When all you have is hammer-ism

I really loved this from Jon Haidt in Persuasion.  One of my great intellectual bugaboos/pet peeves is the tendency of people to explain the incredibly complex world around us from just a single ideological perspective– whether it’s sex, race, power, whatever.  Yes, sometimes it really is monocausality.  But, when we are talking about the complexity of the human species and our societies, proper explanations can almost never be boiled down to just a single cause.  Haidt refers to monomania, but, damn if the “when all you have is a hammer…” metaphor capture this perfectly for my tastes.  And, sadly, this is a genuine problem in the illiberalism on the left.  Anyway…

In October 2018 I was on a book tour, speaking about The Coddling of the American Mind, a book I co-wrote with Greg Lukianoff. The publisher had packed five lectures at five colleges into five days. On Monday, I arrived at the first college and was surprised to see a statue of Sigmund Freud on a pedestal in front of the main gate. I gave my talk, took questions from the audience, and then met with a senior seminar class in psychology. In all of my interactions with students, I found that all they could talk about was sexuality. These students had somehow come to believe that everything people do is ultimately done to relieve repressed anxiety stemming from unresolved childhood sexual conflicts. I personally love reading Freud, and I agree with him that sexual motives sometimes drive seemingly non-sexual behavior, but I was saddened to see an entire cohort of students limiting their minds to a single analytical lens on our very complex world. 

On Tuesday, I arrived at the second college and saw a statue of B.F. Skinner in front of the main gate. I gave my talk, took questions from the audience, and then met with another psychology class. This time the students interpreted everything in terms of “reinforcement.” They had somehow come to believe that all you need to do to understand and predict people’s behavior is study their learning history—the set of all actions for which they had been rewarded or punished. Once again, I was saddened to see an entire cohort of students constricting their thinking to a single theoretical framework. 

On Wednesday, I arrived at the third college and found a statue of Charles Darwin in front of the main gate. The students at this university interpreted everything in terms of how our genes manipulate us to maximize their own success. These students had somehow come to believe that everything people do is ultimately done to leave behind the maximum number of surviving children (or twice that number of surviving nieces and nephews). 

On Thursday, I arrived at the fourth college, where a statue of Adam Smith stood in front of the main gate. The students at this school interpreted everything in terms of material self-interest. As a social psychologist who studies morality, I love Adam Smith, and I was stunned to find that the humane author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments had been transmogrified into the patron saint of greed based on a warped reading of The Wealth of Nations

On Friday, I arrived at the fifth college and was met by a statue of Michel Foucault in front of the main gate. At this school students interpreted everything in terms of power and power structures. Whatever I said, whatever I asked them about, the students insisted that everything that happens in our society happens because power is always and everywhere trying to maintain itself. Even our interaction in the classroom was reduced to power structures, although the students could not explain what power I—a visiting speaker—had over them.

On Saturday, I returned to my home in New York City, deeply discouraged by what I had seen. I wanted to put the students from all five colleges together in a giant classroom and make them talk to each other until they could each write an essay using at least three of the five lenses to examine a complex social issue of their choosing. 

Of course, this week was pure fiction, except for Friday, which really happened, more or less. It was never a majority of the students who limited their worldview to power, but in many of the schools I have spoken at since 2015, there has been a subset of students who suffer from monomania, which is defined as an exaggerated and unhealthy obsession with one thing…

The “prestige economy” is the network of values and meanings within which people compete for status. In monomaniacal groups, the prestige economy rewards those who are most committed to the object of devotion, which has two major illiberal effects. The first is the “expansion imperative”—the pressure to apply the one true lens ever more widely. For example, one can gain points by interpreting glacier research and dog parks as manifestations of power structures. The insistence that the lens applies everywhere means that the preferred remedies must be implemented everywhere. This expansion imperative can explain the otherwise astonishing statement on page 18 of Ibram Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist”:

There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.

In other words, if a high school teaches chemistry without discussing race, it is not “nonracist,” it is racist. True believers exert pressure on the leadership of the school to bring race into every part of the curriculum, and anyone who expresses doubt or raises concerns risks being publicly shamed and possibly fired. Monomanics sometimes demand that their focal value be installed as the telos of every organization. 

This brings us to the second major illiberal effect: the incentivization of intimidation and cruelty. Within a group of people competing for prestige on adherence to a belief, one can often gain points by publicly attacking outsiders. This creates an incentive for individuals in the group to attack not just their enemies, who are often out of reach, but innocent people who happen to be nearby. This dynamic may account for the cruelty with which power monomaniacs turn on professors and administrators who try to help them, or who otherwise share their political views but not their monomania…

2) Monomania makes groups stupid.

In a 2009 TEDx talk titled “Be suspicious of simple stories” the economist Tyler Cowen warned that stories impose a structure on events that distorts them and blinds us to the distortion. He was particularly concerned about moralistic stories that divide the world into good and evil. He proposed that “as a simple rule of thumb, just imagine that every time you’re telling a good versus evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more.” 

As a social psychologist who studies moral judgment and motivated reasoning, I think Cowen is exactly right—for individuals. Binary thinking makes it hard for individuals to understand the nuance and complexity of most situations. For groups, I’d put the cost closer to 20 IQ points. Shared moralism creates a mutual policing effect that prevents the group from thinking well or changing its mind in response to new evidence. (Please note: I am not calling any person stupid. I am saying that smart people create stupid groups when they bind themselves together in a monomaniacal community.)…

I want to be clear that monomania is not just a problem on the far left. On the far right, we have seen communities becoming illiberal and stupid by following monomaniacs obsessed with communism, homosexuality, religion, immigration, and the national debt. But to return to the problem I encountered on my five-college book tour, I think that professors and leaders of educational institutions have a fiduciary duty toward their students that requires them to oppose monomania and lead students out of its stultifying embrace. A liberal arts education should expand minds and prepare students for citizenship in a liberal democracy, particularly in our era when the future of liberal democracy is so much less assured than it was just a decade ago.

Short version: life is complicated and if you think one “ism” or perspective really explains almost everything and you find yourself placing almost everything into simple binaries… you are almost surely wrong (hmmm, unless that’s too binary of me).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

4 Responses to When all you have is hammer-ism

  1. itchy says:

    Shorter version: Stop building statues on college campuses!

  2. Nicole K. says:

    I really, really like Jon Haidt. I still think about his elephant and rider concept all the time. https://youtu.be/X9KP8uiGZTs

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