Why Don’t You All F-fade Away

Last Monday night, social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt spoke here in Madrid.

The talk was billed as The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (the title of his 2012 book), but it was primarily about his more recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.I haven’t read either, so I can only evaluate the content of the lecture.

His first slide—and I’m stealing this for every presentation I give in the future—was a photo of a starry sky; the feeling of awe opens our minds, he said.

Is your mind more open now? Good.

After a quick overview of the political scenes in a few countries where populism (which, now that I look at it, doesn’t seem to be a bad thing if you’re going strictly by the dictionary definition) has taken hold, Haidt said something to the effect of: “Politics is more divisive and more problematic than ever before.”

I wondered immediately: To what extent is that belief the result of recency and/or confirmation bias? After all, none of us was alive in 1800 to see the pamphlet, secretly funded by Thomas Jefferson, in which journalist James Callender called John Adams a “rageful, lying, warmongering fellow; a ‘repulsive pedant’ and ‘gross hypocrite’ who ‘behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.’” Politics has always been brutal—and ridiculous.

No, I think something deep within us wants to believe modern times are dirtier, more dramatic, and more divisive. After all, while it might not be a more uplifting story to tell the grandkids, it’s definitely more engaging. “I lived through the nastiest time in history” will draw eyes and ears. “Things in my day were civilized; a man would open a car door for a woman; and frankfurters only cost a nickel!” will draw shrugs.

Haidt would say, however, that things really are different nowadays. He laid out four reasons.

1. Social media has changed the parameters of human life.

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have put our conversations on display for everyone, he said. True enough.

Instead of having one-on-one conversations, or conversations within small groups, we now must tailor our words for consumption by everyone who might potentially see them. That could be thousands or millions of people.

As the audience grows, says Haidt, so too does the exaggeration. I suspect he intentionally avoided the term “virtue signaling,” but “moral grandstanding,” as he called it, means the same thing.

(This might partially explain a phenomenon I’ve been observing lately: Why I see so much outrage—and outrageousness—online, but see so little of it in person. I’ve lived for the past two years in a heavily populated city, taking crowded trains, buying things at busy supermarkets, ordering meals in restaurants…try as I might, I can remember only one even slightly contentious interaction with a stranger. Can you think of more than a few in your own life?)

2. Social media supercharges righteous minds.

Around 2009, Facebook began to optimize for outrage. The ‘like’ button, the ‘share’ option, and the newsfeed turned moral grandstanding into an even more socially profitable enterprise for regular people. Consequently, went Haidt’s argument, news outlets turned toward clickbait, sacrificing substance for attention.

What garners attention better than anything? Us versus them. In-group versus out-group. This development, naturally, has brought about a rise in hatred for ‘others.’ Haidt showed a graph that showed how drastically hatred of democrats by republicans and vice versa has increased recently.

I think there’s a lot of merit to that view, and Haidt certainly has spent more time and energy on, and has more statistics to support, his claims than I have. I would only ask, what is this if not an attempt to draw an audience in?

Or this:

Clickbait is defined as: content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.

Change “visitors” to “readers;” change “click on a link” to “buy” and “particular web page” to “newspaper” and suddenly, the narrative that the Internet age is vastly different from its predecessors doesn’t look so solid.

3. Generation Z (born in 1996 or later) is being raised in fragility.

Modern parents are overprotecting their children, Haidt said. He conducted a brief experiment with this question: “What age were you when your parents first let you walk somewhere like a grocery store—say, half a mile or more from your house—all by yourself?”

First, those born before 1980 were asked to shout out their answers. I heard lots of sevens, some sixes, some eights. Then, those born in ’96 or after had to answer. The twelves and thirteens rained down. A man near me said fifteen. The evidence was clear.

But unlike a wine glass, which weakens and eventually breaks as it is subjected to greater stress, children are anti-fragile: Most grow stronger with added stress. They need to be teased, to face difficulties—they need to be allowed to have important life experiences at younger ages, Haidt said. When they’re not, the result is what we’re seeing now: skyrocketing rates of psychological disorders among young people.

Again, I see his point. On the other hand, I hear the voice of Red Foreman, the hardened war veteran of the Greatest Generation ripping into his Baby Boomer son for being soft.

It very well could be that every generation, to some degree, has believed the subsequent one to be soft. Hell, my brother is only three years younger than I am and I think he’s soft! (Kidding—sorta.)

4. Generation Z is cut off from the wisdom of the ages.

Finally, Haidt asserted that today’s young people are getting more information from each other (via social media) and less of it from adults. Yes, previous generations coalesced around radio and television in a similar way, but programs on the radio and TV were at least created by adults.

The result is that the tried-and-true wisdom contained in classic books and fairytales isn’t getting passed down, while fashionable but likely short-lived ideas do.

How can we “grown-ups” address this problem? Haidt gave four quick answers:

  1. Petition for changes to social media so that it’s less contagious and less outrageous. I took this to mean a removal of ‘like’ and ‘share’ options, primarily.
  2. Seek to change democracy so that there’s more room for moderates.
  3. Change parenting and education to allow for more independence among kids. (I found this interesting: Because today’s parents are having fewer children, the ones they do have are easier to protect—and overprotect.)
  4. Change ourselves: Be less moralistic and more willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. Haidt urged the audience to repeat this pledge: “I will give less offense; I will take less offense; I will pass on less offense.”

Again, I haven’t read Haidt’s books yet; they might address my criticisms. And obviously, I’m no social psychologist, just a guy who was in the audience. But while I loved this lecture overall (did I mention the story Haidt told about a Millennial whose mom called her daughter’s boss to complain when the daughter got a negative performance review??) the questions it left lingering were more interesting than the questions it answered.

If you enjoyed reading this — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.

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Author of Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together. More info: bitly.com/ticketlessbook

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Trevor Kraus

Trevor Kraus

Author of Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together. More info: bitly.com/ticketlessbook

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