• Victor C. Bolles

Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Snowflakes


When Waylon Jennings recorded his hit song back in 1978 (Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys), I think he was trying to be facetious. But a recent book by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind, is a serious discussion of the current generation of college students and how their pursuit of “safetyism” leads to the creation of safe spaces, trigger warnings and the cancel culture on today’s college campuses.


This book can be read on several levels. Initially, it is a commentary on the leftward lurch that has occurred in academia and how college administrators and faculty are facilitators, not only to the rise of socialist beliefs on campus, but also to the culture of safetyism where almost any opposing view can be considered hate speech that must not be allowed to be heard, which in turn leads to a cancel culture where mobs of students attempt to bar unpopular speakers from being heard or even allowed on campus.


But on another level it is a warning to parents that they are raising children in a manner that stunts the process of maturation to adulthood that leaves them vulnerable as they leave the nest and start heading toward the real world (even though in order to do so they must pass through the very unreal world of the university).


But on an even further level, the book shows how psychological factors affect our politics and economy. I first discovered this when I read Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, which was my initiation to behavioral economics. Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics, showed that our brain can actually be considered two brains; one that thinks fast (the intuitive brain) and one that thinks slow (the rational brain). Most economic theories that we study in college assume that human beings make rational economic decisions. Kahneman showed that many (perhaps even most) of our economic decisions are made by gut instinct (thinking fast).


Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist, showed, in his book, Behave, that Kahneman’s theories match brain development. Many of our instincts, gut feelings and emotions are produced by chemicals in our amygdala, a primordial part of our brain that we share with many other animals. Rational decisions are made in the frontal cortex, a more recently evolved part of our brain, that is disproportionately large in humans. And just as the brain in a fetus develops in an evolutionary pattern, with the more primitive parts developing first, the frontal cortex is not considered to be fully developed until a person is in their mid-twenties.


Haidt and Lukianoff assert in their book, that overprotective helicopter parents combined with extremely risk averse government oversight (created by politicians who claim their new law or regulation will make sure some form of horrific crime, horrible accident or environmental disaster will “never happen again,” as if that were possible) have prevented the normal development and maturation of children by preventing normal activities of play and risk taking so that some very unlikely circumstance will never happen again. It would be interesting to ask Dr. Sapolsky if these theories hypothesizing delayed maturation could be backed up by MRIs or other scientific evidence affecting the development of the frontal cortex.


The result is that, instead a few unwanted deaths and injuries, an entire generation is unable to cope as fully functional adults in the real world. Instead of pushing limits and testing boundaries, this iGen (as Haidt and Lukianoff call them rather than snowflakes as many others call them) wants to be protected from controversial ideas and disturbing thoughts. Emotions and feelings take precedence over the search for truth which must be the basis for any university education. They want their university to be safe, rather than challenging.


This disturbing trend becomes toxic when combined with the progressive left politics that dominates, not just the faculty, but also the university administration. The authors point out that much of the skyrocketing cost of a university education is due to rapidly growing administrative staff dedicated to achieving greater inclusion and diversity (thought diversity being excluded as a worthy goal). First there were black studies programs, then women’s’ programs and now there are programs along with administrative staff and bureaucracy for every form of identity politics.


And because any sort of negative comment can be considered a form of racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia or hatred of some other oppressed identity, universities have created bias response teams where students can report incidents of microaggression or other bias to the authorities so that they can be protected against the stress of such incidents. Administrative panels can punish students accused of bias without due process stating that the stress of the victim resulting from such bias is proof of the harm the incident caused. The accused perpetrator can be sanctioned or even expelled without recourse, ruining a career and perhaps damaging a person for life because of an unintended remark or an aggression so “micro” that the accused didn’t even realize that it was aggression.


This situation isn’t limited to the ivory tower. This toxicity is leaking all across America. It is just that the petri dish of university life creates a breeding ground where this evil can not only spread but where it is cultured and bred.


The book closes by making a number of recommendations relating to the raising of children like taking a year or two off after high school to let their frontal cortex develop before entering university. They also make recommendations for reforming universities and society in general. But don’t be deluded into thinking that this is just a bunch a nonsense coming from rightwing nutjobs. Haidt and Lukianoff are both typical American liberals who regularly vote Democratic and support much of the Democratic platform. But even they are disturbed by what is transpiring in the universities where they live and work.



 

Young people in America are being led down a path created by overly protective parents, intrusive school administrators, social media feedback loops and ambitious political partisans. The parents, school administrators and others are mostly well intentioned, but the path leads to cognitive distortions that warp how people apprehend reality.


Haidt and Lukianoff state, “such thought patterns directly harmed students’ mental health and interfered with their intellectual development.” They assert that today’s youth are being led to believe three great untruths that have increased anxiety, depression and suicide as well as exacerbating political division in our country. They state that the three great untruths are:

  • -Fragility: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker

  • -Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings

  • -Us versus Them: the battle between good people and evil people

Fragility is illustrated by the fear of “microaggressions” that are so slight the aggressor is unaware of them. The inability to brush off these and other difficulties in life, amplified by social media, leads to a toxic form of fragility that has resulted in skyrocketing suicide rates for teens (especially girls).


I blame Star Wars for the growth of emotional reasoning. Luke was told by Obi-wan Kenobi, “your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.” And “trust your feelings” when trying to bomb a death star. But emotional reasoning, based on the primordial instinctual brain, is even more deceiving that the eyes.


These young campus progressives (and from my experience older progressives as well) believe that they are good people trying to do the right thing, so anybody that disagrees with them must be bad people trying to do evil things, dividing the world into tribes of us good guys and them bad guys. The tribalism at the core of identity politics divides people.


People believing these untruths are impaired. Psychologist Haidt states that patients exhibiting these characteristics could be diagnosed as suffering from mental illness. The lack of thought diversity on campus only amplifies this condition and the cancel culture creates a feedback loop of warped thinking.


Victimhood, the emotional outrage at income inequality and identity politics – this is the agenda of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. I don’t know if progressive politicians understand the mental and emotional problems their tactics of division promote. It would be very cynical to think that they would take advantage of our vulnerable youth to further their political agenda. Like trying to lower the voting age to sixteen.


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