Perhaps because he dedicated his entire life to the study of social psychology, Jonathan Haidt is one of those rare intellectuals that have the ability to say polemical statements without generating strong reactions against him. In this interview he analyses contemporary society in an attempt to unveil the psychological and ideological substance that sustains his most emphatic and predominant discourses…
His trajectory has been long and started in Yale where he read philosophy. He was later made a doctorate by the University of Pennsylvania with a thesis on moral judgments and culture whose title posed the question: is it correct to eat your own dog? After a post-doctorate at the University of Chicago and years spent teaching at the University of Virginia, Haidt assumed his post as professor of Psychology at the Stern School of Business at the University of New York, where he is currently working. There he uses the results of his investigation in order to rethink the way in which ethics is incorporated into the formation of students to develop ethical systems that do not make it necessary to directly require a correct behaviour of individuals.
His influence has grown to the point that the magazine Foreign Policy singled him out some years ago as one of the 100 most important thinkers of today. His most popular book The Righteous Mind, a best-seller in the New York Times where he explains why people are divided and confront each other for political and religious reasons. Charismatic, loveable and with a mind as sharp as a knife, Haidt visited Chile in the year 2017, invited by La Otra Mirada and the Centre of Public Studies, where he also spent time with members of the Foundation for Progress (FPP). These days he collaborates with the FPP in the Spanish publication of his latest book, The Coddling of the American Mind, which he wrote with Greg Lukianoff.
– You have spoken a lot about John Stuart Mill lately, and you finally said that he was your favourite philosopher. Explain to us why you think Mill’s ideas have been so valid and why you think he could win over the youth of today with his works.
– The basic focus that he used in order to understand contemporary social problems is that we, as human beings are tribal creatures without much intelligence on an individual level. Only when you are able to create good systems of social organisation can you correct our faults and obtain good results. Human nature, the norm, makes us dance around a fire worshipping a stone, a tree, a person, a book or an idea. Orthodox societies, for example, that worship an idea, tend to fall into moralism. What Mill said better than anyone is that human minds were imperfect and very deficient in finding the truth unless they are developed by other means. This fits perfectly with what social psychology has established on the direction of confirmation, which is very difficult to overcome on an individual level unless we create good systems. The second chapter of Mill’s work, On Liberty, contains the best arguments ever offered for the idea that we should look for adverse intellectuals and for the obligation of the universities to have intellectual diversity
«In all groups we must examine how members obtain prestige, for example, in the most moralist groups you obtain prestige by denouncing the devil, whatever that may be.»
– Should we therefore accept all types of opinions, including the totalitarian ideologies and discourses of hatred?
– We must distinguish between the different dimensions and systems. One is what is acceptable to say in public places, which is an interesting discussion but not my subject. My interest is in the relationship between universities and ideas that should be accepted within them. The university should open up to all kinds of ideas, therefore if there is an academic with ideas that others consider to be immoral or hateful which are the result of their investigations, there is no excuse for their quietening or letting them be silenced by students who detest what they say. Accepting that censorship feels like a terrible precedent that those who control a major social force, to control what is said. Furthermore, that vision assumes a model of fragility of students, which is extremely harmful. I am Jewish and have read parts of Mein Kampf. Should we prohibit Mein Kampf in university campuses because it is racist? You can only think like that if you assume that people are fragile and that if we expose them to certain ideas they will be harmed for the rest of their lives. In conclusion, when it is about freedom of expression in universities, my position is that we should be the most permissive possible.
– The widest possible expression of opinions has been affected by the culture of political correctness, which you have referred to on various occasions. In the last years we have seen many academics asked to leave and persecuted for their opinions, which directly goes against the spirit of liberty which Mill defended as an indispensable tool to find the truth. Have universities lost their sense of the search for truth and replaced it with one that searches for social activism or what the groups that control them understand as «social justice»?
– Let’s begin with some basic principles. Let’s imagine a university in which people can suffer grave consequences for what they say, and not only for what they really want to say, but for what the least benevolent interpretation of their words establishes what they wanted to say. In this university there are people that spend all their time looking for a form of expression that they consider taboo and then you will never know what can happen to you. If someone says something that is disliked by many and you defend that person, then you too could be attacked for defending them. This is the climate of fear and I would say that a university in which students live in a climate of fear, where they are afraid to give their opinion of a book, an idea or anything else, has lost its way and there is no further reason for its existence. On the contrary, universities that I remember were places in which you could touch on polemic or scandalous themes. Life has no obligation to be morally pleasant, nature does not care about our moral values and universities should be places where you can ask dangerous questions.
Today, social networks have changed things in a very destructive way, because there are many conversations that you can have in small groups that you wouldn’t have in front of the whole world, but in social networks a private conversation could be exposed to the public the next day. In this way social networks are a great part of the problem and the reason for which people are more scared of speaking today than they were a couple of years ago.
– Do you see a threat to our democratic societies and the open society, which we enjoy in the West if we do not manage to contain and revert this culture of political correctness? At times it gives the impression that even the press falls into the game of persecution.
– I think that a vibrant democracy requires different institutions with their own rules, practises and moral obligations. The practise of doctors is different to those of journalists, different to those of lawyers and to those of engineers, etc. What social networks have done is to overthrow the frontiers that distinguish different practises in a way that the whole world is exposed to the dominant game of politics. If the professors and the ideas are judged in that way, then we have severely damaged the university. In the United States today, even, restaurants are exposed to this type of political justice. Only a short while ago the owner of a restaurant refrained from serving Trump’s press secretary. This is a dangerous line that says that even commercial activity is not separated from political activity. When everything becomes political, everything will collapse, our lives will be miserable and democracy will succumb.
– Because in the end everything is converted into a conflict…
– That’s the way it is. If everything is conflict, including familial relations, it’s terrible.
– In you book The Happiness Hypothesis, you say that all human beings are programmed to be hypocrites and we should be conscious of this in order to reduce conflicts. How is the culture of political correctness related to this dark aspect of human nature? We have seen many inquirers that have been erected as moral authorities end up flattened by the same wheel that they helped push.
– The reason for which we are hypocrites is that we care too much about our reputation. We are also worried about our victims, the animals and the environment, but if these worries clash with our reputation, in general, we care more for the latter. In all groups we must examine how members obtain prestige, for example, in the most moralist groups you obtain prestige by denouncing the devil, whatever that may be. In this kind of culture people obtain prestige by way of damaging and exposing others and, given that almost all the world will commit errors, everyone runs the risk of being identified as the devil. Today there are tremendously moralist subcultures in the extreme left and right that have always existed, but thanks to social networks have multiplied their impact by a factor of ten. Today they can move faster destroying many lives and that is finally the hypocrisy that we see, as the manifestation of this moralist subculture in university campuses reclaim to serve social justice, but every day destroys the persons with no correct procedure and many a time without cause. The overthrow almost always brings very bad justice and routinely commits injustices. That is one of the great hypocrisies that we see today.
«The university should open up to all kinds of ideas, therefore if there is an academic with ideas that others consider to be immoral or hateful which are the result of their investigations, there is no excuse for their quietening or letting them be silenced by students who detest what they say. Accepting that censorship feels like a terrible precedent that those who control a major social force, to control what is said.»
– Do you think perhaps that the press has also lost its way in the sense that it gives too much attention to social networks that tend to have more popular subjects in hand and precisely the destruction of the reputation of different people?
– This is a good example of how each profession should have its ethical rules. Journalists clearly have them and speak a lot about them but since the 80’s the financing of media in the United Sates has changed. When journalists are recompensed for clicks, they should appoint to scandal and emotion. Many are very professional, but at the end they are human beings. They also find increasingly more subjects with all types of threats and so it is increasingly difficult to be a journalist today. I have a lot of respect for those who do it but yes, there is no doubt that journalism – as academia – finds itself under tremendous moral, economic and political pressure.
– A group of ideas that has been in fashion is feminism in its most extreme version. A short while ago in Chile we had a great feminist movement that was captured by the most radical factions. Some feminists such as Camille Paglia have said that the feminism of today does women harm. Do you share that perspective?
– Certainly, women have reasons to be angry and it is justified that they express that anger. With respect to the different forms of feminism, in our book The Coddling of the American Mind, we analyse two forms of identity politics. There is one that emphasises a common humanity that all groups have and, on that base looks to make that situation for disadvantaged groups visible, for those whose humanity has been negated. That one is necessary and good. There is another one that organises persons in function of hate and operates to coerce a tribal cohesion but it is bad for a multi-ethnic and democratic society. And this is what we have seen most in the last years in university campuses: the unification of all groups through the hatred of the white heterosexual male, which is somehow seen as the universal oppressor. This one activates the worst in human tendencies using as a unifying criteria hatred in the place of love.
– In the book The Once and Future Liberal, the professor from Columbia Mark Lilla has said that the identity politics is greatly responsible for the failure of the Democratic Party, as it has made it incapable of offering a common project to all groups. Do you agree with this appreciation?
– I very much like this book that touches on a central point of social psychology. If you unite a certain group of people through hate towards other groups, you will never win people over from these groups that you declare to hate. As a consequence, we have a vicious circle of polarisation in the United States in that the identity politics of the left activates the identity politics of the right and vice-versa. But what is certain is that extreme groups in both sectors are minorities although the social networks make them look as if they were larger.
– One of the predilected subjects of identity politics promoted by the left is diversity, especially in universities. However, it seems that today all diversity is welcome apart from intellectual diversity. That is to say, everyone can come as long as they think the same way as us who are inside. How did we get to this?
– Each political team tends to have something that is sacred. In the academic left this sacred object is to fight against racism and try to help particularly African-Americans and other groups. Diversity became an idea that is essential in American universities, in 1978, when the Supreme Court judged that you cannot discriminate on the basis of race, but you can admit students based on racial criteria when it encourages a diversity that is beneficial to everyone. Since that day, the American left focuses on the diversity as a quasi-sacred cause and today sees it as an end in itself. However, of course diversity is effectively beneficial as long as it allows people to have access to different perspectives, but it is not racial or gender-based diversity in itself that improves things, but the diversity of points of view that, in moderation, entails that racial and gender diversity. Therefore, today diversity is spoken of, but diversity that truly matters, which is the diversity of different points of view or intellectual diversity, is not valued.
As a result, thanks to our politically polarized context, we have much less diversity of points of view than we did 10 or 20 years ago. This is a problem because universities cannot function without intellectual diversity. If they do, orthodoxy emerges which is what has happened, not in most universities, but in the best universities of the United States. The most influential universities, which are the hardest to get into, are generally inclined very much towards the left, in terms of professors as well as students.
-Do you think this was one of the reasons that Trump received so much support?
– People are very concerned with not being the object of contempt. In as much as the white working class sees contempt of the coastal elite, it makes them say fuck you. It makes them want to burn the house down to its foundations. Many analysts noted that people didn’t vote for Trump, but rather against the status quo of which Hillary Clinton was a part. She, as well as Obama had said things that reflected the usual contempt from the coastal elite to the white working class. In the United States, in a Hollywood film or in a TV show, you cannot say anything bad about the majority of groups apart from the white working class. You can laugh at them for being stupid racists and it is this contempt that they experiment that makes them hate the coastal elite and educated people in Ivy League universities.
«A university in which students live in a climate of fear, where they are afraid to give their opinion of a book, an idea or anything else, has lost its way and there is no further reason for its existence.»
– On the subject of racism, we have seen that this is a resource that has been used a lot by the left and the elite, for example, to disqualify those who are manifestly critical of migration. In the case of Chile, in certain sectors you can see a strong reaction against the recent Haitian immigration and of other groups. Do you think that effectively the opposition of large groups of a migration that is more or less open encumbers racism?
– You have to look at this from a sociological viewpoint. People do not care about the colour of skin per se, what they care about is behaviour and values. If an immigrant group has the same values and behaviours but different looks, it will not be a grave problem. The Asians of the east and south in the United States generate very little adverse reaction because they work, they are more successful and richer than the white people. And as Americans are not very jealous people, they do not generate a reaction against them. Canada has done the best job with immigration as far as I know, because they have a very selective system that focuses on accepting highly educated people, which reduces prejudice. But if the colour of skin effectively is a predictor of different values and lifestyles, you will probably have negative reactions towards this group. And this, I think, is what is occurring in Scandinavia, Sweden and Germany and may occur in Chile where it is probably more of a nationalist reaction. I would even dare to predict a boom in political groups of the harder right. Certainly, the more people are accused of being racist, the stronger the hard right will be.
– And in that context, seeing what is occurring in the United States, perhaps Trump will be re-elected…
– Yes, it would depend on who the democrats elect as candidate, but if it is a weak one, it would be very probable that Trump would be re-elected.
– In The Coddling of the American Mind you and your co-author, Greg Lukianoff, speak about the three great falsehoods that do enormous harm to society. One of them is the idea the “what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker,” which leads to a culture of overprotection that they call safetyism. Including children, they are not even allowed to play alone in the street for fear that they might harm each other.
– That’s the way it is. It is very important to understand that children are just like the immunological system. You would not raise your child with zero exposure to germs and if you do you are harming them. In the same way, children should be exposed to insults and exclusion, the contrary would harm them. If they have not grown up with experiences of exclusion, when they get to university and they experience this, it will be intolerably painful. And this is what we are seeing with social networks, especially with young girls. The rate of suicide in adolescent girls has increased between 80 and 100 percent and part of the reason seems to be a thing that they call fear of being left out. For the youth of today, seeing their friends doing things without them is much more painful than it was for the youth before because the previous generations experimented exclusion as they were growing up.
«This is what we have seen most in the last years in university campuses: the unification of all groups through the hatred of the white heterosexual male, which is somehow seen as the universal oppressor.»
– To close this interview, I would like to touch the subject of happiness, to which you dedicated an entire book. If you had to choose the most important element for human happiness, what would it be?
– That’s easy: relationships. We are an ultra-social species that has evolved to be profoundly immersed in social groups. Modernity and wealth have permitted us to lead a much more solitary life and for the majority of people this is a trap because they require deeper and better relationships and connections. The majority of ancient knowledge on happiness recognises the importance of having good relationships in order to live a satisfactory life. This aspect is so important that, in general, when the levels of happiness are studied the first thing that is analysed is relationships.
– Do you recommend young people to have children?
– There is evidence that suggests that children reduce happiness, but I don’t believe it because there is also evidence that the sensation of connection and feeling of life that emerges from having children compensates for this. In other words, children reduce happiness if you measure it at random moments of the day, but life is deeper than this and has a greater meaning. I think that for most people, children and family increase happiness and I’m sure that they reduce the rate of suicide. I have a family and I would strongly recommend it to others.