An Interview with Jonathan Haidt

Photo by Jayne Riew.

For the compassionate mind, attentive to the hard-fought and precious veneer of civilization tragically peeling away, a certain despair asserts itself. American democracy seemed immune to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, protected by the enlightened safeguards built into its structure by architects whose genius was meant to transcend history. At the moment, however, entropy is threatening victory. The abrupt S-76B death of Kobe Wan Kenobi was, in retrospect, portentous of a year so densely populated with outlier events that one wonders whether even a single day of sweet tranquility will bless us before its close: a circus impeachment of vacuous performance; a globally ruinous pandemic whose immediate death-dealing may prove inconsequential next to its downstream consequences; unabating nationwide riots that have turned the culture war dangerously hot; and all against the backdrop of a presidential election between candidates that, when taken as a pair, signify a republic weakened by complacency, corruption, spiritual neglect, ideological possession, and the unforeseen externalities of technological revolution.

It is with a certain comedic justice that my university experience is book-ended by a second Election to End All Elections. I recall recognizing, four years ago, many of the same undercurrents in concerning collaboration. The hyperpolitical nature of the campus micro-society had turned pathological in many ways, enforcing an orthodoxy inconsistent with the Academy’s founding charge of veritas. As I observed and occasionally ran afoul of the established order, Mrs. Silence Dogood reintroduced herself: “Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such thing as Wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without Freedom of Speech.” As has been its proclivity, the intellectual products of college culture were leaking into surrounding waters, and all I could think was, “How we’d benefit from circulating a little bit of Wisdom as well.”

“Wisdom”, the judgment derived from a true understanding of the human personality, is in my estimation what binds the work of Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. More accurately, it is firstly the distillation of ancient Wisdom, drawn from the great mystics of antiquity, Greco-Roman philosophers, and Enlightenment rationalists; the validation of that Wisdom by newfangled methods of quantitative research; and, finally, its application to civilization’s current incarnation. In fact, this is explicitly the project of his first book, The Happiness Hypothesis (2006), in which he corroborates lessons delivered through the millennia with the discoveries of modern psychology. Its intention is extended in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion (2012), the culmination of his graduate work at the Universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania on the psychological foundations of ideology. Although rich, this book is characterized less by its content and more by its function—which it certainly served for me some years ago—of waking its reader up to the moral matrix he inhabits. Even further, it enables the reader to achieve an aerial vantage from which she can observe the arena of competing and often complimentary moral matrices. This new perspective cleanses her vision of ideological tint and opens up new possibilities for understanding and relating to people of any credo, no matter how divergent from her own. Wisdom is thus actually imparted rather than abstractly explained. We are biological creatures, our hardware (bodies and brains) and software (culture) both shaped by evolutions of a sort. From the interaction between hardware and software arise modes of action, heuristics for information synthesis, and ultimately systems of virtue that demonstrate not only the power of the human mind but also its vulnerabilities.

Continuing to his third movement on Wisdom, Haidt has spent the past several years explaining the observations I coincidentally made upon entering higher education. His account, co-authored with Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, arrived as The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (2018). In it, he recounts an abandonment of the accumulated Wisdom on human development over the past three decades and how this abandonment—in combination with growing partisanship, mutant scholarship, and social media—has produced peculiar conditions in coastal elite universities today. In response to these conditions, Haidt co-founded Heterodox Academy, a coalition of academics committed to viewpoint diversity on college campuses. He also, hoping to impress upon today’s high schoolers the value of our First Amendment, has released a stylishly illustrated version of the first chapter of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Condensed, its argument holds that the freedom to publicly speak one’s mind is, by its nature, simultaneously the freedom to listen, to direct one’s own learning, and to pursue the truth. These freedoms, beyond their intrinsic value, are necessary for democratic harmony and longevity.

I spoke with Professor Haidt remotely from rural Georgia, where I had escaped to in March for its attractive population sparsity. We discussed the psychological predicament of my generation, Generation Z; the origins of today’s political polarization; the loss of telos; and all in the context of COVID-19.

—Prashanth Ramakrishna


THE BELIEVER: Let’s start with the major psychological phenomena afflicting Generation Z, defined as those born in 1996 and after. We hear people say that rates of youth anxiety and depression have gone up. But can we quantify these trends to give people a higher-resolution picture of what’s going on? 

JONATHAN HAIDT: After The Coddling came out, some people challenged me and Greg and said, “Oh, come on. This isn’t a real increase. It’s just that Gen Z is really comfortable talking about mental health. There’s nothing to worry about.” The psychiatrist Richard Friedman wrote an op-ed in the New York Times arguing this. To see if his skepticism was valid, I created two open source literature reviews with the aim of organizing all the relevant research. I invited Jean Twenge, the author of iGen, to work with me as a co-curator. They truly are open source. Anyone can see them and anyone who’s a researcher can add to them.  

The first review focuses on studies about how teen mental health has changed over the last two decades. Most of them tell the same story: sudden and rapid increases in levels of anxiety and depression, beginning around 2012 or 2013. Although this affects boys as well, girls are hit much harder. The rise is only in anxiety and depression, it is not seen for bipolar disorder or personality disorders or alcoholism. It’s not as though Gen Z is self-diagnosing across the board.  

Furthermore, these trends are not just based on self-reporting; for girls they show up in hospital admissions data for self-harm, and for both sexes they show up in a sudden rise in completed suicides. We see similar trends, especially for girls, in Canada and the UK.

Figure 1: SEQ Figure Major Depressive Episode in the last twelve months, by age group, 2005–2017
Figure 2: Major Depressive Episode in the last twelve months, by age group and sex, 2005–2017

This is real. This is big. I’ve now spoken about the book at dozens of schools—from middle schools through universities. At every school, the leadership tells me that rising rates of depression and anxiety are among their most pressing problems.  

BLVR: As you say, there are clearly smaller increases for boys than there are for girls. You make a distinction, however, between “younger” and “older girls.” Might we be able to nail down that distinction?

JH:  Here are two graphs from a study of hospital admissions for non-fatal self-injury—suicidal and non-suicidal—that will make everything clear. There are three things I want you to notice. First, you can see that the trend for boys is flat. Self-harm is not going up for boys. That’s true in the UK and Canada as well. Second, moving to the graph about girls, you can see that a big and sustained rise begins around 2010. The final and most crucial observation comes when you separate by age. Historically, older teen girls have self-harmed the most. From that already high level of hospital admissions for non-fatal self-harm, they then increase a lot, going up 62% from 2009 to 2015. But look at the bottom line—ages 10 to 14. Young teenage girls didn’t use to cut themselves; But now, after an increase of 189%, they harm themselves as often as women in their early twenties. Lastly, notice the orange line, which represents women who were late-Millennials at the time these data were collected. They don’t see a pronounced increase. There’s something big happening to Gen Z, especially Gen Z females, and it seems to hit them hard beginning in middle school.

Figure 3: Girls’ hospital admissions for non-fatal self-harm, 2001–2015, separated by age group
Figure 4: Boys’ hospital admissions for non-fatal self-harm, 2001–2015, separated by age group

This is an epidemic. Greg and I talk about avoiding “catastrophizing”, which is a common cognitive distortion. But it’s only a distortion when you do it in the absence of clear evidence. In this case, the evidence is clear and consistent, across many studies. We searched for counter evidence and didn’t find any. I do think it is a national emergency. 

BLVR: The question then, is: “Why?” Why is it hitting the girls much more than the boys? And why does it seem to start so suddenly, between 2010 and 2012? 

JH: We have to look at the bigger picture of how childhood has changed in the United States and other English-speaking countries. What Greg and I say in our book is that there are a bunch of different threads that came together to alter the development and education of Gen Z. One is the vast overprotection that American kids have been subjected to since the 1990s. Greg and I grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s. Even though that was the peak of the crime wave, the norm was that kids went outside after school and on the weekends to play without adult supervision. But just as crime rates began to plummet in the 1990s, Americans freaked out about child abduction and started scaring their kids, teaching them about “stranger danger” and insisting that they always be under the watchful eye of a responsible adult. Kids are much less likely to walk or bike to school nowadays, even when they live close. So, members of Gen Z were deprived of a lot of free play and unsupervised time. That doesn’t explain the sex difference, though, because boys and girls would be equally deprived of normal growth experiences and opportunities to master risk-taking. 

BLVR: What you’re describing, in a word, is “infantilization”. 

JH: Yes, we have infantilized young people by trying to protect them from every risk. Gen Z bears no blame for this. Hence the subtitle of our book: “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” 

I believe that the sex difference is due primarily to the fact that Gen Z is the first generation to get onto social media in middle school. The Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, did not get social media until college or later. When Facebook came out in 2004, you needed a college email address to join. It didn’t really open up to everyone until 2006. More importantly though, I think that social media was pretty nice and harmless until 2009. In its early stages, platforms like Facebook and Friendster encouraged people to say, “Look at me, here are the bands I like, look at how many friends I have.” That’s not very toxic. But in 2009, Facebook introduces the “like” button; Twitter introduces the “Retweet” button; and both platforms increase their use of algorithms to generate individual news feeds based on engagement metrics. That is, people are encouraged to create content, which is then rated and commented on by others. This, I believe, takes a harder toll on girls, who are more sensitive to public judgment and social comparison, especially regarding their appearance. 

BLVR: Interestingly, studies that look at how negative emotion is correlated with time spent on particular apps shows that it’s precisely the apps that admit the type of social interaction you’re talking about that produce the most negative emotion in the shortest amount of time—Grindr, Tinder, Instagram, Facebook. By contrast, the apps that produce the most positive emotion are meditation apps, reading apps, music exploration apps, and so on. This suggests to me that the monolithic, overarching variable of “screen time” unfairly lumps in a diverse range of engagement types without discrimination.

JH: Yes, that’s a really important point, and something I only learned from conducting those literature reviews and engaging with critics. “Screen time” is not the problem; social media is. Now, let’s link this back to the COVID-19 Crisis. This graph from the Economist, complementing the findings you just outlined, will do it for us. It shows the degree to which people regret their time on particular apps—“Do you wish you had spent less time on this?” What you see is that it’s the apps where people rate each other that people wish they spent less time using. These apps are addictive, but they don’t make you happy. Whereas, looking at the bottom rows of the graph, you can see that direct private communication is much better, especially when it’s synchronous—where you’re reacting to each other’s voice, moment-by-moment.  Few people think “Oh, I spend too much time talking with my friends by phone or Facetime.”

Figure 5: Time-use regret broken down by application.

The evidence has been accumulating for the past five years or so that spending a lot of time on social media is not just correlated with bad mental health but actually causes declines in happiness. Of the ten true experiments we have found, where people were randomly assigned to reduce their time on social media platforms, eight of them found a significant improvement in some measure of wellbeing or mental health. So whenever you see a headline proclaiming “Don’t Freak Out About Quarantine Screen Time,” you can bet that the authors are basing their claims on studies that lumped together all kinds of “screen time,” including watching movies and talking with friends; they ignore the much clearer evidence that heavy use of social media is consistently linked to bad mental health in girls. In fact, Jean Twenge and I have just published an article showing that when you look into the most influential academic paper that claimed to show no link between screen time and bad mental health, you actually find  substantial link between social media use and bad mental health for girls. It’s right there in the data, but it gets buried under many less relevant analyses of “screen time” for all teens. This is why we think that social media is an important contributor. We know of no other theory that explains both the sex difference and timing. 

However, I do think that social media use might change in healthy ways this year, at least temporarily. Screen time is obviously up for people of all ages during the coronavirus lockdown. But, to the extent that people engage in more synchronous communication on Zoom or Facetime, where they can see and hear each other in real time, these devices are a blessing. Video games that connect kids so that they can interact synchronously while playing are likely to be good for mental health. The key is not the screen, it’s what the screen-based platform does for relationships. 

BLVR: The fact that the COVID-19 Crisis is a health crisis, I think, bears emphatically on the harmful culture of Safetyism in childrearing you detailed. By my lights, there are two possibilities here. One is that this type of global health scare reinforces biases parents have about how unsafe the world is for their children. The other is that it provides a much-needed juxtaposition to the relative safety and true benign nature of normal day-to-day existence, thus eroding the prevalence of Safetyist practices.  

JH: I think that’s exactly right, but let me put it in slightly different terms. Parents will worry about their children no matter what, but what is the focus of their fears? As the world has gotten physically safer for children, decade by decade—as fewer die from violence, accidents, and disease—we have come to care much more about “emotional safety.” I think that is a harmful term. If you experience negative emotions, it does not mean you are unsafe. The idea of protecting kids from negative emotions is a very bad idea. Kids need a lot of negative experience and short-term stress. What they don’t need are truly traumatic experiences and long-term stress. There’s a wonderful new book by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister called “The Power of Bad”. They make the point that “bad” is generally stronger than “good”. We learn more quickly from bad experiences than we do from good ones, especially when we are young. So, if we deprive kids of small, routine bad experiences, then we slow down their learning and growth. Putting this all together, I would say that we all want to keep our children safe, and, as the world got incredibly safe physically, we allowed our concepts of safety to expand to encompass emotional experiences. That was a mistake. 

BLVR: This is what you call “concept creep.” 

JH: Yes, drawing on the work of Australian psychologist Nicholas Haslam. Our concept of safety “crept” so far afield far from its original meaning that if our children were excluded from groups, if they were teased or insulted, we thought they were now “emotionally unsafe”. I believe that the current crisis in which we are all talking about physical danger and death could pull that concept creep back, several decades back perhaps. That, I think will be good for everyone.

If we’re talking about Gen Z and the COVID-19 Crisis, I would summarize things this way: Gen Z has been demonstrating alarmingly high rates of depression, anxiety, and fragility. The two major causes, I believe, are the vast overprotection and over-supervision that became the norm in the 1990s, and the too-early introduction—in middle school—of social media, which encouraged superficial and alienating forms of interaction. Both of those factors are changing under quarantine. Even though kids are now trapped with their parents, the overscheduled life of families in the middle class and above, in which parents are constantly carting their children from one activity to the next, is probably not surviving. In many families it is likely that kids have a lot more independence. That is, they are now responsible for passing the time; they are finding ways to interact online and in person with whoever they are allowed to play with. So, we might find that many kids actually have more independence now than before, and we might find that their social media interactions yield more authentic connections than before. But these are empirical questions and so far, we just don’t have the data to know how kids’ lives are changing in lockdown.

My hope is that these two major factors will change because of the virus. This quarantine, along with all the disappointments and problems and setbacks it will bring for the next few years, could make Gen Z healthier, stronger, and more independent. It may change the way they use social media. If so, then we might see rates of depression and anxiety stop rising; they may even begin to fall in the next year or two.


BLVR: The coming of age of this generation coincided perfectly with the climax of a certain set of ideas in the university ecosystem. You suggest in your book that these ideas were perfectly constructed to reinforce the more anxious personality predispositions Gen Z developed from a Safetyist upbringing. This confluence of the arrival of Gen Z and specific intellectual movements in the Academy resulted in many of the problems we’re now seeing on college campuses, which I’m hoping you’ll be able to characterize. 

But before you do, I want to plant a couple of flags. One is the frequent reaction to pointing out these problems which is to say that they are hyperbolized. The other is that these problems have real consequences for how the academy conducts business. Both are troubling—the first because in order for solutions to take hold there needs to be a societal acknowledgment that this pillar of democratic stability is being corrupted and the second because unobstructed research is an indispensable asset of civilization. So, I’ll set the stage there for your entrance. 

JH: Why thank you. Around 2014, something very strange began happening at many elite universities. There was a sudden emergence of a culture of safetyism, with some students claiming that words, speakers, books, and ideas were dangerous and therefore had to be suppressed, banned, or accompanied by a trigger warning. This is what Greg Lukianoff first noticed in 2014, in his work as the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. This is what led to our article in The Atlantic in August of 2015. And this is what exploded across higher education beginning at Halloween of 2015, especially at Yale with protests over an email sent by Erika Christakis, about Yale’s policy regarding Halloween costumes. The puzzle of how this culture emerged is what Greg and I have been working on. 

We believe that it resulted from the convergence of multiple trends. One of them was the arrival of Gen Z. Students who were born in 1996 first arrive on college campuses around 2014. But another was the rise in political polarization that began in the late 1990s and that had nothing to do with Gen Z, but that had profound effects on university culture in recent years. On the right, there was a rise in right-wing media outlets that loved to find some foolish or extreme things that some student or professor said, and then blow them up into a national scandal. On the left, there was a rise in a certain kind of identity politics that gave the right more and more to be outraged by. 

Identity politics is not bad in and of itself. In any large community there should be a way for groups to make their interests and concerns known. But that can be done in a way that emphasizes what those in the group have in common. For example, “we are all Yale students, and some of us are not being treated fairly.” That is the approach that many of the great civil rights leaders took. We call it “common humanity identity politics.”  The alternative approach is to identify an enemy and rally people together in a battle of good versus evil. We call that “common enemy identity politics”—a way of thinking about identity as bipolar. Us versus them. With respect to gender, for example, “Male” is bad, synonymous with power and oppression, while “Non-male” is synonymous with victim and is therefore morally good. Similar dichotomies are drawn for race, class, disability status, and so on. This way of thinking became increasingly common on campuses in the 2010s, although its roots go back at least to the 1990s. And while we’re talking about it happening on the left on campus, I must note that us-versus-them, group-versus-group thinking is characteristic of the far right in general, up to and including the President’s reactions to the coronavirus. 

Of course there are average differences between groups in wealth and power, but if you’re trying to create a university community that is diverse, and that benefits from diversity, the last thing you want to be teaching incoming freshmen is to judge individuals as being good or bad based on their group membership. I can sum up much of the moral progress of the late twentieth century like this: “You know that thing people have always done, of hating other people based on their group membership? How about if we stop doing that?” But in some departments that focus on identity issues, that idea seems to be rejected and students are taught to see themselves as surrounded by hostile groups and unchangeable institutions all dedicated to their failure. I think this might explain the paradox that the student protests were strongest not at the places with presumably the most racism and sexism, but rather at the most progressive places with the most anti-racism and anti-sexism—places like Yale, Brown, Middlebury, and Evergreen State College, in Washington. This new moral culture that sees the campus not as a cooperative community but as a set of eternally  oppressive relationships can only flourish in a closed residential community. These unusual moral ideas about books as violence or words as violence can’t survive exposure to the outside world, as in a commuter school where many students live with their parents. So, I suspect, now that campuses have dissolved and we no longer have such closed campus communities, that things will start to reset. 

BLVR: Now, the second flag that I raised. Ideological homogeneity has the power to shape research priorities. For example, as your work points out, the more liberal you are, the more likely you are to identify expansively with all of humanity and the less likely you are to identify with nation and family. Conversely, the more conservative you are, the more likely you are to identify locally with nation or family, and the less likely you are to identify with all of humanity. This frame immediately identifies the research output of certain disciplines, sociology for example, as reflective of the aggregate produced by individuals with liberal personality orientations—an emphasis on systemic problems and systemic solutions aimed at alleviating broad oppression affecting large swathes of humanity. This is in contrast to an emphasis on local solutions which, as we know, are preferred by those with a conservative personality orientation.  

JH: This is a very robust and longstanding difference between Left and Right, and it should make it easier for people on the left to take the “common humanity” view. Your political orientation is partially heritable, like almost everything else. People who have the conservative predisposition are more “parochial,” and I don’t mean that as an insult; they are more rooted in and focused on their local community. People who have the more progressive or left-wing predisposition resonate more with John Lennon’s song “Imagine” —imagine no religion, no nations, no private property, just all people living life in peace. I personally see left and right as being, at least potentially, like Yin and Yang. You need people who are investing in the local community and its protection, and you need people who are thinking about All of Humanity and its flourishing. I agree with conservatives that problems should generally be solved at the lowest level possible, but I also agree with progressives that for global problems, such as the coronavirus and climate change, we also need strong global institutions and a coordinated international response. 

It’s been fascinating as a social scientist to watch this play out because some people on the right have tried to make this about country versus country. President Trump’s attempt to promote the term “Chinese Virus” is a naked play for nationalism. He is having some success on the right, but I think most Americans are rejecting this. People are inspired by Italians singing from balconies and the Queen of England giving a beautiful speech. For the first time ever, we really are all in this together. Many of us feel like we’re on the side of Team Humanity. We’re all hoping someone invents a vaccine soon and it doesn’t have to be someone from our own country.


BLVR: Finally, let’s turn our attention to the consequences of Gen Z emerging from this rapidly changing higher-education ecosystem into society. There’s the adage that campus culture foreshadows what general society will be like in five to ten years and holds predictive value for that reason. Does this hold true for political polarization? If it does, what does that polarization look like? 

JH: I think you’re right that we often see trends on campus before they spread everywhere because we have the next generation four years before the corporate world does. When you look at it that way, the picture starts becoming clearer. The students coming in around 2014 were really different from the Millennials. They had very high rates of anxiety and depression, and, having been raised on social media, a subset of them were very quick to take offense at single words. Not necessarily ideas, often just words, or articles of clothing, or other things that can be conveyed easily in a tweet or Instagram post. Let me be clear that the callout culture, the public shaming, is not something that most young people do or like. It’s done by a subset of moral grandstanders, who are able to intimidate the reasonable majority. 

Gen Z began to graduate from college around 2018. So, the question is: when students who are more anxious and fragile and prone to engage in callout culture go to work in the corporate world, do they change or does the corporate world change to accommodate them? 

What I’m finding when I talk to people in business is that it depends on the industry. Particularly in creative industries that hire from our elite colleges, this call-out culture, this culture of conflict has put down roots. Those industries are journalism, media, the arts, non-profits, and tech. In those industries, corporate cultures are beginning to look a lot like they do on some of our elite college campuses with a lot of internal conflict and talk about microaggressions, emotional safety, and words-as-violence. The same is not generally true in other industries, like manufacturing and finance. 

BLVR: All of the industries you mentioned are information-producing and information-controlling. They house our sense-making infrastructure. What are the dangers of them becoming ideologically homogeneous?  

JH: Good point, yes, these industries are about information and ideas; they are creative and sense-making industries. And if you want a group or organization to be truly creative you must have diverging viewpoints. If you want to understand reality, you must have institutionalized disconfirmation—built-in mechanisms and norms that guarantee that ideas are challenged and tested. No orthodoxy. In the Academy we have good norms of argumentation. We also have peer review. When someone writes a paper, other experts are given anonymity to read it and raise objections. But that can break down when everybody in the community shares a set of beliefs, when there is ideological homogeneity. In some of the social sciences and the humanities, ideas that are politically pleasing will sometimes be waived through with little challenge. Everyone wants them to be true. 

An equally serious problem is that ideological homogeneity often pulls the community away from its true telos—its purpose, the standard by which you can judge excellence. In the academic world, the best candidate for our telos is truth—the word is right there on the crests of Harvard and Yale. That may not be what artists and poets are aiming for, but across the sciences, social sciences, and many of the humanities I think it is our widely shared telos. However, in some fields, and especially among younger faculty and some students, there seems to be an additional telos: political victory. Fighting fascism, racism, and sexism. Those are good things to fight, but if the activities and procedures of a university are altered to make them effective at that telos, it will be less effective at truth-finding. The university and its scholars will be accused of being political partisans, and public support for the academy will decline. I see the same thing happening in journalism. Older journalists tell me that younger journalists sometimes refuse to get both sides of a story because they don’t want to give a “platform” to views they disagree with. I think that’s a clear violation of the telos of journalism which, like the academy, is to use their special skills and methods to uncover truth.

BLVR: To summarize, ideological homogeneity in industries that control our communal sense-making has eroded necessary mechanisms for institutional disconfirmation and has resulted in a distorted telos of our sense-making organs. This, in turn, has embroiled universities in the culture war and amplified polarization. 

JH: Yes, exactly. I would just add that it is a polarization cycle; it takes partisans and extremists on both sides to amp each other up and imbue all of them with the certainty that they are fighting evil. On the far right we have the rapid growth of irresponsible journalistic outlets, but they are partly a reaction to what is seen as the politicization of the mainstream media. This could be one of the most important ideas we touch on: as our culture is fragmenting, it’s extremely important that professionals stick to their professional responsibility, rather than trying to win the culture war. 

BLVR: Do you think the COVID-19 Crisis is putting the necessity for a pure professional Telos into clearer focus?

JH: I do. The heroes today are the medical personnel. In interview after interview—I’m getting choked up just thinking about this—you hear them talking about their professional responsibility. They say, “this is what we signed up for,” and “we have to be here for our patients.” The medical community is 2500-year-old guild bound by its ancient Hippocratic Oath. It’s kind of a weird oath if you look at the wording of it. But its power is that it subordinates all other identities—race, politics, gender—to a single, noble identity of selfless duty. We are witnessing the beauty of a professional community that sticks to its shared telos despite personal risk.

BLVR: A virus simply doesn’t fit into the landscape of zero-sum competition between identity groups that defines the Culture War. Is the COVID-19 Crisis just another event to put through the spin factory, or is it a unifier? 

JH: We have to start with the “hidden tribes” study,  from More in Common, which shows that there’s a small group of extreme partisans on the Left and on the Right. For those extreme partisans, this absolutely is yet another event for the Left-Right culture war. But those two extreme groups comprise only 15% of the population. Most of us are what they call the “Exhausted Majority.” While the Exhausted Majority may usually not bother to weigh in on Culture War issues, everyone is weighing in on the pandemic. In fact, More In Common just came out with a survey finding that Americans are much more unified than they were a few months ago. 

This is the kind of crisis that could pull us together, at least if we had good leadership that capitalized on the opportunity. Our heroes are not Left or Right, they are doctors, nurses, and delivery people. There’s a real sense, as most of us hide from the virus, that a lot of people are being asked to expose themselves to risk so that we can stay safe. You can see the outpouring of gratitude in the larger tips people are giving to delivery people. I just watched a video last night of a guy who leaves a big bowl of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and masks outside his door for delivery people and says, “Please, take one if you need it.” 

BLVR: This is one of those rare events, like 9/11, that acts as an exogenous shock to a system, opening up possibilities for change. It’s very easy for society, in the regular course of things, to produce interactions that convert non-zealots to zealots. But it’s very difficult for those same dynamics to produce the opposite sort of interaction. Moderation is not easy to maintain after a crisis, and usually it isn’t maintained. What lessons should we keep in mind moving forward? And how do we set up a robust conversation to ensure that these lessons aren’t forgotten? 

JH: Our political system, economy, and our health care system are in desperate need of reform. I am more hopeful now that such reforms may happen, beginning in 2021, but I have to say that I was extremely pessimistic before this crisis hit, so I’m not making any predictions now. A pandemic is not like a foreign attack. Historically, pandemics are not very effective at pulling people together, although I think the massive, globally shared adversity, shareable via our devices, will have many good effects. 

As for how to improve the conversation: I think we need to find ways to turn down the volume on the megaphones currently held by the two extreme groups, and I hope we can find ways to give more voice to people in the “exhausted majority”. I think that will require some reforms to social media—at least to reduce the damage that a small number of trolls and other bad actors can do to the public square. I think we’ll need to find some way to verify identities on the major platforms, even if we still allow people to use fake names. That’s tricky but can be done. If our public square is moving increasingly online, I’d like it to be governed by norms and algorithms that reward civility and nuance, not vitriol and ad hominem attacks. 

A more realistic hope is that for many of us, this crisis is shifting our values in a more communal direction. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has been speaking beautifully about how this is pulling a slider switch in our minds and our societies from the “I” side over to the “We” side. Such a move generally makes people more humble and forgiving. I personally find it really comforting to read the works of the ancient stoic philosophers, each morning. So, let me close with this quote from Marcus Aurelius:

To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long.

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