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The Canceling of the American Mind Explains the Silence of University Leaders Last Week
The new book from Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott is crucial reading
An important book comes out today: The Canceling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff (my co-author for The Coddling of the American Mind) and Rikki Schlott. Greg and Rikki explain the long history of efforts to silence people by threatening them with social death, unemployment, or physical harm for questioning orthodox beliefs or proposing heterodox theories. They show how today’s version of cancel culture, which first arose on American college campuses around 2014, spread out from universities to many other fields including journalism, medicine, psychotherapy, and even the hard sciences. Greg and Rikki show the devastating effects of cancel culture on institutions that require viewpoint diversity to function, with universities being the pre-eminent example. (Cancel culture causes the condition I called “structural stupidity” in a 2022 Atlantic article.) They show how cancel culture takes a different form on the right, running through legislatures that try to dictate what can’t or must be taught in K-12 schools and even at universities.
The Canceling was a darn good book when I read a draft last spring, in order to write the Foreword for it. It’s an even better book now that the world has been treated to the shocking spectacle of so many university presidents remaining silent, or issuing only vague and cautious comments, in days after the October 7 terrorist attack on Israel. Their collective reticence stood in stark contrast to the speed with which so many had offered expressions of solidarity or shared grief whenever an election or court case went the “wrong” way in the years since 2014. (In general I think universities should embrace the “Chicago Principles” and commit to institutional neutrality. See Jeff Flier’s recent application of these principles to the current situation. But if university leaders made so many pronouncements on “controversial” issues before October 7, then they should have made a strong one on October 8.)
Why did so many leaders take so long to say anything strong or (seemingly) heartfelt about the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the holocaust? Why did so many wait a few days to see which way the wind was blowing before augmenting their initially tepid statements?
I see nothing to suggest antisemitism; I see everything to suggest fear. The kind of fear that Greg and Rikki explore and explain in The Canceling of the American Mind.
I’d like to introduce this important book to you by simply reprinting a portion of my foreword, and then I’ll add my own thoughts afterward, about why last week may bring a turning point for American universities.
[Selections from the Foreword, by Jonathan Haidt:]
Sometime around 2014, something big changed in American society. It was as if a flock of demons was unleashed upon the world, and the first place they flocked to was American college campuses. Whatever they were, one of the first people to spot them was Greg Lukianoff, who recognized their central power: They make people engage in exactly the same cognitive distortions that Greg had learned how to correct in himself when he was trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for depression. You’ll read that story in this book, but I’ll just note here my own reaction when Greg shared his analysis with me in May 2014: This is brilliant. This is right. This explains what I am seeing as a professor at New York University. I suggested to Greg that he write up his idea for publication, and I humbly offered my services as a co-author with a degree in psychology.
We wrote an essay for the Atlantic, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which was published in August 2015. The disease continued to mutate and spread, so we dove much deeper into its origins and effects in our 2018 book with the same title. Again, you’ll read about that in this book, but let me just say this in the foreword: Greg is the sort of principled and empathetic person who can write about politically controversial social trends such as “Cancel Culture” in a trustworthy way. He writes from a place of love for liberal democracy and liberal societies, which require strong protections for speech. And he writes with a big heart that feels the pain of those who suffer, whether from mental illness, exclusion, or unjust social punishment…
In writing this book, Greg has made a smart move in trading me in for Rikki Schlott. I’ve known Rikki since she wrote to me, in August 2021, as a junior at New York University. She had just published a marvelous essay in a major newspaper on the suppression of viewpoint diversity on campus, and she asked if she could meet with me to talk about the problem of free speech at our university. She came to my office hours and impressed me to no end. Members of Gen Z are not shy about speaking up against injustice, but they generally do so only when they believe that most of their peers share their views and they will receive online affirmation for their statements. It’s rare to find a young person speaking up against the dominant view because of the extreme risk of shaming and ostracism––via social media––which is the subject of this book. But here was Rikki fearlessly standing up for what she thought was right, even though she knew she would damage her social position in an academic community.
In her essay, she wrote about the “crisis of self-censorship” that people like Greg and I had been describing from a distance using nationally representative datasets. But Rikki described it from the inside, from the point of view of a student subjected to the sorts of conformity pressures, safetyism, and heavy handed “orientations” that are causing that self-censorship. Yet there was a hopeful message in Rikki’s essay and once she stood up, other people started “coming out of the woodwork” to say that they shared her concerns, but had been afraid to say anything.
This book is about why we all need to say something, why it’s gotten so hard to do so, and what kinds of reforms will make it easier for free speech to flourish once again…
In the five years since The Coddling was published, the disease has metastasized and spread far beyond universities. It now infects journalism, the arts, non-profits, K-12 education, and even medicine. Show me an organization where people are afraid to speak up, afraid to challenge dominant ideas lest they be destroyed socially, and I’ll show you an organization that has become structurally stupid, unmoored from reality, and unable to achieve its mission. In The Canceling of the American Mind, Greg and Rikki follow the story far beyond universities to show how deep the structural stupidity now runs. If we want to make our minds and our institutions work well again, we’re going to have to end the “crisis of self-censorship” that Rikki wrote about. This book will tell you how we do that.
[End of Foreword]
America’s elite universities used to be widely respected and envied. Until 2015, majorities of Americans on both the left and the right thought that universities had a “positive effect on the way things are going in the country,” according to an ongoing survey by Pew Research.
Figure 1. Percent of Americans who say that colleges and universities have positive (or negative) effect on the way things are going in the country. Source: Pew (2019).
But that changed after Halloween 2015, when much of the country began seeing a constant stream of videos of students shouting down speakers and disrespecting their professors and college presidents. (The stream continues right into 2023.) Since then I have often heard people outside the academy ask bewildered questions such as: “Where are the university presidents? Why don't they do anything about this? Why is there never any punishment for this sort of behavior?”
More recent surveys, such as one from Gallup, show that the loss of trust in higher ed has continued to the present day, and is not confined to Republicans. We are losing independents too:
Confidence in Higher Education
Figure 2. Percent of U.S. adults with "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in higher education. Source: Gallup (2023).
The fact that higher ed lost the trust of most of the country before October 7 should have inspired soul searching and reform long ago. We can only guess how much lower the numbers have fallen since October 8, the day when so many university leaders failed to say or do anything.
I have spoken with many university presidents since 2015. Most of them have good academic values. They are trying hard to lead institutions that are becoming “ungovernable,” as one president said to me. I have also spoken with the leaders of museums, professional associations, and non-profit organizations. They face the same challenges from their politically active employees who use social media like a “dart gun” to intimidate leaders into making rapid pronouncements on the issues the activists care about, and to intimidate leaders into silence about issues and events that contradict their preferred narrative about victim groups and oppressor groups.
Can American higher education recover from the collective shame that so many of its leaders brought upon the sector last week? I don’t know. But I know what campus leaders need to do immediately, to show that they are trying: Read The Canceling of the American Mind. Then follow Greg and Rikki’s advice on how universities can educate students to resist cancel culture, and how universities can return to their historic role as communities of scholars and students pursuing truth together.