Save the Children

Jonathan Haidt is consistently unimpressive.

Responding in this Chronicle piece about Jeffrey Adam Sachs’ great essay for the Niskanen Center, Haidt concedes that the speech-related episodes that he and his pals get so agitated about are confined to a relative handful of highly selective institutions. The evidence for a significant shift in attitudes among all college-attending students is thin and contested.

But Haidt says that since students at elite institutions are going to be the leaders of tomorrow, we should be disproportionately worried about how they think.

This is a classic kind of fallacious reasoning in populist social science that seeks to stoke up some form of middlebrow moral panic. I first became familiar with it while researching claims by social scientists during the 1970s about the effects of “violent” cartoons on children.

The argument runs like this: children or young people are being moved away from adults on some kind of important social norm by a lack of institutional vigilance–that it’s up to the adults to control what children and young people see, say or do so that social norms will be protected. There’s an odd kind of philosophical incoherence somewhere in there in many cases–a kind of softly illiberal vision of parenting and education that is invoked in many cases to defend adult liberalism as the social norm worth preserving–but leave that for the moment.

What’s more important in terms of social science is that this is a *prediction*: that if the external stimulus or bad practice is permitted, tomorrow’s adults will have a propensity to behave very differently in relationship to the norm being invoked. The anti-children’s television crusaders said: tomorrow’s kids will be more violent. Haidt is saying: tomorrow’s kids will have less respect for free speech.

There’s a sleight of hand going on here always. Because usually this is being said against a *contemporary* crisis about the issue at hand. The television crusaders were responding to the violence of 1968-75: the Vietnam War, protests on campus, rising rates of violent crime. But the people involved in those forms of violence *didn’t watch cartoons on Saturday morning*. They were the previous generation. The people who are most threatening to free speech in the United States today are not 20-year old Middlebury students: they’re the President of the United States and his administration, the Congress, the people in charge. People who grew up under the norms that Haidt and Brooks etc. are trying to defend.

So it turns out that past dispensations that were allegedly friendly to the norms being defended actually produced the most serious threat to them.

And of course, it usually turns out that the prediction is wrong as well. Violence has been steadily more and more represented in mass media for children and adults since 1965; rates of violent crime have gone steadily down since the mid-1970s. You can always claim in a particular case that there’s a particular link–a mass shooter who turns out to have played Call of Duty or whatever–but that’s not how a general social scientistic prediction about a variable and a population works. If watching cartoons where bad guys got punched in the face made you more likely to be violent, that’s a prediction that there would be more interpersonal violence overall in the future. It didn’t happen. That’s not how it works. The same thing here: if free speech norms are enduring and important, I guarantee you that a bunch of kids at Middlebury standing up and turning their backs on Charles Murray does not represent a future trend that will affect a generation. Frankly, anything Middlebury or Swarthmore students do will have negligible collective impact–they are not a good marker of generational typicality.

It might even be that actually testing out the propositions embedded in a belief in free speech rather than dully worshipping them as received orthodoxy produces a more meaningful lifelong relationship to them. It certainly is that Haidt and others are producing a nostalgic myth about where a commitment to free speech comes from.

This entry was posted in Academia, Politics, Swarthmore. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Save the Children

  1. Brutus says:

    Changing generational levels of support for free speech is a hugely complicated subject, as the length and sophistication of the debate indicates. I hesitate to wade in primarily because, not being a college professor, I find it difficult to take the temperature of the room and conclude confidently that free speech is indeed under threat or that one can safely move along, nothing to see. Further, the nostalgic frame invites false comparisons with the good old days vs. now vs. what’s soon to develop. Let me offer a couple thoughts.

    As people age and change, it’s sometimes observed that they care less and less about peer groups or their employer’s rules and become more authentically themselves and thus willing to indulge in speech out of sync with dominant narratives. If that’s true, then the effects measured in all those graphs may have less to do with cultural and/or educational influences than with adult competence, confidence, and devil-may-care disregard for unwanted exterior influence. Further, as one selects and deselects those exterior influences, a pattern of openness or insulation might be observed. As I understand recent student activism, there is a notable shift toward insulation, but that observation was also made in the 1980s by Allan Bloom, so again, it’s difficult to assess. Lastly, observation of trends in the a social sciences positively invites policy and regulation (or more blandly, best practices) that order society in accordance with some set of values. Liberal values from the Enlightenment era have arguably informed the mission of the academy for centuries, even to the exclusion of their legitimate antitheses. If the culture had indeed stepped onto a slippery slope (not yet quite established, IMO), then moral panic some invoke may well be the right response.

Comments are closed.