Resilience, Another Thing We Can't Talk About
you will suffer
Recently Johnathan Haidt was interviewed in the Wall Street Journal about his sense that Generation Z is in crisis. Specifically, he argued that social media has obvious deleterious effects for everyone, but especially for developing minds, and pointed to a concerning rise in depression and anxiety among the young. This is a consistent theme in Haidt’s work. He also argued that we have a victimhood culture in contemporary America, a culture that valorizes being a victim and teaches people that victimhood is a status worth coveting. This is also a consistent theme in Haidt’s work. I’m someone who thinks social media has clearly been a malign force in the world, so I’m interested in the first part and inclined to agree. I also think that we as a society are failing to inculcate resilience in our young people, and that culture war has left many progressive people in the curious position of arguing against the importance of resilience. My thoughts on Haidt’s work on victimhood culture is, well, it’s complicated.
Sadly, nothing is complicated for progressives today. I think the attitude that all questions are simple and nothing is complicated is the second most prominent element of contemporary progressive social culture, beneath only lol lol lol lmao lol lol. Haidt’s interview with the WSJ was of course immediately dismissed and ridiculed, treated as a joke and dismissed as reactionary. Because Haidt talked about a culture of victimhood, he was immediately coded as right-wing, which is to say on the wrong side of the culture war. (That’s the culture war that sees Elon Musk as a bigger target than Mitch McConnell and Joe Rogan as more dangerous than the CEO of Goldman Sachs.) And so Haidt’s concerns about depression and anxiety among Gen Z, which would seem to be an issue of great public interest, were immediately drowned out by the sound of a thousand bitter people dunking and loling. Of course, Haidt isn’t helping himself any. The term “culture of victimhood” reminds many people of the “snowflake” insult, the idea than anyone from a marginalized background who complains about injustice is really just self-involved and weak. Meanwhile, I find his predictions about how these dynamics will somehow undermine American capitalism to be unconvincing, running towards bizarre. If social media is making our kids depressed and anxious, that is the reason to be concerned, not some tangled logic about national greatness.
Still, I think Haidt’s perspective is much more nuanced than, say, Ben Shapiro’s. I also don’t entirely endorse Haidt’s argument and would not use his terminology. (Imagine, neither uncritical endorsement or simplistic dismissal.) Here’s what I do think. I think that suffering is the only truly universal endowment of the human species. If I know one thing is true about every single person reading this, it’s that at some point in 2023, they will suffer. Teaching people how to suffer, how to respond to suffering and survive suffering and grow from suffering, is one of the most essential tasks of any community. Because suffering is inevitable. And I do think that we have lost sight of this essential element of growing up in contemporary society, as armies of helicopter parents pull the leash on their kids tighter and tighter and as harm reduction has eaten every other element of left politics. (The piece notes that the age at which children are allowed to play outside alone has moved from 7 or 8 to 10 or 12 in short order.) I would never use the “snowflake” insult, which is stupid and demeaning, and my concerns have nothing whatsoever to do with insulting (or even judging) those young people who have not been taught resilience. I am concerned for them, on their behalf, because I myself have learned the importance of resilience, and I want them to enjoy the benefits of that essential trait too.
To be fair to the critics of someone like Haidt, the most coherent criticism they mount is that talk of toughness and resilience can be used opportunistically to dismiss demands for justice. “You just need to toughen up” is not, obviously, a constructive, good-faith response to a demand that the police stop killing unarmed Black people. There’s a version of the resilience discussion that’s cheap and ugly and mean, certainly. But I don’t think that’s the version Haidt is articulating, not exactly, and it’s certainly not the version I’m making here. Yes, we must do all we can to reduce injustice, and we need to be compassionate to everyone. But we also need to understand that no political movement, no matter how effective, can ever end suffering and thus obviate the need for resilience. Even after the revolution, people will need to be tough and to learn to face the inevitable traumas and disappointments of human life. Even in Utopia. You know, I’m really not a fan of therapy culture, where the imperatives and vocabulary and purpose of therapy are now assumed to be necessary in every domain of human affairs. But that’s not because I think therapy is bad; I think therapy, as therapy, is very good. It’s because I think everything can’t be therapy, and the effort to make everything therapy will have the perverse effect of making nothing therapy. That’s bound up in what I’m talking about today.
Unfortunately, the nuance that I’m trying to apply is precisely the kind that has been liquidated in modern political debate. Social media creates intense incentives to always find yourself on “the right side” of every debate, and there are no similar incentives for engaging in subtlety and restraint. And so you have a missed opportunity for a cross-ideological discussion about the impact of social media and a clear message that no one should advance resilience as an essential and under-championed virtue, lest they appear to be a conservative. This is the condition under which all political discourse now labors - unless your position is exactly in line with the dominant perspective on your own side, you will be presumed to be a member of the other side. I am cursed to navigate these waters with every word I write. For example, I have written a great deal about online mental health culture; I have done so out of great personal investment and with the weight of experience. None of my passion in this domain has the slightest thing to do with being a conservative, and there’s nothing in what I say that is inherently antagonistic to progressivism. But because I sometimes find myself having to criticize young people on TikTok, I’m guilty of a culture war crime. Only conservatives criticize kids these days, you see.
I think Jonathan Haidt is wrong about a lot of things, and I wouldn’t ever define the essential problem as a victimhood mentality among the youth. But I do think we should be deeply, deeply concerned about a generation that grew up with smartphones, and I think that there’s a lot to be said about our duty to teach kids to deal with pain and disappointment, and how we’re failing that duty. The question is, how many people on the left of center would feel comfortable sharing and expressing the same concerns? And how many would avoid saying anything at all, for fear of being cast into the abyss of “the other side”?