Category Archives: Authoritarianism

Releasing the Young from their Handcuffs


Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt is one of the most brilliant thinkers around. I first encountered him at Arizona State University where Chris and I have attended various lectures over the years during our winter stays.  I missed his lecture there by a couple of days, but thankfully got to hear his recorded lecture.

Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”) joined New York University Stern School of Business in July 2011. He is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership, based in the Business and Society Program. Haidt’s research examines the intuitive foundations of morality, and how morality varies across cultures––including the cultures of progressive, conservatives, and libertarians. I have been reading his articles and books for about 10 years and I still don’t know if he is a conservative or a liberal. I don’t think he is a socialist. He is an independent thinker. He wants to apply his research in social and moral psychology to help important institutions work better. Haidt has co-founded a variety of organizations and collaborations that apply moral and social psychology toward that end, including Heterodox He doesn’t like orthodoxies.

His most recent research is teen mental health and how that is related to political dysfunction. He notes that we have deep political dysfunction that current teens will be stuck with even though they did nothing to create it. This reminds me of climate change. Same problem. According to Haidt the older generations have effectively prevented the teens from gaining the capacity to deal with the problems the older generations created and passed on to the teens. That’s not very nice.

Haidt has said that,

“Childhood has become more tightly circumscribed in recent generations––with less opportunity for free, unstructured play; less unsupervised time outside; more time online. Whatever else the effects of these shifts, they have likely impeded the development of abilities needed for effective self-governance for many young adults. Unsupervised free play is nature’s way of teaching young mammals the skills they’ll need as adults, which for humans include the ability to cooperate, make and enforce rules, compromise, adjudicate conflicts, and accept defeat.”


The current adults have programmed the upcoming generation to fail, by bringing them up to be unable to think and act freely.  The new generation was forced to rely too much on their parents—the famous helicopter parents or even worse bulldozer parents. As a result, the teens are unable to learn how to deal with the world they have to face.

Haidt has learned a lot from an essay by an economist Steven Horwitz who argued that the loss of free play posed a serious threat to liberal societies because the upcoming generation has not learned the social skills needed to solve disputes.  They will have no chance  to solve them so will in all likelihood turn to authorities to resolve disputes that in turn will cause them to suffer “from a coarsening of social interaction” that could “create a world of more conflict and violence.”

Haidt has paid particular attention to the role of social media and its effects on these hapless teens. Here is how Haidt summarized his own research:

“And while social media has eroded the art of association throughout society, it may be leaving its deepest and most enduring marks on adolescents. A surge in rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm among American teens began suddenly in the early 2010s. (The same thing happened to Canadian and British teens, at the same time.) The cause is not known, but the timing points to social media as a substantial contributor—the surge began just as the large majority of American teens became daily users of the major platforms. Correlational and experimental studies back up connection to depression and anxiety, as do reports from young people themselves, and from Facebook’s own research, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.’

Haidt’s research showed a remarkable timing of youth attaching themselves to new social media and the rise of youth anxiety and depression.

This incapacity has been revealed most strikingly in university classes, though it is felt everywhere. Here is how Haidt described life for this generation at North American colleges:

Depression makes people less likely to want to engage with new people, ideas, and experiences. Anxiety makes new things seem more threatening. As these conditions have risen and as the lessons on nuanced social behavior learned through free play have been delayed, tolerance for diverse viewpoints and the ability to work out disputes have diminished among many young people. For example, university communities that could tolerate a range of speakers as recently as 2010, arguably began to lose that ability in subsequent years, as Gen Z began to arrive on campus. Attempts to disinvite visiting speakers rose. Students did not just say that they disagreed with visiting speakers; some said that those lectures would be dangerous, emotionally devastating, a form of violence. Because rates of teen depression and anxiety have continued to rise into the 2020s, we should expect these views to continue in the generations to follow, and indeed to become more severe.

 That is one reason hat Haidt urges governments to reduce the damaging effects of social media on adolescents by reducing its availability to them. He urges that they not be allowed onto social media platforms until they have reached at least the age of 16. He also says businesses must be compelled to enforce such regulations.

He thinks the most important thing we can do for them is to let them out to play. We should stop starving children of the vital experiences they most need to become good citizens and that is “free play.”  Not organized play much preferred by helicopter parents. He likes the laws established in Utah, Oklahoma, and Texas where free-range parenting laws help to assure parents that they won’t get into trouble for “neglecting” their children by allowing them to play freely. Kids should also be allowed to walk to school and play in groups as they used to do.

This could go a long way towards detoxifying social media for teens and adolescents.

A lot of people point to social media as the culprit. Haidt backs it up with solid science.


Avoiding a Smothery Death


I know I have been going too long about the wonderful book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But it is a classic and classics are worth it. At least in my opinion they are worth the extra time. I promise to bring these posts to a close soon. But I think there is so much to learn from that novel.

It is obvious that totalitarian societies impose horrendous encroachments on freedom.  Democratic societies are more subtle.

Of course, in a democratic society the arts of the imagination don’t usually threaten the state, but they help seduce us into what Nafisi e called “a paralysis of consciousness” and what she also referred to as “an intellectual indolence.” Both of those were  recognized by Huck Finn, though he expressed it in other words such as “smothery.” Huck Finn demonstrated that in order to avoid the “smothery” embrace of a conformist society it was absolutely necessary to rebel and “light out for the territories.” Nothing else will suffice.

Nazar Nafisi put the issue this way:

“Every state, including a totalitarian one, has its lures and seductions. The price we pay for succumbing is conformity, a surrender of one’s self to the dictates of the group. Fiction is an antidote, a reminder of the power of individual choice. Every novel has at its core a choice by at least one of its protagonists, reminding the reader that she can choose to be her own person, to go against what her parents or society or the state tell her to do and follow the faint but essential beat of her own heart.”


No one better exemplifies this awful choice more than Huck Finn who is willing to go to hell for doing the “wrong thing” so that he can save his friend Jim. Who is a better emblem of freedom and dissent from conformity that that?

Huck knows that to give in to “sivilization” and the Sunday school marms like Miss Watson, is to accept a “smothery” death and he won’t accept that. Instead, he will “light out for the territory” because  “there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” Huck would not give up freedom for a comfortable home.

Huck was like the great artists mentioned by Nafisi when she said,

“What made Brodsky, Nabokov, Czeslaw Milosz and Hannah Arendt—all of whom took refuge in America (Einstein too for that matter)—resist the totalitarian states of their home countries and reject the empty temptations of Western democracies was essentially one and the same thing: they knew that to negate and betray that inner self was not just a surrender to the tyrant’s will but a sort of self-inflicted death. You become a cog in a vast and invisible wheel over which you have no control—Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, only without the comedy.”

Not for them a “smothery” death. Not for me either.

A Hit List or a reading list


Azar Nafisi is a professor of literature now living in America, who originally taught literature in Iran.  In fact she taught American novels including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  She taught this amazing book, whose theme is freedom, to Iranians students in Tehran. Eventually Nafisi left Iran for freedom in America. She loves literature and the works of the imagination as I do. She is just much more eloquent than I am.  She said,

“The way we view fiction is a reflection of how we define ourselves a nation. Works of the imagination are canaries in the coal mine, the measure by which we can evaluate the health of the rest of society.”


She learned this, she says. She taught in the midst of a totalitarian society. In the novel Huck had an awful choice to make. He could choose to follow what he called his “conscience.” By that he really meant conventional morality. This is what he had been taught by his family, and his society around him. These were the authorities. If he followed them, he would bring the slave Jim back to his “rightful owner’ the good Christian Miss Watson. Or he could choose to follow what he had learned in his life with Jim—i.e. that Jim was the best of all the people he knew and he was his true friend and he should help him to freedom so Jim could reunite with his family. Huck chose to do what he thought was the wrong thing, the thing that would lead him to hell, but would save his friend. Could anyone ever have a better friend? He literally risked it all to save his friend.

The poet Joseph Brodsky, like Azar Nafisi, had been brought up in a totalitarian society. He in Russia; she in Iran. Both came to appreciate the revolutionary power of the imagination and works of the imagination. Not that they are a panacea. After all, Brodsky pointed out, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were all literate people who read lots of books. Brodsky said, the problem is “their hit lists were longer than their reading lists.

That is why totalitarian states, and authoritarian leaders are so quick to attack books and the liberal arts. They know that these works are dangerous to the authoritarians.  Both, whether, from the left or the right, want to remove them at all costs. As Nafisi said, “They know the dangers of genuine free inquiry.” Some of these authoritarians even in the west, have tried to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Why? They are doing it for the same reason the dictators did—i.e. to control the readers. They don’t want the readers to think.