Stand There

Late last week, I finished my second reading of The Coddling of the American Mind as part of a book club I'm involved in. I'm not going to write too much about the book here, in large part because I'm looking forward to sitting down with actual people later this week and discussing it, and because I'd prefer to hold on to my thoughts until then. But I will say that I think it's an invaluable companion for anyone trying to better understand and navigate at least some aspects of the madness now moving through America (and, unfortunately, beyond).

I have in the past literally offered people money to read the book, and those offers still stand, but I'm sorry to say that I won't be making any new ones. My wife and I have started building a house together in steamy Lampang, Thailand (i.e., we're paying other people to build one for us), and I simply can't afford the American investment right now. I love the country, and have been fantastically unsuccessful at extracting myself fully from it, and I hope this never changes, even though I often want it to, but my life is here now. What happens there, more and more each day, is a long, engrossing movie. The story of my life, and yours, et al. And I refuse to walk out on it. But I do reserve the right to be (and I mean fully be) way over here for a while, to drink my coffee while the sun rises, and to know that it's simultaneously setting there, but to not be affected by it, to not react.

I will, however, be here if you want to talk it through. You might argue that I could not possibly understand what's going on there from way over here. And you might be right. But don't forget that I've been there. I was there for a long time, even after I left. And I would counter your point by saying you might think of leaving for a while. See what it looks like when your face is not right up against it. You might find that a whole bunch of things start to look very different, and may even start to clear up.

One last point I will make about The Coddling, is that even the acknowledgments, like the rest of the book, are bountiful and sound.

They begin:

An unstated premise of this book is that thinking is social. As lone individuals, each of us is not terribly smart, for we are all prone to cognitive distortions and the confirmation bias. But if you put people into the right sorts of groups and networks, where ideas can be shared, criticized, and improved, something better and truer can emerge.

And they end:

Jon ends with an appreciation of his mother, Elaine Haidt, who passed away in May of 2017, while we were writing this book. She took parenting classes in the 1960s from the psychologist Haim Ginott, who taught her the maxim “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

Amen.

Brian Leli, November 2020


The Upside of Negative Thinking

To better understand the functioning of your psychological immune system, consider the following scenario. Suppose that parents, in order to reduce the number of negative emotions that their child experienced, worked hard to prevent bad things from happening to him. They never shared bad news with him. They never criticized or insulted him. And they did their best to prevent other people from doing so. And whenever a problem arose in the child's life, they would deal with it on his behalf. Although these parents might have the best intentions in the world, those intentions would likely backfire. Their child's psychological immune system would end up dysfunctional. Indeed, he would be the psychological equivalent of a bubble boy. He would be hypersensitive to comments other people made. He would be angered and frustrated by the smallest setbacks. And he might burst into tears on hearing bad news. A case can be made then, that caring parents, besides taking steps to develop their child's biological immune system, will take steps to develop his psychological immune system as well. Their goal is for the child to be emotionally ready to face the imperfect world into which he will emerge in a few years' time. He should be able to hear bad news, criticism, and even insults without getting overly upset. And when he encounters a setback he should be able to calmly and coolly set about overcoming it.

[...]

We are presently in the midst of a great social experiment involving hate speech. The Stoic's advice for targets of such speech is to toughen themselves up. They need to strengthen their psychological immune system. They should also become adept at employing the various Stoic strategies to minimize the emotional harm done them by insults. Lots of people reject this advice out of hand. Instead of encouraging people to toughen up, they tell them that they have every reason to be upset. They might also provide them with "safe spaces" in which they can recover from understandably devastating insults. The Stoics would argue that dealing with hate speech in this manner inadvertently undermines people's psychological immune systems. Even worse, such actions can trigger a kind of downward spiral with respect to hate speech. The more people are protected from hearing offensive remarks, the more upsetting they find those remarks. And the more upsetting they find them, the more protection they need. The targets of hate speech can thereby end up the psychological equivalent of the bubble boy. A world without hate speech would be wonderful. And a world without hate would be even better. The snag is that trying to protect people from hate speech, rather than trying to toughen people up the way the Stoics would do, makes hate speech more potent. This in turn increases the incentive for haters to engage in hate speech. So are the Stoics correct in their advice regarding the best response to hate speech? Only time will tell. But I suspect that in the coming years and decades, the Stoics will be vindicated.

William B. Irvine, Waking Up, "The Stoic Path"