Resisting the Great Untruths that Hurt Our Society

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When I first read The Atlantic cover story on “The Coddling of the American Mind,” I thought: This should be a book. Now it is. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have expanded the argument of their essay into a full manuscript, and they’ve delivered one of the most important books of the year.

According to Haidt and Lukianoff, three “Great Untruths” are responsible for many of the problems we face in certain segments of American society:

  • The Untruth of Fragility (What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker)
  • The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning (Always trust your feelings)
  • The Untruth of Us vs Them (Life is a battle between good people and evil people).

The Coddling of the American Mind defines these untruths, provides examples of how these beliefs affect our society, traces the historical path to show how we arrived at this cultural moment, and then makes a case for how we can re-embrace wisdom as we engage in public life.

As Haidt and Lukianoff make their case, they forcefully oppose “The Great Untruths,” but they also point out the good intentions and compassionate impulses of the people who embrace them. It is clear they hope to persuade people who have succumbed to the Untruths, not merely stand at a distance and excoriate readers who do not already agree with them.

Because the authors have expertise in different fields (Haidt in social psychology and Lukianoff in law), they mount a multi-dimensional offensive against the Untruths. They show how these pernicious ideas contradict ancient wisdom, modern psychological research on wellbeing, and lead to harmful consequences for the individuals and communities who embrace them.

“Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals if you [are] . . . seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that ‘feels unsafe’), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).” (14)

Trigger warnings, safe spaces, micro-agressions, campus protests, disinviting speakers, identity politics, “speech as violence,” free-range parenting, witch hunts: all of these concepts swirling around us these days are addressed by Haidt and Lukianoff. Although the book focuses primarily on colleges and universities, readers can see how one or two of the Great Untruths have infected older generations as well, particularly in tribalism (us vs. them) on social media and in public discourse.

The Coddling of the American Mind doesn’t make a moralistic or religious case for rejecting the Great Untruths, but a merely pragmatic one, as its subtitle makes clear: “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.” Christians may resonate with much of Haidt and Lukianoff’s analysis, but we should apply additional layers of thought to these cultural woes. The pragmatic approach is sound, but limited in its effectiveness. It sets to the side questions of moral rights and wrongs, as well as bigger debates over the meaning and significance of human life—questions that are unavoidable in a society unraveling in its understanding of what constitutes “the common good.” The authors also echo Steven Pinker in holding fast to an Enlightenment eschatology that provides a “hopeful note” to end the book.

“The arc of history bends toward progress on most measures of health, prosperity, and freedom, but if we . . . free ourselves from the three Great Untruths, it may bend a little faster.”

As Christians, we observe these trends and hold out hope as well, but from a starkly different vantage point. We are a resurrection people who do well to resist the most optimistic or pessimistic assessments of our society today—ever alert to the darker side of Enlightenment views of progress and technological advance, and increasingly reliant on the justice and mercy of a King who is coming again.

~~~ For more information on this book, listen to Collin Hansen’s interview with author Jonathan Haidt on the TGC podcast. Also, check out Sarah Zylstra’s article on why many Christian leaders have benefited from Haidt’s work in the past.

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