Jonathan Haidt: ‘Many people will soon find themselves mired in perpetual conflict over words’

Jonathan Haidt dislikes the term “snowflake”, preferring to use the more neutral “Gen Z” when describing the current state of colleges and universities all over the English-speaking world. 

The softly-spoken American professor, who teaches moral psychology at ​NYU’s Stern School of Business and co-authored The Coddling of the American Mind, is talking about why he believes we are living in an age of “incoherence, anomie and moral chaos”. His theory is that in the past four to five years, thanks to overprotective middle-class parenting and changes in social media, “a small subset” of students born after 1996 are increasingly demanding to be shielded from words and ideas that don’t accord with their own beliefs. 

He says the effects are becoming so widespread that, in the long term, they threaten to change the moral fabric of our society. Not only is this “great awokening”, as he half-jokily calls it, making young people hostile to different points of view, it is intimidating others on campus and prevents them from speaking up for fear that they be called out as racist, sexist, homophobic or worse. 

This new culture of safety-ism on campus includes the all-too-familiar stories of controversial speakers being “disinvited”, protests turning violent, and resident academics who challenge students being witch-hunted until they resign or are fired by an administration too weak, and sometimes also too woke, to defend its staff. “They all want to be agreeable, but when you are the leader, if you accept your critic’s narrative about you, then you’ve accepted a framing of your institution that means it is so terrible that it should be destroyed,” says Haidt. And the more progressive the academic institution, the more likely it is to accept such a narrative. 

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While Haidt has no objection to what he calls “productive activism”, such as fighting for climate change, “this new activism, with its inordinate attention to single words, is unproductive”, he says. 

Nor is the problem limited to a handful of US universities, as some people suggest; it’s happening in UK campuses too, says Haidt. He cites the case of one student union wanting to adopt “jazz hands” instead of clapping to avoid upsetting autistic and deaf people, and another that tried to ban sales of tabloid newspapers. At NYU, where Haidt teaches, “there are now signs in every bathroom telling students how to report me if I say anything they find offensive”. 

His interest in the subject took off in 2015, when he and lawyer Greg ​Lukianoff co-wrote an article with the same title as the book for The Atlantic magazine, which was read by more than three million people in four months. 

“When the article came out we were braced for an enormous pushback. It was an explosive time, and things were beginning to get very strange politically in ways we’re only beginning to understand,” he says. “But the climate changed in early 2016, when the number of shutdowns and disinvitations grew, and everything got worse. Things were changing in ways that are really bad for what we do, so Greg and I decided we had to turn it into a book.”

Between the article and the book, which came out last year, Haidt’s research revealed a strong connection between Gen Z’s soaring rates of anxiety and depression (especially among girls), their emotional fragility and their upbringing . “Originally, we didn’t see how it all linked to childhood trends, such as fearful parenting and the decline of play. We also didn’t know, until research was published last year, that there was a sudden radicalisation among white progressives in 2014 about different types of inequality: feminism, racism, misogyny, white privilege, or any other term from the woke vocabulary. 

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“Another big shift came from changes in social media after 2012, through Twitter and Instagram. This new configuration has been much more effective at spreading outrage, because almost anything can be taken as an example of how awful the other side is if you strip it of context and put it out there.

“We came out of a century that had some of the worst horrors in history but which made extraordinary progress on almost every conceivable front in the decades afterwards, and now we’re backsliding. In a lot of the justice movements on campus, I see ‘justice’ that has no concern for due process, no forgiveness, no mechanism for reconciliation, and that treats people as exemplars of groups rather than being based on what they’ve done or who they are. The students compete for status by calling out infractions, some of which are imagined.”

There has been pushback from academics such as Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson, as well as the introduction of the Chicago Statement, a free-speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago in 2015. This has subsequently been adapted and taken up by around 60 US universities to combat censorship on campus and protect the free-speech rights and academic freedom of both students and professors. 

But time marches on, and those woke Gen Z students are starting to graduate. What kind of employees are they likely to be? Haidt has talked to business people who report that some of them “come in looking for conflict, focused on words’,” says Haidt. “And while a university won’t die if no one co-operates, a business will, if it’s in constant conflict.” 

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Will companies adapt? “In journalism, the arts and media in the US they’ve failed spectacularly, and I hear from older journalists that wokeness is a powerful force among young journalists. I predict a rise of fragility and of quickness to take offence. There’ll be fewer face-to-face conflicts and a tendency to call something out on social media, which will be devastating for organisations. 

“There’s a very new morality, even if you’re on the Left and in industries that have accepted a progressive framing of the world. Well, almost everyone in the arts is on the Left. So these are progressive Left-leaning men and women, many of whom will soon find themselves mired in perpetual conflict over a word somebody in the company used that somebody else objected to.”

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is out now in paperback (Penguin, £10.99)


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