In Search of Better Stories

The Coddling of the American Mind

The West has a problem. We’ve gone soft. We have bought into three lies that have weakened our ability to learn and grow, to be challenged and to discover the truth. As long as we believe these lies we will never be strong; we will never be free. This is a book of the year candidate for me. Below are a handful of gems that I plucked from this provocative and helpful resource. 

The three great untruths

What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The key to life is to avoid pain, avoid discomfort, avoid all potentially bad experiences, mitigate all risks. This is a terrible untruth. The human is not fragile; the human is built to be anti-fragile. We are like our immune systems. Just like we need little bits of lousy stuff to strengthen our immunity, we also need little bits of adversity in our lives to make us better. Helicopter parenting, and a “safety first” mentality do our children no favours.  The grand peanut allergy scare that has taken over North America is an example of how we are going about perceived dangers the wrong way. A broad sampling of babies which were deemed to be at risk to peanut allergy was divided into two groups, one group from the very beginning regularly consumed small doses of food containing peanuts, the other group religiously avoided all contact with peanuts. After a certain number of years, the two groups were tested for a peanut allergy. No one that had been fed peanuts from a young age was found to be allergic; they had all developed immunity. Not so with the other group, instead, a majority of those children ended up with the potentially life-threatening allergy. Protecting the children from peanuts didn’t help them get stronger; it made them weaker! Protecting children from all kinds of danger and risk doesn’t help them either. My absolute favourite quote from this book comes from US supreme court chief justice John Roberts. He was speaking to a graduating class; no one expected him to wish bad luck on these graduates, he did. 

“Now, the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you, I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored, so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

Always trust your feelings. Never question them. Feelings are compelling, but they are not always accurate. Words now in our culture of “safetyism” constitute a real threat, and therefore any word uttered that might make another person feel bad, must not be allowed. Free speech and free inquiry get strangled because hurt feelings are elevated to the level of physical violence. “Prepare the child for the road not the road for the child,” says Van Jones. We have to teach our children to handle ideas and words that might hurt their feelings. Someone should not necessarily be silenced just because what they say doesn’t make you feel good. 

    In the Witches book by Stacy Schiff, I learned that “spectral evidence” was accepted as true. If someone felt they saw your ghost haunting them, their feelings of reality could lead directly to your death. In today’s world “spectral evidence” has been replaced by “feeling evidence.” If someone’s feelings get hurt by what someone else says they can prosecute. The consequences for hurting a person’s feelings, while they stop short of the hanging tree, are creating a massive problem for free speech and the ability to peacefully co-exist. Instead of public shaming and threatening, instead of having to issue trigger warnings, and create safe spaces for people whose feelings might be hurt by words, we need to learn how to grapple respectfully with the ideas and words of people different than ourselves. If we are feeling driven, we won’t be able to sidestep potential offences and move into meaningful conversation. Repeatedly throughout the book, the authors refer the back to something called cognitive behavioural therapy as a means to properly manage feelings. CBT helps people to identify and control cognitive distortions brought about by misplaced feelings.  According to the authors, CBT is a simple, easily acquired tool that produces much better results than anything by Freud or Prozac. Below are eight examples of cognitive distortions that if properly identified can be managed.  

9 Cognitive Distortions

  1. Catastrophising — Focusing on the worst possible outcome and seeing it as most likely. “We are all going to die!”
  2. Over-generalizing — Perceiving a global pattern of negatives based on a single incident. “She didn’t like what I said; no one will like what I said”
  3. Black and White thinking — Viewing people and events in all or nothing terms. “Those people are all evil, rotten and disgusting.”
  4. Mind-reading — Assuming that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts “That person hates me, I know it”
  5. Labelling — Assigning negative traits to yourself or others “He is a Jew, of course, he is cheap.” “I’m just dumb.” 
  6. Negative filtering — Exclusive focus on the negatives, seldom on the positives. “Nothing seems to go right for me.”
  7. Discounting Positives — Trivializing the positives of yourself and others so you can maintain the negative “I’m no good at any of this stuff!” 
  8. Blame-shifting — Focusing on other people as the source of negative feelings. “Its all your fault.”

Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.” — Alexander Solzhenitsyn

    The West has become increasingly polarized, particularly in the USA, the latest statistics reveal that at no time in the history of that country have philosophical and ideological gaps between Democrats and Republicans been wider. Things have become shrill on both sides. The line between good and evil divides party lines now. This is not healthy at all. Solzhenitsyn penned this thought after his incarceration with the Communists; he was cursing them for their callous brutality, when it dawned on him that a couple of years earlier while in the army he had treated several lower-ranking soldiers with the similar cruelty.  To take Solzhenitsyn’s observation to heart is to forever prevent the fire of self-righteous bigotry from spreading. 

Impact versus Intent —  Some say guilt is determined by the impact of one’s words, while other’s say guilt should be established by intent. If someone’s intentions are good they should be cut some slack. This mentality is becoming less and less the case. If a word hurts regardless of intent, there is increasing hell to pay for the person who uttered it. A gracious approach will always look to intent first and will always give the benefit of the doubt. Somehow we need to find our way back to this as a first position when it comes to conversation.

Irony — In 1964 UC Berkley liberals demanded free speech. In 2018 the political progeny of those same liberals beat the crap out of some people who were supporting a free speech. 

Concept Creep  — When certain words gain a much broader range of meaning so that people develop an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm concept creep is happening. Words like “bullying” can mean anything. “Racism” “sexism” “abuse” can now be thrown in the direction of someone who sneezes in a way that another person doesn’t like. It’s not good. You know concept creep has gone too far when Ben Shapiro is called out to be a “Neo-Nazi” for his economic views — Ben is Jewish! 

No Fly Zones — Being transgendered is ok, being transracial is not ok. Why? A liberal feminist scholar took up the question and was promptly blasted out of the water. Her inquiry was not malicious, but that didn’t seem to matter. Even the perception of disagreement created remarkable rage. Freedom of inquiry is a must for a healthy society. So many professors must now walk on eggshells these days lest they offend. 

What about the Church? The authors talk about how essential opinion diversity is for the health of universities. There needs to be “room for rebuttal not calls for retractions.” They talk about how group think and orthodoxy actually lead away from the discovery of the truth. That got me wondering about the church. Could it be that churches are too orthodox, too dogmatic? Are the heresy police that stalk the hallways of many a church no different than the oversensitive left wingers that shout down all counter opinions on university campuses? Is it possible to have a healthy church that has room enough to support the full spectrum of theological, ethical and moral views that naturally tend to divide Christians into factions? My initial response is no of course not. Christians sign on to believe certain things and not others to live in certain ways and not others, and if one isn’t into believing and living in those ways than there isn’t much room at the table for that person.  The church is not a university. However having said this, I do wonder if some churches would do well by substantially widening their circles. 

Give the girls guns? Because girls are relationally aggressive just like boys are physically aggressive the equivalent of putting instant social media in a girls pocket is much like putting a loaded gun in a boys pocket. The authors quote heaps of statistics that bear this concerning theory out. Depression attempted suicide, and mental illness has risen to unprecedented levels among girls. The pressure to perform and compete in the virtual world combined with the social media stress bomb of F.O.M.O ( Fear of missing out) is quite literally killing our girls. A big message of this book is to stay off social media! 

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