Haidt-Love Relationship

Epistemic status: personal, exhortatory, expressive

Jonathan Haidt has an ideology.  In his academic life, he poses positive questions, but he definitely has a normative position as well. And you can see this most clearly in his speeches to young people, which are sermons on Haidtism.

Here is an example.

In it, he contrasts “Coddle U” with “Strengthen U,” two archetypal colleges. He’s clearly arguing in favor of psychological resilience, and against fragility. Let’s leave aside the question of whether feminists and other activists are actually oversensitive weenies, and whether trigger warnings are actually coddling, and engage with his main point, that it is better not to be an oversensitive weenie.

Haidt seems to see this as self-evident. The emotionally weak are to be mocked; the emotionally strong are to be respected.

I don’t find it as obvious.

Fragility can have a certain charm. Sensitive, romantic, tender spirits can be quite attractive.  The soft-hearted can be quick to show kindness. The easily-bruised can be alert to problems that more thick-skinned folks ignore.  We usually trust people’s sincerity more when they are moved to strong emotion.  A frail, innocent person is often a lovable person.  And who wouldn’t want to be lovable?

“Do you want to be strong or do you want to be fragile?” takes us back to Nietzsche’s old conflict of Herrenmoral and Sklavmoral.  Is it good to be successful, skilled, strong, powerful (as opposed to weak, cowardly, unhealthy, contemptible)?   Or is it good to be innocent, pure, gentle, kind (as opposed to oppressive, selfish, cruel)?

Of course it’s possible to be both kind and strong.  Herrenmoral and Sklavmoral are both pre-rational viewpoints, more like aesthetics than actual ethics.  It’s a question of whether you want to be this:

or this:

Ultimately, the consideration in favor of strength is simply that the world contains threats.  Fragility may make you lovable, but it can also make you dead.  You don’t get to appreciate the benefits of sensitivity and tenderness if you’re dead.

Being strong enough to do well at the practicalities of the world — physical safety and health, economic security, enough emotional stability not to put yourself or others at risk — is, up to a point, an unalloyed good.

Think of it as a gambler’s ruin situation. You have to win or save enough to stay in the game.  Strength helps you stay in the game.

And because strength is necessary for survival, there’s something to respect in the pro-strength aesthetic.

From the outside, it can seem kind of mean and elitist. You’re scorning people for failure and pain? You think you’re better than the rest of us, just because you’re pretty or smart or tough or happy?

But another way of looking at it is having respect for the necessities of life.  If you consider that starvation is a thing, you’ll remember that food is valuable, and you’ll feel gratitude to the farmers who grow it. In the same way, you can have respect for intelligence, respect for competence, respect for toughness, respect for all skills.  You can be glad for them, because human skill drives out the darkness of death, the hard vacuum of space that surrounds us, and excellent humans are pinpricks of flame in the dark.  You can love that hard brilliance.

And if respect can tinge into love, love can shade into enjoyment. You can enjoy being awesome, or knowing people who are awesome.  It can be exhilarating.  It can be a high and heady pleasure.

And from that vantage point, it’s possible to empathize with someone who, like Haidt, scorns weakness. Maybe, once you’ve been paying attention to the high points of human ability, anything else seems rather dingy.  Maybe you think “It’s so much nicer here upon the heights, why would you want to be down in the valley?”  Maybe some of the people who seem “elitist” actually just want to be around the people who light them up, and have developed high standards for that.

Not to say that there doesn’t exist shallow, vindictive status-grabbing.  But there are also people who aren’t like that, who just prefer the excellent to the mediocre.

Or, on a smaller scale, there are those who seek out “positive people” and avoid “toxic people” — they’re orienting towards success and away from failure, towards strength and away from weakness, and this is an understandable thing to do.

An addict trying to get her life together would try hard to avoid weakness, temptation, backsliding — and this would be a good thing, and any decent person would cheer for her.  That kind of motivation is the healthy thing that drives people to choose strength over fragility.

So Haidt’s basic premise — that you want to be more strong than fragile — is believable.

His prescriptions for achieving that are risk tolerance and minimizing the negative.

I’m going to reframe his ideas somewhat so they refer to individuals.  He’s talking about a top-down perspective — how schools can make students stronger. I have an issue with that, because I think that “improving” people against their will is ethically questionable, and especially trying to “make people tough” by exposing them to adversity, if they have no intrinsic desire to toughen and no input into the type of “adversity” involved, is probably counterproductive.  However, people self-improve all the time, they make themselves tougher, and that’s a more fruitful perspective, in my opinion.

Risk tolerance is the self-motivated version of “we’re not going to coddle you.” It would mean seeking out challenges, looking for criticism, engaging with “hard truths”, going on adventures.  Trying things to test your mettle.

It’s pretty obvious why this works: small amounts of damage cause you to develop stronger defenses. Exercise produces micro-tears in muscle, so it grows back stronger.  Vaccines made of weakened virus stimulate immunity to that virus.  Intermittent, all-out efforts against fear or failure are good for you.

(You’re still playing to stay in the game, so an adversity that takes you out of the game altogether is not good for you. This is why I think it works much better if the individual’s judgment and motivation is engaged.  Voluntary choice is important. Authorities trying to “toughen kids up” against their will can kill them. )

Minimizing the negative means mentally shrinking the sources of your distress. Haidt cites Marcus Aurelius, Boethius, the Buddha, and the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy as pointing at the same universal truths.

Now, of course, Stoicism, Buddhism, and modern psychology have very different visions of the good life. The ideal Stoic is a good citizen; the ideal Buddhist is an ascetic; the ideal psychological subject is “well.”  The ideal Stoic is protective of his soul; the ideal Buddhist is aware that his “self” does not exist.  Trying to be a serious Stoic is quite different from trying to be a serious Buddhist, and it’s not clear what it would even mean to try to be the “ideal person” by the standards of cognitive behavioral therapy.

What these philosophies have in common is a lot simpler than that: it’s just “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Don’t freak out over trivial shit. Remember that it’s trivial.

Stoicism and Buddhism both use meditation as a tactic; both suggest focusing on impermanence and even death, to remind oneself that trivial shit will pass.  CBT’s tactic is disputation — arguing with your fears and frustrations, telling yourself that the problem is not that big a deal.

Marcus Aurelius in particular uses pride a lot as a tactic, encouraging you to view getting upset as beneath the dignity of your soul.

Of course, “Don’t sweat the small stuff” imposed from without is a bit insulting.  Who are you, authority figure, to say what is and isn’t important?  Aren’t you telling me to ignore real problems and injustices?

But seen from within, “don’t sweat the small stuff” is just another perspective on “focus on your goals and values.”

You want to stay in the game, remember? So you can win, whatever that means to you.  So survival matters, robustness matters, because that keeps you in the game.  Freaking out takes you hors de combat.

Haidt tends not to push too hard on Christianity, perhaps because his audience is secular, but it is a very common source of comfort that does, empirically, make people happier.  My impression of Christian positivity, from a non-theological perspective, is that it says the good outweighs the bad. The bad exists; but the good is stronger and bigger and wins in the end.  And this is another way of not freaking out over trivial shit, which is quite different in aesthetic from the others, and maybe underappreciated by secular people.  Instead of trying to shrink your troubles by minimizing or disputing them, you can make them seem less important by contrast to something vast and Good. In a similar, albeit secular, spirit, there’s Camus’ famous line, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

Stripped of the sneering and the political angle and the paternalism, what we have here is a pretty solid message.

It’s a good idea to become stronger; in order to do that, try hard things, and don’t freak out about trivial shit.

Now, I immediately imagine a dialogue with my Weenie Self resisting this idea.

But…that sounds AWFUL!  I don’t want to!

Well, the thing is, “I’m not currently doing X” is not a valid argument against doing X. If it were, nobody would ever have a reason to change their behavior.  We’d all just follow the gradients of our current stimuli wherever they led.  There’s no choice in that world, no deliberate behavior. “But I’m currently freaking out about trivial shit!” doesn’t actually mean that you shouldn’t want to freak out less in future.

I know. It’s weird.  This is a way of thinking about things consciously and explicitly, even when they feel kind of awkward and wrong.

How can it be right when it doesn’t feel right?!  I am currently experiencing a sense of certainty that this is a bad idea! You want me to trust a verbal argument over this overwhelming feeling of certainty?

This, believe it or not, is what people mean when they talk about reason!

Trusting an argument that is correct as far as you can tell, over your feelings, even very strong feelings.  Being consciously aware that a thing is a good idea, and doing it, even when it’s awkward and unnatural and feels wrong.  You’re not used to doing things this way, because you usually discipline yourself with more feelings — guilt or fear, usually.  But there’s a way of making yourself do hard things that starts, simply, with recognizing intellectually that the hard thing is a good idea.

You can make yourself like things that you don’t currently like!  You can make yourself feel things that you aren’t currently feeling!

This bizarre, robotic, abstract business of making decisions on the basis of thoughts rather than feelings is a lot less crazy than it, um, feels.  It’s a tremendous power.

Some people luck into it by being naturally phlegmatic. The rest of us look at them and think “Man, that would suck, having practically no feelings.  Feelings are the spice of life!”  But we can steal a bit of their power, with time and effort, without necessarily becoming prosaic ourselves.

My overall instinctive response to Haidtism is negative.  The ideology initially comes across as smug and superficial.  But upon reflection, I have come to believe that it is right to aim towards self-transcendence, to do hard things and not sweat the small stuff. And I’m resolving to be more charitable towards people who support that creed even when they rub me the wrong way stylistically.  Ultimately, I want to do the things that are good ideas, even when that means awkward, deliberate change.