Christopher Smith is still inclined to believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger


In the borderland between correspondence and junk lie a substantial number of emails from organizations which I have at some point used and to which I have given my details: the National Gallery, various newspapers, Marks and Sparks, that sort of thing. Of all of them, the one I dread to open is the one from the Southbank (all one word) Centre. I examine the latest communication from this great cultural institution, home of London’s principal concert hall, and what am I offered? Jean-Paul Gautier’s Fashion Freak Show (really?), Harry Potter in Concert (how?), a PC Australian comedienne, and an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery called ‘Kiss my Genders.’ Oh, and something called the ‘New Music Biennial,’ which professes to be ‘a showcase of composers and music creators who are pushing the boundaries of music in the UK.’ It will involve ice cream vans, apparently. My heart sinks.

I’ve written before about this strange world in which people are forced into early adulthood, but don’t grow up. Allow me, for instance, to quote from the BBC News website in Pidgin, on the subject of mobile phone data allowances: ‘Evribodi know say data no cheap at all, abi how many times you don reason how you fit whyne momsi and popsi make dem increase your allawee so you go see more moni buy data?’ Somebody got paid for writing that, at your expense.

I was interested recently to stumble across a book by an American psychologist called Jonathan Haidt and a law academic called Greg Lukianoff. I’d heard of Dr Haidt, who wrote an interesting book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, so I picked up the new volume, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. The title picks up the cadences of a book that came out while I was an undergraduate in 1987 by Allan Bloom called The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.

If you are still with me after reading all those immensely long titles, let me tell you that the Haidt/Lukianoff thesis is that modern society is in the process of overturning three rules of life which once we took to be axiomatic. The first is that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ We accepted that we might have bad experiences as well as good, and that we could learn from those experiences and use them in a positive way, even if that meant that we would be careful never to repeat the experience if we could possibly help it. ‘Like the immune system, children must be exposed to challenges… or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions.’ Instead, the modern obsession with what they call a ‘cult of safety’ (where the very concept of ‘safety’ has in fact been redefined so as to be empty of any useful meaning) has made youngsters fragile and anxious, ‘prone to seeing themselves as victims.’

Their second overturned rule of life is that we can be, and perhaps ought to be, in control of our feelings. We British have often mocked ourselves for that old-fashioned idea of the ‘stiff upper lip,’ but the modern swing against that has led to a kind of emotional incontinence that leads to people being controlled by their feelings rather than having any control over them. The result? Feelings are allowed to interpret reality, every set-back is a catastrophe, someone else is always to blame, and no cloud could possibly have a silver lining. Don’t you dare book a speaker whose views might offend me, and I’m reporting you for that micro-aggression.

And Haidt and Lukianoff have a third overturned rule of life which is something like ‘people have good and bad qualities.’ In Christian terms, all people are made in God’s image, though all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But nowadays, rather than any sense that there might be a battle between good and evil going on around us, life is seen as a battle between good people and evil people. Lord Sacks called it a ‘pathological dualism’ in which people are either unimpeachable or irredeemable. In this world, political discourse is so polarized that there is no possibility of meaningful (or even polite) dialogue, and the only people you can be friends with are ones who subscribe to the same opinionated table d’hôte as you. And lest we think this phenomenon remains confined to the campuses of American universities, when did you last strike up a civilized conversation about Brexit with someone who voted differently in the referendum from you?

Even so, I was intrigued to read that Haidt and Lukianoff reckon that this ‘coddling’ of the American mind has given us a generation who are three years ‘younger’ emotionally that they would have been, say, thirty years ago. University students behave as though they were still at school, and new employees behave as though they were still at university. Their solution? ‘Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.’ They make some practical suggestions, such as less paranoid parenting and more adventurous play, as well as a challenge to society to impose less bureaucratic ‘safetyism,’ although I can’t see modern ‘health ’n safety’ culture abating any time soon. Personally, I’d just like people to grow up a bit.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. Or, if you prefer, ‘Now, I big, dass why I no do da tings da same way da small kids do um.’