On September 21, 2022, Pepperdine University hosted Jonathan Hadit, author and professor of ethical leadership at NYU-Stern School of Business. He gave a speech titled, Civil Discourse in a University in an Age of Polarization, Outrage, and Social Media.
Pepperdine’s Presidential speaker series is designed to engage students, faculty, and the community in difficult topics relating to civility. Pepperdine has posed the question: How can we make Pepperdine the premier institution for civil discourse? According to Jonathan Haidt, Pepperdine’s moral mission and religious identity gives it a better chance.
“Our entire society has been re-wired in ways that are bad for democracy and mental health and universities are ground zero for this issue. There are very few universities that are doing something about it,” Haidt says. Unfortunately, “We have a complete fragmentation of shared meaning. A lot of secular universities are building on nothing. It’s hard to build moral order on no secure foundation,” Haidt says.
Pepperdine is starting off with a lot of promise. Religious communities have a lot of advantages in civic life. “Religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans- they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life,” Haidt says.
However, tackling challenges of Civil Discourse in a University in an Age of Polarization, Outrage, and Social Media will be no easy feat for Pepperdine. The Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 represents what is happening to us.
“It’s not that we are divided with left/right culture war, everything is so fragmented we can’t understand each other anymore,” Haidt says. Like Babel, in one day it’s destroyed and you can’t come together due to lack of understanding of one another.
Six important factors leading to polarization are:
First, Gen Z is like “young canaries in a coal mine.” They were the first generation to completely adopt social media and immediately became depressed and anxious.
There are two basic mindsets of daily life: Discover mode, which scans for opportunities and promotes thinking for yourself, and Defend Mode, which scans for dangers. Haidt argues the rise of social media caused students to be in defend mode.
2014 saw the sudden emergence of a new moral culture of “safetyism.” “Safe spaces” began popping up where students wouldn’t be exposed to “toxic ideas.”
Since 2010, the level of psychological disorders has doubled. For Gen Z, anxiety has gone up 92% since 2010. Some argue it’s just because Gen Z is more comfortable talking about it. However, if this were true we would see it in self-reporting. US teens admitted to Hospitals for nonfatal self harm has gone up by a lot. For younger teens, the suicide rate has gone up to 134% for girls and 109% for boys.
Children’s Play deprivation is part of the backstory. In the 1990s kids were deprived of the experiences they most needed to grow strong in order to keep them “safe.” The world became incredibly safe but unsupervised play was not allowed. “The job of a parent is to prepare the child for the road but not the road for the child,” Haidt says.
2012 marked the turning point when FaceBook bought Instagram and its use ballooned. In particular, this caused teen social life for girls to begin to change. Facebook knows they are damaging to young girls. The reason is because girls use it more (boys use video games or Youtube). Girls are more affected by constant social comparison. Girls are more affected by Fear of Missing Out or FOMO. Girls’ aggression/bullying is more relational whereas boys is physical. All the worst parts of Middle School were transformed online.
Second, there was Techno-democratic optimism with the emergence of technology.
After the Berlin Wall fell, many thought Liberal democracy would sweep the whole world. This democratic optimism was supercharged by technological optimism. From the 1990s to early 2000s, half the world’s countries were considered free. In 2010 Zuckerberg was Time person of the year. In 2012, he said to investors society has reached a tipping point and we can transform Institutions.
Third, things derailed quickly.
In 2009, Enhanced Virality began with liking and retweeting, with the goal of keeping users online as much as possible. News outlets were losing a lot of money, so they had to adapt or die, and they became more click-baity to get shared on social media. In 2013, news outlets re-oriented to FaceBook newsfeed and Facebook introduced “threaded comments.” Also, Russia activated its Internet Research Agency. In 2014 “The Age of Rage began” where four groups were empowered: the far left, far right, trolls, and Russian agents. College campus became a lot less fun. “I’m a liberal professor and my liberal students terrify me” was written in 2015.
Trump could not have won without Twitter and Brexit could have not won without Facebook, Haidt says. Political violence is increasing. Since 2010, the number of worldwide liberal democracies has decreased, while closed autocracies are increasing. Our democracy has plunged the furthest in health.
Jonathan Haidt along with Tobias Rose-Stockwell discusses this more in depth with his article published in the Atlantic titled The Dark Psychology of Social Networks.
Haidt compares social media to a dart gun. The more darts you shoot the more prestige you’ll get. Instead, what if we only gave darts to the Far left, far right, trolls, and Russian agents? Then the middle 80% of the country goes silent.
“You can’t have a functioning democracy if this is the situation. We have structural stupidity,” Haidt says.
Each side is shooting their own moderates. The left implements policies that backfire on election day, which hurts Democrats ultimately. On the right, the GOP is structurally stupid. For example, only 10 people dared to stand up to Trump and now most of them have been primaried out. Democrats are not the stupid party since the moderates win. However, the far left controls all the educational institutions.
Fourth, James Madison feared what is happening today. He is quoted as saying,
“So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent Conflicts.” James Madison knew that all previous democracies had died quickly because of mob rule. They instead gave us a Republic with elements of Democracy.
Fifth, Democracy after Babel is nonexistent.
“If we keep on this current path, we will still get deliveries from Amazon, but we are not going to make it to 2040,” Haidt says. We have to do something about social media and our broken democratic institutions. “Sorry Gen Z, we prevented you from developing these skills, we made you weaker and depressed, oh here’s this broken democracy, fix it,” Hadit admits.
Lastly, Hadit puts forth ideas on how to combat the issues outlined above.
- Harden/improve democratic institutions. We’re entering a period of more political violence.
- End closed party primaries; replace with “final five voting.”
- The winning party must not control the PROCESS of voting. Non-partisan redistricting and election rules should be implemented.
- Promote healthy competition of ideas within institutions.
- Reform Social Media
- Identity verification by 3rd parties- this would get rid of trolls and Russians.
- Change architecture of virality, e.g., 3rd share must copy and paste.
- Empower a federal regulator (Michael Bennett’s bill).
- Prepare next generation of democratic citizenship
- Make free play legal again! Then get kids out playing from age 8. See LetGrow.org
- Raise the age of “internet adulthood” to 16, and enforce it. Protect puberty!
- Mandatory service year (or at least exchange, e.g. AmericanExchange Project.org)
- Teach Civic communication skills, not just civics. (See ConstructuveDialogue.org)
Haidt also gives Pepperdine advice on how to become the premier institution on Civil discourse.
- We are in days after the tower has fallen, life in Institutions is a push to control the narrative. The University needs to fall on moral principles and defend them when they are under attack.
- Intersectionality is an important idea on its own. The problem is it is taught in a way it pits people against each other. “The more social media darts you shoot the more social status you get”
- The movements that work are ones based on love and inclusion. Promote common humanity politics over identity politics.
- In our polarized time nothing will work if people are quick to condemn.
Haidt left the audience with the “Post Babel Outrage Reduction Pledge,” which states:
- I will give less offense
- More Polite, more sensitive to others
- I will take less offense
- Principle of charity, less sensitive myself
- I will pass on less offense
- Forward far less, delete all outrage items
“We have to be more forgiving of other people. Understand that everything is distorted. This is the Post-Babel World. We have no ability to find the truth. Don’t be so sure of yourself when you’re judging others. They are just as blinded and crazed as you are.”