By Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt (2018)
The Guardian hated this book, so it must be good, right? Not necessarily. it is a bit like Mr. Haidt’s The Righteous Mind – an excellent book – transferred onto campus, where, the authors argue, i-Gen or Gen Z students are being programmed by social media and their professors into fragile, hysterical, blind little snowflakes. This resolves into the ludicrous examples seen in recent years of safe spaces (current example: Arizona State socialist students seeking to bar Kyle Rittenhouse from attending an online course!), cancel-culture and witch-hunts, all vivified by helicopter parents, university bureaucrats, anti-depressants and psychiatric diagnostic blundering, sedentary lifestyles, justice as a narcissistic impulse, and Donald Trump.
This discussion is enlivened by colourful anecdotal and recorded evidence, but leavened by logical (as opposed to actual) and optimistic (not realistic) argument, that ultimately sees one clutching for some tome on cognitive behavioural therapy. For the remedy, it seems, lies in some heroic (albeit largely benign) strategies to wise-up kids (harden them up, give ’em CBT, see the other point of view, be better parents, and so on. Don’t make them a candle sheltered from the winds, but a fire rejoicing in the buffeting). And if they survive to post-graduate age, have the universities get some lively debates going. In recent years, however, we have seen the impact of one of Hitler’s misdemeanours (not to be confused with his many crimes): he unleashed Herbert Marcuse onto American campuses, thereby ensuring the closing of debate, the hijacking of truth and the demonising of the Rational.
The book reads well, and for many pages, is wise, but our ultimate impression is that the authors’ faith in their mission is misplaced. The situation is not serious, but hopeless. In fact, it is spent. Yes, we know Macauley said this in 1830:
We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason. ‘A million a year will beggar us,’ said the patriots of 1640. ‘Two millions a year will grind the country to powder,’ was the cry in 1660. ‘Six millions a year, and a debt of fifty millions!’ exclaimed Swift; ‘the high allies have been the ruin of us.’ ‘A hundred and forty millions of debt!’ said Junius; ‘well may we say that we owe Lord Chatham more than we shall ever pay, if we owe him such a load as this.’ ‘Two hundred and forty millions of debt!’ cried all the statesmen of 1783 in chorus; ‘what abilities, or what economy on the part of a minister, can save a country so burdened?’ We know that if, since 1783, no fresh debt had been incurred, the increased resources of the country would have enabled us to defray that debt at which Pitt, Fox, and Burke stood aghast, nay, to defray it over and over again, and that with much lighter taxation than what we have actually borne. On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?
The authors quote a portion of that statement, which grounds their essential optimism in the future. And we do suppose that humankind is fundamentally resilient, that the current social media is but a medium, and will pass (e.g. from ‘Facebook‘ to ‘Death’, as ‘Meta’ is in Hebrew). Nevertheless, if one considers anew the complete quote of Macauley, which concentrates on economy and the public debt, one can say there has been improvement in many things from 1830 to the present, yet there has also been a significant deterioration (and not only in public debt). A free, and just, society is a garden: neglect it and it returns to jungle. The Age of Enlightenment was a newly revised emanation of the sunnier aspects of classical antiquity, but it is passing. The Decline of Western Civilisation is giving way to a new dark age, where medieval thinking (the Irrational, the Religious Fervour, the Triumph of Ill Will, the Witch Hunt, the Rise of Tribalism, the digital bijou holocausts) is taking root and the free-thinking intelligences (‘Carpe Datum’!) such as the authors, ‘slowly wend on their designated tumbrils, all wending slowly on into Eternity.’