deconstructing jonathan haidt’s ingenious interview

I’ve thought Jonathan Haidt was annoying since at least 2015. I guess he’s like a more subtle Jordan Peterson, existing to give the white men talking points against social justice warriors.

Nautilus recently published what they call an ingenious interview with him: “The well-meaning bad ideas spoiling a generation.” It’s actually his arguments made in bad faith keeping public discourse reactionary.

The first question is, “Has something gone wrong with our conception of social justice?” The first rhetorical move is to seem reasonable by granting the obvious:

Social justice has many meanings. I think the term was used [to refer to] a Catholic social justice in the 19th century. Some people, on the right especially, claim that the term is meaningless, that there’s only justice. I think that’s not right. I think that there are certain conceptions of justice that are about groups in society; and especially when groups are shut out or treated with lack of dignity, then I think talking about social justice as a particular subset of justice is useful.

His first real move is to build a straw man:

What I’ve observed on campus—and what Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in our book—is that there’s an increasing tendency to define, to look at any place where there’s not numerical parity, where any group is underrepresented relative to the population and to say, “that is unjust.” And any social scientist who’s thinking in any other domain would say, “well, no, wait a second. You have to know the pipeline. You have to know how many people were trying to get in, were people treated differently because of their group membership?”

Who is actually making arguments that simplistic about a disparity?

Affirmative action money paid for me to go to psychology/neuroscience grad school, because black people are represented there. When applying for those sorts of things, I got the sense that there wasn’t a whole lot of competition. Not a lot of black people at the Society for Neuroscience meeting. There wasn’t much of a “pipeline.” It was “easier” to get funding, as a black person. What does that mean? Haidt would say something condescending and imply that black people just don’t like science. Really, poor people don’t go to science grad school for pragmatic reasons. If you’re poor and have family to take care of, and you make it through college, are you going to spend another 6 years making fast food wages on some kind of intellectual quest? Black people usually go to worse schools. Social injustice explains those discrepancies. Haidt wants you to pretend everyone has the same starting point, and the way society splits up tasks is just Natural Law.

In fact, just today, The New York Times announced that it’s going to commit to publishing an equal number of letters from men and women, even though 75 percent of the letter writers are men. Men like to put themselves out in public and show off. But The New York Times has committed to this equal outcomes social justice, which says we’re gonna treat people unequally in order to attain equal outcomes.

That I think is unfair. Most Americans think it’s unfair. Most Americans think that you should treat people as individuals and not discriminate against anyone because of their race or gender. So yes, we are in the middle of a time in which many people who call themselves social justice activists are trying to achieve policies that most people think will treat individuals unfairly.

What’s the purpose of the New York Times letters section? Without agreeing on what that is, how can we say what’s fair?

“Men like to put themselves out in public and show off.” Yeah, and some men would beat their wives for publishing a liberal letter to the editor in the NYT. Feminists have gotten a lot deeper into this than “men just like showing off, because Nature.” Haidt wants to keep it shallow.

The next question is even more ridiculous. “How should we understand the concept of intersectionality?” Obviously we should take guidance on this point from a conservative white man. His answer is to use a lot of words to say it promotes “dualistic thinking.”

So if the point is just that identities intersect or interact, it’s absolutely right. You can’t argue that. Where it’s gone wrong I believe is that it has become such a part of teaching on campus, it becomes wedded to a notion of society as a matrix of oppression in which young people learn to see society as being composed of all kinds of binary distinctions where the people on top are powerful and therefore bad. They are oppressors so they are morally bad. People on the bottom are the victims and therefore morally good.

Now of course oppression is bad, but to teach young people whose minds are … human minds evolved to do tribalism. We evolved to do us versus them, binary thinking, black and white thinking, good versus evil. To take 18-year-olds, and rather than try to turn that down and say “okay hold on, don’t be so moralistic. Let’s try to give people a chance. Let’s judge people as individuals.” That was the great achievement of the 20th century—to make progress there. Instead in the 21st century to say, “okay welcome to campus. Here are five or six dimensions; we’re going to teach you to see men, maleness, masculinity as bad, everyone else is good. White is bad, everyone else is good. Straight is bad, everyone else is good.” This is Manicheism. This is ramping up our tendency to dualistic thinking.

The irony there is pretty rich. Crenshaw wasn’t a deconstructionist, but Judith Butler certainly was. Haidt is reacting to SJW stuff about gender in addition to race. The basic idea of deconstruction is that discourse is already structured around binary oppositions, which are oppressive and full of conceptual problems. Hence, nowadays some people refer to their gender as “nonbinary.”

It’s key when he says “the people on top are powerful and therefore bad.” This is supposed to make white people feel good about themselves and also threatened. Actually, a major theme of the “grievance studies” he’s against is privilege: all the ways people on top of a hierarchy are clueless and kept that way. The emphasis is on structural issues, not individual goodness.

Another thing: white men decided which identity categories are important for allocating power. There wasn’t even a concept of “black people” before white people came up with it. White men wrote all of this down hundreds of years ago. If minorities talk about how the categories organize society, that’s supposed to be some kind of weak-minded neurotic preoccupation they’re imposing on the situation. This is how Dylan Roof phrased the same point when explaining why he shot black people in a church:

Black people view everything through a racial lense. Thats what racial awareness is, its viewing everything that happens through a racial lense. They are always thinking about the fact that they are black. This is part of the reason they get offended so easily, and think that some thing are intended to be racist towards them, even when a White person wouldnt be thinking about race. The other reason is the Jewish agitation of the black race.

Black people are racially aware almost from birth, but White people on average dont think about race in their daily lives. And this is our problem. We need to and have to.

The resemblance is not coincidental.

Haidt’s explanation of where SJWs’ supposed dualism comes from:

So I think that there are certain fields that are colloquially called the grievance studies departments. Fields that are not focused on doing basic research or on understanding social dynamics, but on activism, on changing social dynamics. In general, trying to change things and trying to understand them don’t go well together. The mission of a university I believe should be to understand. And if you do a great job of research, that can be the basis for all kinds of activism later. But if you start with a commitment to a certain way of seeing the world, and you start with a belief that some people are good and some people are bad, I think it makes it very hard to understand real social systems.

I think that there are certain areas, certain departments, certain majors that have more of an activist flavor than a research flavor. Students who major in those departments—I mean students get a lot of different experiences—but those who major in those departments and tend to socialize with people who think that way may come out of the university less wise than when they went in.

In other words, Haidt explains social dynamics by slandering his colleagues in other departments. The idea that “grievance studies” doesn’t do basic research or theorize about social dynamics is absurd. They’ve provided very detailed accounts of how society came to be the way it is. He also creates a false binary between understanding and changing. The whole idea of science is to understand and thereby make predictions, allowing us to engineer the environment. He also states, again, that fighting for social justice is all about calling people good and bad. I’m sure he knows that’s not true. It’s just there to make white people feel threatened.

Many students come to college with a dream or desire or goal of making the world a better place. This is an aspect of post-materialist societies: Prosperity, and general peace lead people to care more about women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, the environment. This is a trend that happens all over the world. It’s happening in Asia as well. So increasingly students want to make a different in the world in a certain way in terms of social justice-type concerns. And that would be great if they were to commit to understanding first. If they would commit to understanding institutions first before they try to change them, then they’d have some success.

Unfortunately, social institutions are incredibly complicated and difficult to change. If you get a group of 20 top experts to study poverty let’s say, or child abuse or anything else, it’s often very difficult to really find a solution. It can take years of study. We then roll out programs, and it often turns out that the programs backfire. So I think that college students, if they really want to make a difference in the world, they should not become activists in their freshman year. They should devote themselves to studying and learning, and maybe by senior year, if they’re really expert in something, maybe they could get behind it.

I’d say he’s using an outdated neoliberal talking point from the 1990s, at the beginning. Currently, we’re very much NOT experiencing prosperity and general peace, or the trends are in the wrong direction, but concern about the causes he listed continues to increase.

WTF is a “post-materialist” society? In explaining social dynamics, he appeals to natural laws, but somehow they don’t apply to economics. Even the illusion that makes “post-materialist” a talking point is breaking down. People understand that bitcoin takes a lot of energy. It’s in the newspaper that cities are stopping their recycling programs, and there’s concern about single-use plastics.

He doesn’t dig into why poverty and child abuse are intractable problems. I’m sure that lots of the feminists and woke black people he’s ignoring have a lot to say about why underlying causes aren’t being addressed. For him, it’s just another example of Natural Law that there should be poverty and people beating their kids.

He talks about virtue signaling, but all his talk about evolution and human nature is just posturing as manly. It’s supposed to demonstrate unsentimental toughmindedness. Obviously, because conservatives are the in-group he’s trying to impress.

Unfortunately, what we have on campus often is certain popular ideas that have no empirical support: mandatory diversity training, more ethnic identity centers, bias response teams so that anybody can report anybody else anonymously. These might sound good to some people, but there’s no evidence that they’ll make a more inclusive, open, trusting environment. And there’s sometimes evidence that they’ll make things worse. So I believe that if you really want to make a difference in the world, you need to commit to really studying the world. Don’t get caught up in a group that is so passionate and so committed that it’s going to basically be blind to counter evidence.

And that’s the core of why he seems to have a point. My favorite example of this is black people getting offended at the word “niggardly.” Society is fucked up, and also mandatory diversity trainings suck.

When in doubt, call the opponent crazy:

Another intersecting thread is the huge rise in depression and anxiety that began around 2012. Students who were born after 1995 are not millennials—they are Gen Z. Gen Z has much higher rates of anxiety and depression. And when you bring that cognitive style onto campus—there’s research we talk about in the book—there’s research showing that depressed and anxious people are more prone to put the worst possible reading on things. If there’s ambiguity, they’ll see the most threatening, negative version possible and it’s very difficult to change their minds about it. So that makes it very hard to have a seminar class. It makes it very hard to have a discussion about complex topics. So rise in mental illness.

That’s true, but it’s also true that SJWs are against the deeper causes of people being bummed. This point is effective because it’s vague. What if there’s not ambiguity and his worldview is wrong? He’s begging the question. It would be less convincing if he gave an example of what he wants to say in class, because what if the students are right to complain?

Fifth one is bureaucratic changes driven in part by fear of liability that led university administrators to crack down on speech more and to implement reforms that put us all on eggshells. So, for example, in every bathroom at NYU, there are signs telling students how to report me anonymously if I say something that they find offensive. That means I can’t take chances, I can’t tell jokes, I can’t trust them, even though most of them are great. But if one student in the class takes offense to one thing I say it could mire me in weeks and weeks of bureaucratic difficulty. So I don’t take chances.

The difficulty of being “politically correct” is vastly overstated. There’s a trick where, if you just respect everyone, you know what to do without memorizing the rules! It does require thoughtfulness. I think he’s just resenting the effort to be polite he wasn’t making before.

Again, this sounds more sympathetic because he’s not saying the nigger joke he wants to use in a class discussion. But he finally gives some details about gender:

Anything about gender differences. I teach a course on professional responsibility. I teach a course on work, wisdom, and happiness. And in both classes, here I am in a business school, men and women are basically equal in abilities. There are very few areas where men are superior or women are superior—there are a couple where there’s small differences—but the huge difference between men and women is what they choose, what they enjoy. And you see this in the play preferences of boys and girls. Now, I can say this to you on camera because you’re not my student. You can’t report me. If somebody sees this video they can’t arrest me for saying this.

But I wouldn’t want to talk about this in class. I always did, up until a few years ago. If we’re trying to say, “What makes people happy in work?” And, there are differences in ambition. There are differences in workaholism. Men are motivated to socially display, to display success and wealth, and so they tend to have their … there’s research that shows they’re higher in achievement motives. Women, on average, are higher on relatedness motives. This is very relevant to understanding why men choose certain careers and women choose others.

But if I talk about this in class and someone says, “Are you saying that the cause of these differences is not sexism? Are you denying my experience?” Someone could be offended by that; and from the time of Socrates, until about 2014, it was okay to be provocative as a professor, and if a student got upset by it, well, that upset could be productive and you could work through, like, “What’s going on here? Why do you think it is?” You could have a debate or discussion. But I wouldn’t try that now.

Well, is he saying the cause of those differences is not sexism? Because feminists have presented an analysis of how children are socialized into gender roles, and they’ve concluded that it’s sexism.

Over and over, the problem is that he wants to ignore any discussion of why society is the way it is, how it came to be the way it is. He wants to look at surface phenomena and explain them simplistically, without considering that there are alternatives. For someone making pronouncements about the universal preferences of men and women, isn’t it strange that he never mentions cultural anthropology? When he says “Men like blah blah blah,” surely he understands that he’s making an empirical claim, which we can’t accept without data. He’s taking our own society as a universal given, which is exactly what SJWs complain white men do.

This is legitimately interesting, even though Norman Mailer said the same thing in The White Negro:

What we found—because we actually knew how do progressive and conservatives fill it out—what we were able to show is that conservatives can pretend to be progressives and they can accurately fill it out as though they were one. But progressives can’t pretend to be a conservative and fill it out accurately because they don’t really get the group loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity or purity. They don’t really get those so they kind of dismiss those and they assume that conservatives just like to kill puppies and things like that.

Seriously, Norman Mailer said this in the 1950s, although he wasn’t using modern statistical methods:

To take the desegregation of the schools in the South as an example, it is quite likely that the reactionary sees the reality more closely than the liberal when he argues that the deeper issue is not desegregation but miscegenation. (As a radical I am of course facing in the opposite direction from the White Citizen’s Councils—obviously I believe it is the absolute human right of the Negro to mate with the White, and matings there will undoubtedly be, for there will be Negro high school boys brave enough to chance their lives.) But for the average liberal whose mind has been dulled by the committee-ish cant of the professional liberal, miscegenation is not an issue because he has been told that the Negro does not desire it. So, when it comes, miscegenation will be a terror, comparable perhaps to the derangement of the American Communists when the icons to Stalin came tumbling down. The average American Communist held to the myth of Stalin for reasons which had little to do with the political evidence and everything to do with their psychic necessities. In this sense it is equally a psychic necessity for the liberal to believe that the Negro and even the reactionary Southern White eventually and fundamentally people like himself, capable of becoming good liberals too if only they can be reached by good liberal reason. What the liberal cannot bear to admit is the hatred beneath the skin of a society so unjust that the amount of collective violence buried in the people is perhaps incapable of being contained, and therefore if one wants a better world one does well to hold one’s breath, for a worse world is bound to come first, and the dilemma may well be this:
given such hatred, it must either vent itself nihilistically or become turned into the cold murderous liquidations of the totalitarian state.

When reading this next passage, remember that he spent the whole interview before this lazily butchering his critics’ arguments. It’s clear who’s side he’s on:

I began writing The Righteous Mind in order to help the Democrats win. That was my goal in 2004 when I began this line of research. But once I actually started reading the best conservative writing, going back to Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott in the 20th century, and Thomas Sowell more recently—once I began reading conservatives and then libertarians, I realized, “wow, you actually need to expose yourself to critics, to people who start from a different position.” You can’t find the truth about complex or wicked problems unless you have a community that includes guaranteed dissent. So I consider myself a centrist because I am committed to the idea that you have to be listening to both sides. It doesn’t mean that the answer is always in the middle. It’s not. Sometimes the left is correct, sometimes the right is correct. But if you start from an a priori position that our side is right, their side is evil and I’m not going to listen to their arguments, you’re guaranteed to get it wrong.

Something he said during the “dualistic thinking” discussion:

Within each school, there are discrete departments that have a lot of autonomy. Deans and presidents can’t really tell departments what to teach or who to hire. So each department, each field in the academy evolves over the course of decades according to its own logic and the logic of its broader field outside of the university.

And now the deconstructionist move: He teaches at a business school. Business is fucked up. SJWs are, of course, anti-capitalist. They literally can’t be right, or he’d be out of a job (after the revolution, of course). So you can read the interview as an extended confession that he’s doing what he accuses the other side of: arguing backwards from conclusions and being closed-minded and unscientific. The implication leaks out of what he’s saying, despite himself. Meaning is slippery and unstable. Enough with the phallogocentrism!