The Coddling of American Juvenoia
In a paper published in January 2011 about the internet and children, Professor David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire coined the term “Juvenoia” to describe “an exaggerated fear about the influence of social change on children and youth.” He noted that Juvenoia is a popular reoccurring narrative passed down through the ages. At some point, almost every generation of adults laments “the trouble with kids these days” and forecasts impending doom or at least “Trouble in River City with a Capital T” based on that narrative. In fact, looking through our Prospecting Lens, this narrative is a form of cognitive bias (System 1 thinking) that replays itself in various forms over and over again. As explained by Professor Finkelhor:
“This tendency to worry about youth gets some attention, and is often referenced for its ancient pedigree. For example, this quote is attributed to Socrates:
“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers (Socrates, 2010).”
Another is to Peter the Hermit from 1274 AD: The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress (Peter the Hermit, 2010).
One particularly salient and instructive example of a full blown Juvenoia from recent times was the comic book scare of the 1950s, elaborated in a fascinating book by David Hajdu, The 10 Cent Plague (Hajdu, 2009). Hajdu recounts how in 1954, psychiatrist Frederick Wertham wrote a book, Seduction of the Innocent, accusing comic books of breeding juvenile delinquency. There followed a tremendous public outcry against comics led by editorialists and religious leaders. Estes Kefauver, senator from Tennessee and subsequent Democratic vice presidential candidate, organized congressional hearings at which the comic book publishers were excoriated. There were comic book bonfires and the industry was decimated.
Another example was the super-predator scare of the 1990s. Criminologists John DeIulio and others predicted at the time an increase of 270,000 violent juveniles, a “crime bomb” of “fatherless, Godless, jobless” super-predators who would be “flooding the nation’s streets.” Of course, the opposite happened, juvenile crime started to decline right around then and has ever since. But the scare led to the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act of 1997, and legislation in 47 states that toughened their penalties on juvenile criminals, sending many into adult criminal court, removing confidentiality protections from juvenile proceedings, and increasing sentence length and severity (Krisberg, 2005).
In very contemporary period, in addition to the Internet anxiety, there have been recent books lamenting children who are being over-coddled and protected by helicopter parents (Honore, 2008; Skenazy, 2009), children who no longer have any free time to play (Elkind, 2001) and a generation that is growing up thinking they are the center of the universe (Twenge & Campbell, 2009).
. . . The propensity to worry about children has certainly helped draw needed attention to problems like child abuse, bicycle safety, obesity, but even in these cases there may be instances in which we overreact. A key differentiating element to Juvenoia, however, is the assertion that social and technological change lie behind the problem. In the discovery of child abuse, for example, the assertion was that a long hidden problem was being uncovered, not that social change had created a new peril. Nonetheless, Juvenoia is an ever-present tendency in our modern society, a bias that we are continuously vulnerable to.”
Enter now the latest popular Juvenoia-themed tome these days, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up A Generation For Failure” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. (Other posts about Haidt’s usually excellent work are collected on the right under “Haidt”.)
Much of the text is quite alarmist. Here is a sample: “Something is going badly wrong for American teenagers, as we can see in the statistics on depression, anxiety, and suicide. Something is going very wrong on many college campuses, as we can see in the growth of call-out culture, in the rise in efforts to disinvite or shout down visiting speakers, and in changing norms about speech, including a recent tendency to evaluate speech in terms of safety and danger. This new culture of safetyism and vindictive protectiveness is bad for students and bad for universities.”
Coddling is an extension of an article published in 2015. The authors present the case that there are new and endemic troubles on college campuses these days beginning in 2013, in the form of students protesting or otherwise complaining about invited speakers, faculty and others on campus whom they find offensive. The effect of this, we are told, is a large-scale squelching of free expression that will, at least according to the title, lead the entire generation to fail. The problem is presented to be of monstrous proportions.
While recognizing that there are a number of contributing factors, the authors insist that the major issue is how children are being raised these days, which allegedly leads them to be too soft and immature to cope with adversity when they reach adulthood. As the harbinger of doom, they cite to increasing mental health issues and suicide rates among adolescents. This is blamed largely on the use of smart phones that became prevalent after 2008.
Taking a look at this through the Prospecting Lens, the first question whenever a doom narrative is presented is whether the proponents have fallen into – or perhaps encourage – the reliance on the cognitive bias of:
THE LAW OF SMALL NUMBERS. Our brains have a difficult time with statistics. Small samples are more prone to extreme outcomes than large samples, but we tend to lend the outcomes of small samples more credence than statistics warrant. System 1 is impressed with the outcome of small samples but shouldn’t be. Small samples are not representative of large samples.
But before we analyze the data they have presented and what it may or may not mean, we need to bring in another cognitive expert, Professor Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. In 2015 Professor Gigerenzer published a book entitled “Risk Savvy: How To Make Good Decisions.” A good portion of that book explains how the Law of Small Numbers works in practice, is used in marketing and even fools most physicians on the efficacy and risks of proposed medical treatments.
Basically, it works like this: when a proponent is trying to push a narrative using statistics, he or she will focus on relative differences to amplify to the supposed problem or effect of treatment. In contrast, when a proponent is trying to downplay or oppose a narrative using statistics, the proponent will use base rates to minimize the problem or effect of treatment. In reality, the base rates are the important statistics, while the relative statistics are usually misleading and often lead to a cognitive misapprehension of the true situation, causing the reader to overvalue the meaning of small numbers as the heuristic suggests.
So for example, suppose you were told that a certain new treatment reduced the probability of a certain form of otherwise undetectable but fatal cancer by 50%. Impressive, right? Significant, yes? We should all start taking it immediately, shouldn’t we? That is the use of relative statistics. But now suppose we looked at the base rate instead. At it happens, the base rate for this form of cancer is .02 percent. Looking that as a natural frequency which is easier to comprehend, this means that only 2 persons in 10,000 have it. The treatment reduces it by 50% to .01 percent, or 1 person in 10,000. Hmm – maybe it’s not so significant after all. So should the 9998 people out of 10,000 who don’t have the problem get anxious and seek the treatment anyway? Maybe not. To overreact in this situation is to fall prey to the cognitive bias of The Law of Small Numbers.
Now let’s apply this systematically to the data presented in Coddling. In chapters 4 and 5 of the book, the authors present a series of breathless narratives ripped from the news about various confrontations on campuses that have occurred over the past few years. This presentation should raise one’s suspicions immediately that The Law of Small Numbers is at play. The reason for this is simple – the daily news focuses on unusual events, not common ones. That's what makes a story newsworthy and attracts eyeballs. Thus, while a confrontation on a college campus where there is noisy yelling and someone gets pushed to the ground is “news”, something like another 150 deaths from opioid overdoses yesterday is not. The latter is too common to be considered “newsworthy.”
The authors claim that the confrontation in Berkeley, California in February 2017 heralded “the start of a new and more dangerous era.” (Yes, they really said that, while at the same time also criticizing others for “catastrophizing” their problems.) To add more drama to the narrative, they add the incident involving a racist mob and murder over a Confederate monument that occurred in Charlottesville a few months later, even though, curiously, that incident did not take place on a campus other than an unauthorized march across the grounds, did not involve student protests and did not even take place when school was in session. In other words, it would appear to represent a different societal problem altogether, and one that is probably more serious in that it involved a number of criminal acts, pleas, trials and sentences.
But is the doom-is-neigh conclusion based on misleading relative statistics or reality-based base rates?
The statistical presentation begins with the presentation of the “Disinvitation Database”, which is a collection of all known incidents where a speaker was disinvited to a campus. There are 379 such incidents since 2000. However, in only 46% of those cases, or about 175, was the speaker actually disinvited.
In figure 2.1 the authors present a graph that seems to show these disinvitations running out of control, rising from about 10 per year in the early 2000s to around 40 in 2016-2017. A relative increase of about 300% - wow! And they increased significantly around 2013 – just when the authors contend the “crisis” arose.
Of course, the problem here is the complete lack of any discussion of base rates. Critically missing is the number of speakers invited to college campuses every year, which would be the denominator in an analysis. To get an idea of what that might look like, consider that there are 2474 4-year colleges in the United States another 1666 two-year institutions. Since the authors include both in their database, that makes 4,140 institutions. The database covers 19 years. So in order to calculate a base rate, we would need to calculate, or at least estimate, how many speakers were invited to these 4,140 institutions over 19 years. We pretty much know they all had commencement speakers – that would be 78,660 speakers if each institution invited just one speaker per year. If we used that very generous estimate, according to the authors, the base rate for disinvitations would have been 379/78,660, which equals 0.48% who were objected to, and 175/78,660, which equals 0.22% who were actually prohibited from speaking. If we assume that the institutions averaged just 10 speakers per year, those figures fall to an appallingly low 0.048% of speakers receiving objections and 0.022% actually prohibited from speaking.
Now we can reasonably estimate that the average number of speakers invited was greater than ten per institution per year, but the point is rather obvious – the reality of the situation is that the base rates are so low one cannot say with a straight face that there is an actual disinvitation crisis going on in post-secondary institutions when 99.952% never even receive an objection in the first place.
Thus, we can say for certain that there is no disinvitation/speaker protest crisis at all – just an attractive narrative buttressed by the cognitive bias of The Law of Small Numbers. (And perhaps a related slippery slope fallacy argument about “even one instance being too many”; that is not the argument the authors are presenting but does reflect the background of one of them.)
What is interesting is that the authors seem to tacitly acknowledge the limitations of their assertions elsewhere. In particular, they note that this is nothing new:
“Of course, student activism is nothing new; students have been actively trying to shape their learning environment for decades, such as when they joined professors during the “canon wars” of the 1990s (the effort to add more women and writers of color to the lists of “dead white males” that dominated reading lists). Students in the 1960s and 1970s often tried to keep speakers off campus or prevent speakers from being heard.”
They also note – in footnote 18 on page 103 -- that the “crisis” seems to be confined to a very small group of institutions confined to New England, the Upper Midwest and the three states on the West Coast. Meaning that most of the country is apparently unaffected or so afflicted.
Later in the book at pages 175-176, they note that they are not really talking about all the kids in the generation, but really just the upper class and upper middle class that primarily attend the schools they are most focused upon.
Finally, they acknowledge elsewhere that there are about 20 million college students. Yet their anecdotes only involve a few hundred at a time at most. Again, applying base rates instead of relative statistics, it is clear than only a tiny minority of these students are involved in this purported Juvenoian crisis. While it plays nicely on the nightly news, it is far from an endemic problem.
The other critical set of data presented in the book to support the Juvenoian hypothesis concerns suicide rates of young people and their alleged connection to smart phones. As we shall see, this data actually undermines the Juvenoian thesis of the book.
In this regard, the authors lean almost exclusively on the work of Professor Jean Twenge, who wrote another tome in the Juvenoian genre, “iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us”. Unfortunately, they are uncritical of her work even though they also present evidence that contradicts it without apparently realizing what they have done.
Twenge contends that “a new generation” appeared suddenly in 1995, which she dubs iGen. According to her, the salient characteristic of iGen is that they were the first to use smart phones as teenagers. Before we get to the data, there is a fundamental problem with this thesis, which anyone familiar with the study of historical demography would know through the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe (those guys who coined the term “Millennial” in the mid-1990s). The problem is this: generations are not defined by changes in technology that only affect part of a society in a certain way. Rather, generations are defined by large socio-economic events that define an era. A new generation begins to form when the children being born would not have a firm memory of the time before the major socio-economic events in question. Moreover, generations are also approximately 20 years long and do not have hard start and end dates, but rather incorporate transitional periods.
So looking at the generations of the past century, the Greatest Generation was born beginning in the early 1900s and did not remember a time before Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive era reforms and Constitutional Amendments. It was not defined by the proliferation of radios and telephones and the invention of the tabloid newspaper in the 19-teens. The Silent Generation was born beginning in the mid-20s and did not remember a time before the Great Depression. It was not defined by the invention of talking motion pictures and proliferation of automobiles. The Baby Boomer Generation was born beginning in the 1940s and did not remember a time before the end of World War II and the new world order that was created. It was not defined by the proliferation of televisions or drive-ins. Generation X was born beginning in early 1960s and does not remember a time before the Civil Rights era or any of the turmoil of the 1960s, including the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. It was not defined by the invention of personal computers and accessible mainframes. The Millennial Generation was born beginning the early 1980s and does not remember a time before the end of the Cold War (which is why the word “socialism” does not scare them much). It was not defined by the invention of the worldwide web and cable modems. Finally, Gen-Z was born starting around the turn of the century – the transition period is estimated as 1998-2004 and does not remember a time before the existence of the Department of Homeland Security and the Great Recession. It was not defined by changes in phone and computer technology.
Consequently, the idea that a new “iGen” generation suddenly sprung up in 1995 is not well supported. In fact, those kids are just late Millennials. (As an aside, my personal experience with children born 1995, 1998 and 2001 and dozens of their contemporaries suggests little or no difference between children born in early and late 1990s and only subtle differences post-2000.) And we know they are late Millennials from elsewhere in this very book, as the key difference between Millennials and their Gen-X predecessors was the sharp turn away from free-range parenting in the 1960s and 1970s to the protective parenting that began in the 1980s and continued through the 1990s.
The authors do an excellent job explaining this history of parenting and when it changed. As they recount, Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers were parented in a permissive environment influenced by the theories of Dr. Benjamin Spock. Generation X was probably the least-parented generation of any currently living. This came to an abrupt end in the early 1980s with the Millennial generation. As the authors recount: “[B]eginning in the 1980s and accelerating into the 1990s, “the dominant ideas and social norms about good parenting [had] shifted from Spock’s ‘permissive parenting’ to a new model of ‘intensive parenting.’ This is, in fact, one of the defining characteristics of the Millennial Generation. It is also true that Gen-Z has been even more intensely parented, especially since the early 2000s. In effect, Gen-Z, which is still being born, is the exact opposite of Gen-X in terms of amount of parenting. But it does not change the fact that those born in 1995-2000 are not substantially different from earlier Millennials.
Now getting to the Twenge data, the “smoking gun” touted by the authors is the data about increasing anxiety among younger people, which they contend tells a “shocking” story. Again this seems dictated more by The Law of Small Numbers narrative than the actual data.
The first data set shows rates of depressive episodes for 12-17 year olds from 2004-2018. The boys’ rate started at 5% in 2004, went down until about 2011 and then went up slightly to 6.4% in 2016. The girls’ rate is always higher, starting at about 13% in 2004, dipping and then going up to about 19% in 2018. For some unstated reason, the authors chose to focus on the gap between boys and girls and were worried that the gap was “widening”. This seems to suggest that they would have felt the problem would have been lessened if more boys were having such episodes.
In any event, instead of “shocking”, these graphs seem to suggest that the base rates are low and not changing very much. Taken together, 88% of the children surveyed are not suffering from any form of depressive episodes. In fact, combined the data suggest that only 4% of episodes have anything to do with events that occurred after 2011. And the authors suggest that at least part of it is due to over diagnosis.
The next graph depicts adolescent suicide rates from 1999-2016. To make this data more “shocking”, they ignore the base rates and focus on relative rates, trumpeting “nearly twice as many teenage girls now end their own lives” between 1999 and 2016. Double you say? But double of what? The authors don’t say in the text. However, looking at the data itself, we see that the suicide rate among girls went from 2.5 (let’s call it 3) per 100,000 to 5 per 100,000. Stated differently it went from 99,997 girls out of 100,000 who did not commit suicide to 99,995 out of 100,000 who did not commit suicide. Percentage-wise, the base rate goes from 0.003% to 0.005%.
At this point, Professor Gigerenzer would be shaking his finger, because THESE BASE RATES ARE INSIGNIFICANT to the overall population. This does not suggest a nationwide Juvenoian crisis that requires a sea-change in parenting at all, but instead that very targeted measures should be taken regarding specific individuals.
The data is further confounded by the fact that suicide rates for ALL generations have been increasing since 2008. To claim that this was caused by the proliferation of smart phones seems rather specious. The occurrence of the Great Recession is much more likely to have played a significant role, which fairly eviscerates the Twenge iGen thesis.
More telling is other data they present in passing about an earlier generation of adolescents. Apparently, the suicide rate for teen girls peaked in 1981 and was highest for boys in 1991. These teens were all part of Generation X, the least parented and most free-range generation in a century. And Generation X continues to lead all generations in suicide into middle age, even surpassing the suicide rates of the very elderly. This evidence is damning, because it contradicts the entire Juvenoian thesis of the book. It would seem to suggest that the “cure” of going back to full-blown free-range parenting may be worse than the disease it is supposed fix. Professor Gigerenzer would raise an eyebrow.
The Twenge data section concludes with data about non-lethal self-inflicted wounds, again trying to “shock” the reader by declaring that the rate of such acts has tripled among girls ages 10-14 in the past few years. But yet again, the base rates belie this tale of woe. The rate went from 110 per 100,000 to 318 per 100,000, or 0.11% to 0.32%. Again, this means that 99,682 out of 100,000 of girls aged 10-14 apparently are not injuring themselves due to the use of smart phones – or for any other reason.
Much of the rest of the Twenge data, which is discussed only in passing, indicates that Millennials and Gen-Z are better off than their free-range Boomer and Generation X predecessors. As the authors note, “members of iGen drink less and smoke less; they are safer drivers and are waiting longer to have sex.” They later also note that the younger generation seems to be maturing more slowly, perhaps up to two years behind prior generations. Query if this is really a problem for society or a benefit in the long run. It would seem to be more of a problem for college administrators and professors who would prefer to be dealing with more “finished products.” Gap years are recommended by the authors, which seems quite sensible, but hardly evidence of a full blown Juvenoian crisis and “failure of a generation.”
The fascination with using relative rates instead of base rates continues unabated throughout the book. Regarding self-reported psyche disorders at 138 selected colleges (basis for selection unknown), the authors write: “That number increased from 2.7 to 6.1 for male college students between 2012 and 2016 (that’s an increase of 126%). For female college students, it rose even more: from 5.8 to 14.5 (an increase of 150%).” Again, the base rates tell us that the vast majority of college students are not suffering from any such issues.
More problematic is that it appears that the authors know very well how to present data in “base rate” terms and avoid relative rates when it suits them, which is when they wish to minimize an issue. Professor Gigerenzer calls this dubious practice “double tonguing”. “Double-tonguing is a trick to make the benefit of a drug (treatment) appear large and its harms smaller. Typically, benefits are reported in relative risks (big numbers) and harms in absolute risks (small numbers).”
We see this in the Coddling book where the risk of abduction is discussed. Here, unlike their presentation of the Twenge data, the authors use base rates to show that the risk is minimal and has been overblown. They also note that while crime rates have fallen, fear of crime has not. Therefore, they imply, over-parenting is somewhat irrational and is based on System 1 thinking. However, the same applies to Juvenoia.
Given their mode of presentation of the data, it is somewhat ironic that the authors later claim: “We agree with former Northwestern University professor Alice Dreger, who urges activist students and professors to “Carpe datum” (“Seize the data”). In her book Galileo’s Middle Finger, she contends that good scholarship must “put the search for truth first and the quest for social justice second.”
I would submit that the truth would be more readily evident if the authors dispensed with the attractive narrative of Juvanoia and the use of relative rates to trigger cognitive bias of The Law of Small Numbers as “evidence”.
In the base-rate world, the Millennials and Gen-Z are no more likely to fail en masse as the title of the book suggests than Generation X is failing today. (The Boomers may be another story given their apparent inability to compromise and govern.) Indeed, we are just as likely at another inflection point where the trend in parenting with simply swing back towards free-range parenting on its own accord with a little push from the Juvanoian writings that have multiplied in the past few years. This is the nature of generations – going overboard one way, and then going overboard the other way a few decades later when people have forgotten the history of the issue.
* * * * * * * * * *
Now what if we were to strip this book of its Juvenoian pretenses and ask again, “what is causing the current attitudes on campus about free speech”, which is really what the authors are complaining about. The authors present two alternative contributing sources to the problem: the administrators and the faculty of colleges and universities. This, in fact, makes the most sense from a System 2 perspective. After all, these are the repeat players who actually control what goes on at colleges. And neither group appears to be prioritizing “free speech” as one of their top goals, as the authors lament.
Regarding the administrators, the authors note that the goals of administrators are often at odds with free speech and scholarship. Their goals appear to be oriented towards running colleges as businesses, raising money and creating a serene environment where no one complains. The authors note: “The consumerization theory fits with the trend toward greater spending on lifestyle amenities, which schools use when they compete with other schools to attract top students. From 2003 to 2013, public research universities increased spending on student services by 22.3%, which was far more than the increases for research (9.5%) or instruction (9.4%). Many campuses have become less like scholarly monasteries and more like luxurious “country clubs.””
Most damning, it is the administrators who ultimately allow the speaker protests, fail to protect minority viewpoints and squelch free speech with overregulation. The authors note the following:
“Overreaction and overregulation are usually the work of people within bureaucratic structures who have developed a mindset commonly known as CYA (Cover Your Ass). They know they can be held responsible for any problem that arises on their watch, especially if they took no action to prevent it, so they often adopt a defensive stance.”
“The bureaucratic innovation of “bias response” tools may be well intended, but they can have the unintended negative effect of creating an “us versus them” campus climate that results in hypervigilance and reduced trust.”
“[M]any universities use the concept of harassment to justify punishing one-time utterances that could be construed as offensive but don’t really look anything like harassment—and some don’t have anything to do with race or gender.”
The guilt of the administrators is undeniable, because they are, in fact, in control of the colleges – not the students who were the primary actors in the newsworthy narratives earlier in the book.
As for the faculty, they do not fare much better in the quest to preserve free speech on campuses. The authors note that faculty have largely ceded authority that they once had to administrators, and have been “happy to released” from such duties. The authors further note that the “purpose” of a university ought to be “seeking the truth”, but that many faculty have other agendas. Some believe that the purpose of education is to bring about social change, which is contrary to what the authors believe. Others engage in the ritual of “open letters of denunciation”, whereby they round up a crowd of signatories to condemn what another member of the faculty has written and often demand its retraction.
There seems to be almost open warfare between the faculty Social Justice Warriors described in the book and the Free Speech Warriors represented by the authors. Yet, if we looked through the Mimetic Lens, we would see that they are, like most mimetic rivals, more alike than different. Both hold to certain “imperatives” that, for them, trump most if not all other considerations.
Perhaps because it may be a touchy subject and even though they recognize that “something has been changing among the faculty, as well as among the students”, the authors miss a golden opportunity to really explore further the effect of faculty attitudes on the changes in faculty as of the mid twenty-teens. Haidt does note that the makeup of the faculty has changed drastically since the 1990s, with fewer and fewer conservative-leaning faculty in residence and more lack of view-point diversity in certain places and departments, notably in colleges in New England. But there are substantial untapped troves of data showing how college faculty has changed since the 1990s, including, for example, Taking the Measure of Faculty Diversity (2016). It is notable that during this mid twenty-teens is when the first Millennial faculty would have been appearing on campuses in substantial numbers, and would be interesting to explore what impact they have had. For a perhaps spurious relative statistic, the growth of women faculty has been twice as fast as that of men.
The take-away from this book under examination through the Prospecting Lens is that it is indeed plagued by the narrative of Juvenoia and inappropriately titled. A better title might have been “Conflicts on Campus: How Administrators and Faculty are Coddling the Customer and Destroying the Search for Truth.” It would have been much shorter and probably would not have garnered the nice reviews up front, but probably would not have sold nearly as well. Juvenoia is a perennial best seller and does not pit one group of adult professionals against another.
Which leads to another point, looking through the Mimetic Lens. It is easier for both sides of the administrator/faculty debates about the goals of universities to scapegoat the students than confront each other directly. They also make a good pawn in support of the argument that the other side is “harming the children and jeopardizing our collective future.” And this relieves the crisis between them for another year or two.
* * * * * * * * * *
There are a few other points of interest in this book that pertain to the Lenses of Wisdom. In Chapter 5, the authors describe the process of how witch hunts and scapegoating work: “There are three features common to most political witch hunts: they arise very quickly, they involve charges of crimes against the collective, and the offenses that lead to charges are often trivial or fabricated.” Yet, they believe this activity is highly unusual. We know that is not the case from this post, as it arises time and time again throughout history. The witch hunt has been more of a reoccurring feature whenever conflict reaches a boiling point.
And all it takes is a spark. The authors ask: “But why did college students direct so much of their passion and effort toward changing their universities and to finding enemies within their own communities? And here’s a related puzzle: Why were the protests strongest and most common at schools known for progressive politics in the most progressive parts of the United States (New England and the West Coast)?”
A quick view through the Fractal Lens shows why this is, as you never know which grain of sand dropped onto the proverbial pile will start the avalanche. As P.W. Anderson taught us, “More is Different”. This is just as one would expect – a concentration of the same view-point can eventually lead to rivalry and a conflagration, similar to Salem, which was discussed in the post on Microaggressions.
That post also discussed the Campbell/Manning paper referenced in Chapter 10 of Coddling. Regarding “Victimhood” culture, as distinguished from “Dignity Culture”. In fact, viewed through the Mimetic Lens, these two are part of the same thing. “Dignity” simply means that everyone has rights that should be respected. “Victimhood” simply means that one is claiming one’s rights have been violated and seeks recognition or recompense. Both of these are features of Western or WEIRD societies and form the basis for all policy debates, as we discussed in the post, the Mimetic Weirding Way.
Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the University of Virginia’s rowing teams, which Haidt discusses in Chapter 11. Haidt seems to imply that the men ought to be upset that the women’s team is recognized as a varsity sport, while the men’s team holds only club status. As the proud father of a UVA rower and supporter of the program, I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. The men’s program is thriving and has even produced an Olympic athlete. And they love cheering for the women. The lesson there – from the Mimetic Lens to the Prospecting Lens– is that envy and rivalry are only as bad as your System 1 heuristics make them.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.