Read: When free speech crosses a line
The balance of the review is scathingly negative not in its arguments—a few pop up along the way, some concerning peripheral matters—but in its ad hominem attacks and other rhetoric disguised as argument as though its mere trappings confer heft. An argument can be strong or weak, civil or ill-mannered, calm or heated, edifying or misleading. Even the most frustrating arguments, though, offer readers more than the tropes pervading this frustrating review, and other journalistic work of the same genre: Let us call them Idioms of Non-Argument.
The Guardian review is a useful illustrative example in part because its entire mode is foreshadowed in the headline that announces the article:
The Coddling of the American Mind review – how elite US liberals have turned rightwards
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book sets out to rescue students from ‘microaggressions’ and identity politics. But perhaps they merely resist change that might undermine them
That display copy says: Never mind the merits of the book’s thesis—what’s important here, fellow leftists, is where the authors fall on a left-right ideological spectrum and what psychological factors may be motivating them. What’s a truth proposition when there’s an ongoing culture war to fight?
What unfolds over the body of the review isn’t quite a character assassination of the authors so much as a series of premeditated assaults.
The book is utterly in keeping with the longtime professional interests of both authors, and closely tied to Greg Lukianoff’s personal experience using cognitive behavioral therapy to fight serious depression. But Weigel dismissively speculates that they wrote the book “perhaps, because an article that they published in The Atlantic went viral.” Is she implying that the subject doesn’t justify book-length treatment? Some other dig? Is the line merely included to convey contempt?
Both authors have long records of producing work that is intellectually honest; neither happens to be an ideological conservative. Yet over the course of the review, Weigel compares them not only to Allan Bloom, but also to Dinesh D’Souza, and then, using guilt-by-association tactics, to the alt-right:
Hints of elective affinities between elite liberalism and the “alt-right” have been evident for a while now. The famous essay that Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos wrote in 2016, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” cites Haidt approvingly. At one point Lukianoff and Haidt rehearse a narrative about Herbert Marcuse that has been a staple of white nationalist conspiracy theories about “cultural Marxism” for decades.
Nassim Taleb, whose book Antifragile Haidt and Lukianoff credit with one of their core beliefs and cite repeatedly as inspiration, is a fixture of the far right “manosphere” that gathers on Reddit/pol and returnofkings.com.
The commonality raises questions about the proximity of their enthusiasm for CBT to the vogue for “Stoic” self-help in the Red Pill community, founded on the principle that it is men, rather than women, who are oppressed by society. So, too, does it raise questions about the discipline of psychology – how cognitive and data-driven turns in that field formed Haidt and his colleagues Pinker and Jordan Peterson.
Are Haidt and Lukianoff correct or incorrect about Herbert Marcuse? Is Antifragile a good book? Is cognitive behavioral therapy a worthwhile approach? Is there wisdom to glean from the Stoics or the discipline of psychology? Weigel offers the reader no arguments of substance—just the Idioms of Non-Arguments that all of those things raise questions because ostensibly bad people are tenuously associated with each of them. God help Kevin Bacon if he’s ever the subject of a similarly crafted profile.