I had read a long magazine article by the same title, which was chosen by an editor to echo another book that stimulated discussion three decades ago. I found much that I liked both in the article and the book.
The authors highlight three bad ideas that undergird much of what goes in contemporary child-rearing, high schools, and especially on college campuses. The first section of the book is devoted to three major untruths.
The first of these untruths they call fragility. Simply put, it says that what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The authors point out that children are resilient, and that overcoming pain and fear equips them for success in later life. Concepts like safety mutate, so young people demand “safe spaces” to prevent them from being exposed to ideas that upset them.
Recently a high school senior in Missouri was suspended for three days and forbidden to participate in graduation because as a prank he offered to sell his school online. Some parents reportedly took this as a threat and withdrew their students. The school district did not find the prank threatening, but still added extra security guards. Lukianoff and Haidt would call this a “cult of safety” which obsesses on seeing young people as potential victims.
The second untruth says you should always trust your feelings. They call this the untruth of moral reasoning. This belief is simply dysfunctional. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people how to overcome disordered thoughts that lead to suffering.
Among the characteristics of these disorders are letting feelings determine one’s interpretation of reality, focusing on the worst possible outcome, finding a negative pattern based on a single incident, assuming that one knows what is in another person’s mind and, finally, blaming others for one’s misfortunes.
These patterns are especially prominent in the idea of “microaggressions” in which small slights are interpreted in the most hostile ways. Trying to out others for their microaggressions serves to make the alleged victim increasingly prickly and petty. Although some acts falling into this category are overtly or subtly insulting, many are unintentional. Over-attention to the phenomenon hardly results in a psychologically satisfying outcome for either party.
I would add a corollary, that many young people seem to think that if they believe something strongly, it is true. They seldom question this attitude.
The last untruth is that of us versus them, or that life is a battle between good people and evil people. Instead of finding a common human identity, or even an inclusive national one, proponents of this untruth focus on the struggle between identity groups, with good people in one group and bad people in the other.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn learned that “the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
I fear this last untruth the most. People tend to band together into groups we can call tribal. Politics becomes reduced to a struggle for power, with no strong consensus about its limits or proper use. Ultimately this idea taken to its limit leads to animosity, the breakdown of social institutions, and even civil war.
The authors assert that these three bad ideas are especially prominent on college campuses today. I would also note that the last untruth seems to be prevalent nowadays on both the political right and left.
These three great untruths are fashionable nonsense. It’s good to have them unmasked so clearly.