In my earlier post on the fragile generation the interview has this quote from Jonathan Haidt.
In his forthcoming book Misguided Minds: How Three Bad Ideas Are Leading Young People, Universities, and Democracies Toward Failure, Haidt claims that certain ideas are impairing students’ chances of success. Those ideas being: your feelings are always right; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; and the world is divided into good people and bad people. ‘If we can teach those three ideas to college students’, he says, ‘we cannot guarantee they will fail, but we will minimise their odds at success’.
I agree with Haidt about the first two ideas that the current generation seems to believe. To me the first idea, that feelings are always right, stems from the lack of teaching kids the ability to think critically. Way back in the mid 1980s a friend and I designed and taught an adult continuing education course on critical thinking. At that time we could see that our adult students had never been exposed to thinking in a methodical, logical way. It makes sense that if people don’t have even a rudimentary grasp of logic and arguments they are subject to subconscious biases and to the push of emotional reactions.
I’ve read a number of books over the last ten years that explore how we form opinions and how we are unconsciously influenced by many biases. I recall reading about one study in which some of the participants read a series of words related to being elderly. When they were later given a series of physical tasks to perform they completed them more slowly than the control group that had not been exposed to those words!
As I explain it to people we like to think we’re being detectives when we’re really lawyers. By that I mean a detective tries to find out who committed a crime by objectively collecting and piecing together the evidence. A lawyer, on the other hand, tries to build a case, either to defend their client or to prosecute the defendant. The studies I’ve read about show that we often come to a conclusion about an issue then go looking for confirming data. We tend to ignore or discount data that doesn’t fit our conclusion.
I agree with Haidt with his identifying the second prevalent idea that what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker. This idea seems to be rampant among what some call the derisively call the “snowflake” generation. I think this is tied to the first premise. That is, if you don’t have the tools to think critically then we’re threatened by ideas with which we disagree.
My main objective is to touch on his third point: that the world is divided into good people and bad people. I’m sure Haidt will explain this more in his upcoming book and that he isn’t saying there are no evil people. Being familiar with Haidt’s work, I believe he is saying that people are too quick to lump those who disagree with them into the evil camp. I’ve seen it happen many times where you’re demonized if you disagree with someone politically. Liberals think conservatives are evil and vice versa. I’m not saying everyone does this but a lot do. It has happened to me during the 2016 presidential election. A couple people have quit talking to my wife and me when we disagreed with them.
I’m assuming Haidt would agree that there are some evil people. The clearly obvious examples would be Hitler, Mao and Stalin or murderous sociopaths. But these are extreme examples. In our daily lives we rarely deal with people who are truly evil. They might buy into ideas or policies that we believe ultimately hurt people. For instance, conservatives and libertarians believe gun control disarms the poor who might live in high crime areas. Liberals believe gun control protects us from those who, in the liberal’s eyes, can too easily obtain guns. Conservatives and libertarians think welfare benefits eat away at the incentive for people to find work while liberals think welfare is needed to compensate for the victims of an economy rigged in favor of the rich and powerful. Neither side in these debates are necessarily evil. But I’ve seen it happen too often where you get slapped with the evil label for disagreeing! I assume Haidt’s book will delve into this in much more detail.
Before closing I’d recommend using something called steel manning and taking the ideological Turing test. Steel manning is opposite of a straw man argument which involves distorting what an opponent is saying then refuting it while the original argument wasn’t really addressed. Steel manning means we take the opposite approach of the straw man argument: you try to strengthen the argument of the other side before trying to refute it. To do this means applying what has been called the Turing ideological test where you try to state the argument of the other side as fairly as possible, as if you actually are taking that stand, then addressing it. I think if more people tried to do this we would have more civil and productive disagreements.
Both steel manning and the ideological Turing test take a lot of work! It means trying to think like your opponent then coming up with your response. Unfortunately, we tend to take the easy way out. Haidt has said in his earlier work that humans are still fundamentally tribal in nature. Once we form an allegiance to a tribe we talk the language of our tribe (see Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics) and look at the other tribe as the “enemy.”