Jonathan Haidt: In the United States right now, as many people have noticed, we are seeing a huge escalation of our long running culture war, unfortunately universities are all right in the heart of that. So, the right and especially right wing media love to show video clips of students saying outrageous things. They love to say that universities are bastions of political correctness – they've lost their minds.
The left is motivated to say no there's not a problem, there's nothing going on it's just that the right hates ideas, they hate universities. What Greg and I do in the book is we say, "No we're going to cut through the culture war. Let's just look at what's going on, let's look at what a university should do." And so when we talk about identity politics, which is a controversial topic, we start by saying of course you need identity politics. Identity politics is not a bad thing automatically. Politics can be based on any distinction. It can be based on any group interest. So for gay students or black students or women to organize that's identity politics, that's perfectly legitimate. The question is how are they organizing? What's the over arching framework? And we've seen two versions of it in American history. You can do it the way most of the civil rights leaders did it, Martin Luther King in particular, where you draw a larger circle around the group, you emphasize what we have in common and then you say some of our brothers and sisters are being denied equal access, equal opportunity or equal dignity. That works. That has worked historically in much tougher times and zones and that works and will work on college campuses.
The other way you do it, which is growing on college campuses, is common enemy identity politics. It's based on the Bedouin notion: "Me against my brother, me and my brother against our cousin, me my brother and cousin against the stranger." It's a very general principle of social psychology. If you try to unite people: "Let's all unite against them. They're the bad people. They're the cause of the problems. Let's all stick together." That's a really dangerous thing to do in a multiethnic society, especially in a university where we're actually all trying to work together to solve the problem.
We have to work on our speech climate. In the business world it's called speak up culture. In the academic world it's called just basic openness to ideas.
When you put people together and you want them to talk, of course people have a lot of different goals and fears. Nobody wants to say something stupid, nobody wants to say something that will get them into trouble. If you can create a really trusting environment in which we're all in this together, contribute your ideas. If someone says something you think it's wrong, say so. That's going to lead to more innovation. That's going to lead to more progress.
But what if you have an environment in which if I say something that offends anyone they can report me anonymously to HR or some other entity. I'm going to think three times before I speak up. That's what we have on campus. In the bathrooms at my university there are signs telling students how to report me anonymously if I say anything that offends them so I don't feel free to speak up when I'm on campus. I can speak more openly off-campus, but on campus I have to watch myself. As one student said to a friend of mine, "My motto is silence is safer. Just shut up and you won't get in trouble." Now this is a terrible speech climate. A university cannot function if people are defensive in this way. So in universities, in organizations that value innovation we have to not just encourage people to speak, we have to assure them that they're not going to be shamed, humiliated or punished for sharing an opinion in good faith.
We have a culture war raging all around us. It's very easy to take offense. People are understandably angry. Here within these walls we have to put that aside. We have to trust each other. We have to give each other the benefit of the doubt and it's going to be good for all of us to do that.