perils of the new political correctness. (See coverage at Vox.) At a forum on college access and affordability, in Des Moines, Iowa, a high school student asked him about Ben Carson’s proposal that government cut funding for “politically biased colleges.” This gave the President an opportunity to talk about recent trends on college campuses, and how intellectual and political diversity in his own college days broadened his mind and changed some of his assumptions. Here’s the key section on trigger warnings, safe spaces, and “coddling:”
It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal, and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues, who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem too. I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” That’s not the way we learn either.
His whole response is a beautiful statement on the value of a liberal arts education — including exposure to political diversity — for creating thoughtful and open-minded citizens.
You can watch the whole interaction here. Drag the slider to 1:22:32