In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt open with a striking analogy.
Peanut allergies have increased quite dramatically over the last thirty years. Ironically, this spike is caused, in part, by parents protecting children from peanuts. In a peer-reviewed study of small children with a high risk of developing peanut allergies, only 3 percent of the group developed the allergy when they were regularly given peanut products. On the other hand, 17 percent of the children who were protected from peanuts developed the allergy. In a similar way, Lukianoff and Haidt argue our children are developing sensitivities that make them unfit for fruitful public discourse.
As a teacher of high school Rhetoric and Great Books at a classical Christian school, I can confirm that the analogy is sound. There is unquestionably a spike of intellectual fragility in our culture. My students are terrified of saying something that might be considered socially distasteful or culturally offensive.
This apparent gentility may seem to be a positive correction of manners in the direction of greater civility and decency. The problem, however, isn’t the desire to be decent. It’s the destructive association of genuine civility with taste, and with the applause of the mob. We live amid the tyranny of taste.
The Depth of a Like in the Tabloid Kingdom
I want to be liked. I want my peers to like me. I want what I say and what I like to be liked.
Every day, millions upon millions of little tokens of self-expression are sent out through social media. Students are desperately hoping that theirs will be esteemed. Although each thumbs-up, like, and smiling emoticon may seem trivial, a student’s identity is intimately tied to these sacraments of esteem. One of my students admitted to liking everything her friends and followers posted on Instagram because she was concerned that she would appear mean or indifferent if she didn’t. Of course, this meant she had to like many things that her parents had raised her not to affirm—all to ensure being properly esteemed by her peers. To esteem and be esteemed are of ultimate importance to our teens and young adults.
A sort of tabloid aristocracy is emerging. Students who master the tabloid kingdom of likes and dislikes receive the most esteem. The noble democratic exchange of ideas has been replaced with the trivial and vulgar exchange of tastes.
Moreover, school administrators are increasingly taught that they need to officiate this tabloid kingdom of taste. Administrators are to make sure that the fragile self-esteem of their students is protected. Parents expect their children to be sufficiently liked in this tabloid kingdom. As a consequence, heightened sensitivity to self-esteem issues and a curriculum that will bolster esteem are central to our administrative and educational training.
As Dean of Students, I’ve been alerted to many instances of so-called cyber-bullying. There are, of course, terrible things communicated on social media. Much of the “bullying,” however, turns out to be nothing more than a student not being properly esteemed by his peers. We might call it cyber-shunning. Student x is constantly liked. He is emoticon-rich, swimming in a vast ocean of likes and affirmations. Student y, however, is regularly shunned. He is emoticon-poor. Worse, he is swimming in a vast sea of disfavor. Our students are being trained that they have a fundamental right to have what they like liked by others. They want to be full members of the tabloid aristocracy.
How to Protect Oneself from the Tabloid Mob
In a society that properly values the free and noble exchange of ideas, fortitude is absolutely essential.
Democracies seem particularly inclined to be governed by the vulgar opinions of the mob, and students in a democracy are the easiest targets. The desire to be accepted by their peers—and the fear of being rejected—is a powerful motivation. Nothing worse can be imagined than loving something that is an object of ridicule. As the most vulnerable to the influence of the vagaries of the mob, students are most in need of fortitude. My students have an unhealthy obsession with what is intellectually and socially fashionable, and a nose for sniffing it out. They are terrified of finding themselves running afoul of what they perceive to be the fashionable notions of the “in crowd.” Students must become adroit masters of what is, sadly, the most trivial; they must become masters of transient intellectual and social fashions.
Something as simple as using a masculine singular pronoun to agree with a singular subject is assiduously avoided because it sounds “off” to them. Even when made aware of the grammatical issue, they’d rather commit a grammatical faux pas—and run afoul of their teacher’s approval—than commit the more horrific social and intellectual faux pas of using the masculine singular. I commented recently in class how concerned I was that a commercial changed the popular maxim from To each his own to To each their own. My students looked at me as though I were an invading species from a hostile planet coming to steal their sanity and good sense.
What is needed in this moment is not simply courage. Consider the following from the Gospel of Matthew: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” When confronted with the ravenous, wolf-like power of a tabloid mob, our students must be not only courageous, but also wise and innocent. Put differently, they must be wise and good.
Goodness consists in being conformed to the objective ground of moral order. It is desiring to become like what is truly and unquestionably holy. Likewise, wisdom consists in being conformed to the objective ground of intellectual order. Holiness and wisdom, linked with courage, are the necessary protections against the wicked vagaries, moods, and caprices of a tabloid culture run by a mad, mad mob.
The temptation to retreat is powerful, but it must be resisted. That which is objectively true, beautiful, and good must be promoted from the rooftops, not cloistered in a deep and inaccessible wood. We must prepare our children and students for being sent out amid the ravenous wolves.
Remembering the Past to Recognize Hysteria in the Present
Courageous, wise, and good—this sounds like Polycarp of Smyrna, George Washington, or Margaret Thatcher. Through the miracles of archeology, textual preservation, and modern printing, the greatest and wisest voices from the past can still speak to us. This is one of the chief virtues of a “great books” curriculum. Its formation aims to help students see their own time from outside it, and to hear the voices of their own time anew. Like Scipio Aemilianus in Cicero’s de Republica, they need to see their own civilization from beyond it—dwarfed by the greater grandeur of the cosmos, and the Truth that governs it.
In The Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy harshly rebukes the muses of poetry for endeavoring to destroy the internal order of Boethius’s soul. The muses of poetry are so dangerous because they simply want an emotional, hysterical, even manic evocation of their patient’s mortal condition, a cathartic emotional enthrallment. The problem, Lady Philosophy argues, is that they are causing Boethius to be obsessively preoccupied with his present circumstances. Their poetic enthrallment forces his gaze too far earthward. Lady Philosophy wants to point Boethius beyond his circumstances, beyond the vagaries, vicissitudes, and vulgarities of human opinion to the ultimate ground of all order in the soul.
If our students are to survive in a democracy, they must recognize hysteria. They must desire to have it exorcised from their souls. They must, in short, not be ridiculed by it, but ridicule it. As a teacher, I try to embody this in my teaching. I strive to teach my students reverence for what isn’t new, fashionable, and hip. I do my best to inoculate them against the tyranny of the now by pointing them to the lilting song of a greater and holier throng. In short, we must point our students to that class that is most obscure in a democracy: our noble ancestors. We would do well to heed Chesterton’s words in Orthodoxy: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
This is our high calling: we must have the fortitude to pursue truth, beauty, and goodness with diligence, and to exorcise the shrill voices and influence of the angry mob from our souls. In order to do this, we must support institutions that reject tabloid tyranny. We must become braver ourselves.
Parents, educators, and clergy: don’t submit to the “arrogant oligarchy of those who mere happen to be walking about.” Be wise, good, and courageous, and teach your children and students to be the same.