5 Dec 2018

Jonathan Haidt: 'Call-out' culture and the new prestige economy

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 5 December 2018

Call-out culture - gaining prestige by shaming others for intolerance - is damaging young people's mental health and harming social discussion and university culture, leftist academic Jonathan Haidt warns.

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Photo: Jonathan Haidt

A moral psychologist at New York University's Stern School of Business, Haidt has co-authored a book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

Haidt tells Nine to Noon's Kathryn Ryan call-out culture seems caused by the combination of social media and overprotective parenting in the US starting from about 1990. 

"What we were seeing in 2015 was a new attitude towards words and ideas that just seems on its face to be incompatible with what we do in universities … the idea that words are violence," Haidt says.

"It was first noticed by my co-author Greg Lukianoff who runs the Foundation for Individual Rights In Education which advocates for free speech for students.

"Suddenly in 2014 Greg started hearing about cases in which the students themselves would start asking for protections, they were treating ideas not just as 'right' or 'wrong' but as dangerous."

He says the ideas of safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions, were a new set of ideas that were at first very hard to understand, so they set out to do just that in an article for The Atlantic.

Call-out culture

He explains that call-out culture is a new "prestige economy".

"In any group of young people, we're all concerned with prestige and there's only so much to go around, so how do you get it? If you get prestige by being the best athlete kids will compete for that, if you get it by being the most beautiful or the smartest they'll compete for that.

"Part of a call-out culture is you get credit based on what someone else said if you 'call it out'." 

He says in some ways this is good. 

"This is the most tolerant generation by far on matters of race and gender and LGBTQ, they drink less, they drive less, they work for a living less."

However, he says it has reached a level of personal vindictiveness, where people go out of their way to find ways the things other people say could be construed as insensitive.

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Photo: Max Pixel

"It’s an economy of prestige in which everyone’s looking to trip up other people and they’re also very hard to work with. 

"Part of the doctrine - they explicitly say it's impact, not intent.

"If you're creating very diverse environments but people are learning to see the worst in each other, there's no benefit of the doubt, there's no forgiveness: everyone's on eggshells and this doesn't help anyone.

"One of the most important [aspects] is that people are not afraid to share their opinions - they're not afraid that they're going to be shamed socially for disagreeing with the dominant opinion."

He says most who are taking part in that economy of prestige don't want to be.

"I don't want to paint it like the entire generation has lost its mind, it's not at all like that," he says.

"When I speak about this around the country I ask if they have a callout culture and most say 'yes' and I say 'do you want it?', and nobody says yes."

Mental health crisis

He says this coincides closely with a dramatic rise in mental crisis among the young - particularly for women.

"In the United States the suicide rate for teenage boys is up 25 percent since around 2005 to 2010 if you average those years. For girls, the increase is 70 percent."

The statistics on youth suicide, he and Lukianoff suspect, are linked to this call-out culture.

"Greg is running the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and he's prone to depression.

"He had the worst depression of his life in 2007, he very nearly kills himself, he made plans … but he checked himself into a hospital.

"When he was released he got himself trained in cognitive behavioural therapy - in which you learn techniques to spot your distorted thoughts, you learn to identify catastrophising, mind-reading, labelling, blaming, black-and-white thinking.

"Essentially you learn to do critical thinking and - in a sense - call yourself out when your mind is doing these distorted ways of thinking."

It was seeing exactly those kinds of distorted thinking that Lukianoff noticed in the way students were approaching him when they began asking for protections.

"You can't regulate student speech in such fine-grained ways," Haidt says.

Coddling the American mind

He suggests the causes for this crisis come from a combination of two factors, the first of which is overprotective parenting.

"In America we completely freaked out in the 1990s and came up with the idea that if we ever take our eyes off kids in public they will be abducted."

He says it's only in the 1990s that American parents began to keep their kids inside.

"And it's only in the early 2000s that you start hearing about American parents who are arrested, literally arrested, because their kids are caught playing in a park without adult supervision.

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Without the freedom of playing without supervision, children can find it hard to build up the emotional strength and resilience to rely on themselves into adulthood, Haidt says.  Photo: Pexels

"We cover a lot of evidence in the book about how free play - that is kids working things out for themselves; getting into trouble and getting out of trouble; getting lost and finding their way back - you need hundreds of thousands of experiences like this to develop normal adult strength.

"We basically stopped letting our kids do that in the '90s.

"One of the big causes of it is declining family size. When I was growing up a lot of families had three or four kids, there were kids outside … now there aren’t, if you drive around an American neighbourhood it’s very, very rare that you’ll see kids outside playing.

"Most families just have one or maybe two [children] and they’re often off at after school activities - they don’t have much free time. 

"They were systematically denied normal childhood experiences.

"I think that the way that we have changed our child rearing has interfered with development in a way that I think is going to be very hard to turn around."

Social media

The other factor, he says, is widespread and constant access to social media.

"This is the generation who got social media and iPhones when they were very young and that we think that is why their behaviour is so different.

People were most concerned with children putting information about themselves online.

Photo: 123RF

"It's only around 2010, 2011 that we get to a majority of teenagers having basically social media in their pocket which they can check hundreds of times a day."

He suggests it's the combination of this tolerance - really an intolerance of intolerance - and widespread instantaneous communication with a wealth of like-minded people which has fostered call-out culture.

Us and them: Campus tribalism and fear

As well as being harmful to students' mental health, it's also harmful to discourse and free speech at universities, Haidt says, having developed to the point where many see American society as being a battle between groups.

"If you see life as a zero sum game between groups and the groups are either good or bad? … the new moral culture is bringing that back with a vengeance.

"Modern times, especially the 20th century, was basically transcending that and saying 'let's treat each other as individuals, let's strive for equality of opportunity, let's get past judging and condemning others for their group membership'.

He says a culture of experimentation and broadening horizons at US universities is becoming more a culture of fear.

"In the United States we have this tradition … of you go away to college and it's an exciting time when you try out new things. You've got these great opportunities, it's a physically very, very safe place, you try out new identities, you try out new ideas, you expand your mind.

A man stands on a Nazi and Anti-Fascist flag at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, United States.

A man stands on a Nazi and Anti-Fascist flag at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, United States. Photo: AFP

"If instead college is seen as a time of threat: that people are against you, groups are against you, group versus group - this is kind of a defensive crouch that might have been appropriate back in the middle ages or back in Biblical times but it's not a road to success in a modern economy.

"We think that this is not the way to pursue diversity and inclusion; this is the way to make diversity and inclusion seem frightening to everybody."

He says physical danger is, of course, dangerous - but words themselves are not violence.

"Of course words can hurt, words can cause pain, but here it depends a lot on how you take it.

"I personally don't think free speech is the proper rubric for what we do in the classroom - if what we're trying to do is learn then it's not about free speech, it's about open inquiry and getting the conditions right for a good discussion."

Building better progressives

Haidt says he personally comes from a leftist position and is of course in favour of tolerance for others. However, he says it's not about being on one side or the other, but rather instilling in the new generation the strength to withstand disagreement and foster greater understanding between disparate groups.

"I couldn't stand it that the Democrats lost in 2000 and 2004 when I thought they should have beaten George W Bush.

"I set out to understand conservatives, I started watching Fox news and reading conservative writings and it was a revelation. I didn't become a conservative - but I discovered that on any complex policy issue there often is another side. I was 40-something years old at the time, and I really hadn't fully realised that.

"Whatever people on the right or far right are doing, people on the left will be a lot better off reading, learning, listening, exposing themselves to ideas, practising their arguments."

He quotes Van Jones, an African American former Obama administration official who spoke at a university and was asked whether students should insist on emotional safety.

Van Jones speaks onstage during the fourth annual TIDAL X philanthropic concert in Brooklyn, New York City.   for TIDAL/AFP

Photo: AFP / Theo Wargo / Getty Images

"He says this: 'I don't want you to be safe ideologically, I don't want you to be safe emotionally, I want you to be strong. That's different. I"m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I'm not going to take all the weights out of the gym - that's the whole point of the gym. This is the gym'.

"So we think that Van Jones understands anti-fragility. He understands that students will not get strong if they're not exposed to ideas and arguments that they dislike or even detest.

"He was couching his advice as how to grow better progressives, how to grow better activists, the more you shelter the less effective you're going to be."

Jonathan Haidt is a Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University. His books include 'The Righteous Mind' and 'The Happiness Hypothesis'.