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The Toughest Generation?

Summary:
There should be a science of discontent. People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles. — Frank Herbert, Dune Haidt and Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind famously argues that coddling is bad for kids.  As Haidt states elsewhere: Children’s social and emotional abilities are as antifragile as their immune systems. If we overprotect kids and keep them “safe” from unpleasant social situations and negative emotions, we deprive them of the challenges and opportunities for skill-building they need to grow strong. Such children are likely to suffer more when exposed later to other unpleasant but ordinary life events, such as teasing and social exclusion. If so, there’s an odd implication.  Namely: We are currently raising an extremely tough

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There should be a science of discontent. People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles.

— Frank Herbert, Dune

Haidt and Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind famously argues that coddling is bad for kids.  As Haidt states elsewhere:

Children’s social and emotional abilities are as antifragile as their immune systems. If we overprotect kids and keep them “safe” from unpleasant social situations and negative emotions, we deprive them of the challenges and opportunities for skill-building they need to grow strong. Such children are likely to suffer more when exposed later to other unpleasant but ordinary life events, such as teasing and social exclusion.

If so, there’s an odd implication.  Namely: We are currently raising an extremely tough generation of white males.

The logic: Virtually every other demographic group gets official sympathy, but white males get official disdain.  While the dose varies widely, “white male” is almost the sole demographic category Americans publicly pronounce in sneer italics.  (That naturally includes sub-sets, such as “straight white males” or “cis straight white males”).  So while every other group gets the short-run benefit and long-run harm of “coddling,” white males get the mirror image: short-run harm, long-run benefit.

When I look at the world, however, I honestly see little sign that today’s white males are reaping the benefits of their own antifragility.  What’s going on?  I see three main responses:

1. I’m wrong.  Today’s white males are extraordinarily tough, just as Haidt-Lukianoff’s model predicts.

2. The dosage of abuse that today’s white males receive is too high to be beneficial.  As exposure therapy teaches us, you build toughness with moderate adversity, not terrible adversity.

3. The dosage of abuse that today’s white males receive is too low to be beneficial. Things have to get much worse for white males to counter all of the other coddling going on.

The main problem is #1 is that almost no one thinks this.  Including Haidt and Lukianoff, as far as I know.

The main problem with #2 is that the dose of abuse still seems moderate.  Even if you’re stuck at a school with lots of brainwashing, how many times per day do you personally hear anyone say “white male” in sneer italics?  I doubt more than 10% of students can even say “once per day.”  According to a little poll I ran:

The main problem with #3 is that Haidt and Lukianoff are clearly disturbed by the current level of abuse of white males.  So it would be hard for them to save their model by downplaying the current dosage.

What’s the real story?  My best guess is that the case against coddling mostly reflects focusing illusion.  Nothing is as important as you think it is, when you’re thinking about it.  Including coddling.  Coddling is mostly futile, but not deeply destructive.  As the nature/nurture literature predicts.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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