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Monomania Is Illiberal and Stupefying
Educational institutions have a duty to oppose monomania and to lead students out of its stultifying embrace.
In its 15 months of publishing, Persuasion has given its readers extensive coverage of the democracy recession happening around the world, and of the threats to liberal democracy coming from within the United States. Some of those threats come from the far right and some from the far left. Within the category of threats from the far left, there are many reports about rapid change in specific professions. For example, we’ve read reports on The New York Times, the CDC, psychotherapy, medicine, documentary filmmaking, corporate America, Kindergarten teaching, elementary school teaching, math teaching, literature teaching, K-12 teaching, and the transformation of American universities as they have strayed from their previous telos—their ultimate purpose—of truth.
In the last few years, I have had dozens of conversations with leaders of companies and nonprofit organizations about the illiberalism that is making their work so much harder. Or rather, I should say I’ve had one conversation—the same conversation—dozens of times, because the internal dynamics are so similar across organizations. I think I can explain what is now happening in nearly all of the industries that are creative or politically progressive by telling you about what happened to American universities in the mid-2010s. And I can best illustrate this change by recounting the weirdest week I ever had in my 26 years as a professor.
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.
Individual monomania is rarely a social problem. One person who is obsessed with butterflies or with a particular celebrity, or who sees everything in sexual, economic, or religious terms, is just an eccentric, although sometimes a tiresome one. The monomaniac may suffer a constricted range of emotions and experiences, but she usually imposes no costs on others (although there are cases of celebrity stalkers and lone-wolf terrorists). It is collective or group monomanias that are more worrisome for liberal societies because they create many negative externalities: They cause large numbers of people to behave in ways that are harmful and unjust to others. I’ll focus on two specific group-level effects of monomanias: making groups illiberal and making groups stupid.
1) Monomania makes groups illiberal.
The word “liberal” is a shape-shifting term in political discourse, but if we free it from the idiosyncratically American idea that “liberal” means “left” and focus on its core link to liberty, then dictionary definitions line up with common sense. Oxford Languages defines the adjective “liberal” as:
1. willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.
2. relating to or denoting a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.
In theory, one could be a liberal monomaniac—obsessed with a celebrity or an intellectual paradigm but perfectly willing to let everyone else have their own obsessions, or no obsessions. But moral and political monomaniacs generally travel in self-policing groups, and these groups are rarely liberal according to either of the two Oxford definitions. If you and your friends believe that everything is about power, and that the world is divided into the powerful people (who oppress others) and the powerless (who are oppressed), then you have a moral obligation to do something about it—all the time.
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. The threat of job loss and reputational damage make everyone else walk on eggshells, and this fearful attitude is incompatible with the success of a liberal society.
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.)
In 1859, John Stuart Mill laid out the case that we need critics to make us smarter, and that we should have no confidence in our beliefs until we have exposed them to intense challenge and have considered alternative views:
...the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it.
On Mill’s account, monomaniacal groups are unwise. They react strongly and sometimes violently to those who ask questions or present alternate views, which are said to be “dangerous” and even “violent.” In 2014, a young Canadian queer activist wrote an essay titled “‘Everything Is Problematic’: My Journey Into the Centre of a Dark Political World, and How I Escaped.” The author described the operation of “sacred beliefs”:
If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity.
By abolishing the right to question, a monomaniacal group condemns itself to holding beliefs that are never tested, verified, or improved. We might even say that monomaniacal groups are likely to be wrong on most of their factual beliefs and their diagnoses of the problems that concern them. And if they are wrong on basic facts and diagnoses, then whatever reforms they propose to an institution are more likely to backfire than to achieve the goals of the reformers.
In the early 2010s, I believed that a major problem in the academy was that there were too few professors in the social sciences and humanities who were not on the political left. I still think that’s true, but that slow-growing trend can’t explain why things changed so suddenly around 2015.
Now, I believe that the change in the academy—and many other professions—is the result of power monomania amplified by new technology. There has been a power monomania in some parts of the university since at least the 1990s, but there were disciplinary walls that kept the monomania contained. What happened in departments that emphasized activism had little effect on the physics department, or on the president of the university. But those walls collapsed around 2015. I have argued elsewhere that the collapse was brought about by changes to social media that began in 2009 and, by 2012, had created a universal outrage machine. This machine then dissolved the long-standing and essential walls around professions within which a sense of disciplinary standards and duties had, in prior decades and centuries, been formed and passed on.
Without these professional boundaries, every place became like every other place, influenced by the anger expressed on Twitter and other platforms. This is why my conversations with leaders are so often the same: A politically progressive leader, knowing that I have written about the new dynamics on campus, bitterly recounts to me her bewilderment and frustration about how her younger employees made escalating demands backed by public accusations and a presumption of ill will, thereby damaging the organization’s reputation, culture, and ability to achieve its mission.
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.
Jonathan Haidt, a member of the Persuasion advisory board, is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is a co-founder of Heterodox Academy and a co-author (with Greg Lukianoff) of The Coddling of the American Mind.