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LIFE AFTER BABEL

Adapting to a world we can no longer share

by Jonathan Haidt
October 5, 2021

Summary of the book, from the book proposal.
To be published in Summer 2023 by Penguin Press

Overview

America is coming apart and falling apart before our eyes. The sense of chaos and confusion was already overwhelming by late 2019, during the first Trump impeachment trial. Over the next 14 months things got much worse as we experienced a pandemic that divided us, a string of police killings culminating in George Floyd’s death, the hurried embrace by many institutions of a new and untested form of antiracist politics, an election whose outcome was not accepted by a third of the country, and an attack on the US Capitol by American citizens sharing extraordinary mass delusions. The chaos and vertigo did not end with Trump’s departure. It continues on through mask and vaccine wars, and through endless battles over the curricula and names of K-12 schools.

Almost every thinking person is asking: what on earth is happening? Is there a pendulum that will swing back, or have we already gone over a cliff edge into free fall? Life After Babel will offer a comprehensive and integrative answer from the nonpartisan social science perspective that I developed in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

I will tell the story of the social-psychological phase change that was initiated in 2009 but that was not visible until a few years later. It had its spectacular public debut on elite college campuses in 2015. Greg Lukianoff and I described it in our 2015 Atlantic essay The Coddling of the American Mind. Over the next few years it spread into journalism, media, the arts, non-profits, tech, and other politically progressive industries. By 2018 it had traveled to all of the other English speaking countries. It had a right-wing variant that burst forth in populist movements around the world––also beginning around 2015––and that converted the Republican party into sycophantic dysfunction under President Trump. On both sides, there was an explosion of performative emotion, cruelty, and stupidity as partisans embraced bizarre and obviously false beliefs and then tried to destroy the reputation or livelihood of anyone who dared to point to facts that contradicted those beliefs.

What on earth happened to us in the 2010s? The central metaphor of the book is that we are now in the second post-Babel era but most people don’t know it. In Genesis 11, God is offended by the hubris of humanity in building a walled city with a tower to reach heaven and he says:

Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.

God creates a plethora of new languages and condemns humanity to mutual incomprehension. The people abandon their grand project of the city and its tower. It is this sudden and crippling loss of the ability to understand each and work together that makes Babel such a good metaphor for our time.

Humanity rebuilt the tower over the next several thousand years as empires, trade routes, and technological progress created increasing mutual understanding, comprehension, prosperity, and cooperation. With the rise of the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the tower grew to an astonishing height, giving every person with a modem an omniscience approaching that of a god. Automatic translators even freed us from God’s curse of multiple languages.

But as in so many stories of human progress and hubris (e.g., Prometheus, Frankenstein), we went too far, too fast, and too carelessly. Connecting everyone to everyone has had unanticipated systemic effects. It’s not just the quantity of connections that matters, it’s the nature of the connectivity. Social media was not particularly polarizing or consensus-destroying before 2009, which I’ll call the pre-Babel era. Social media enabled people to share ideas with strangers and organize collective action as never before. There was broad optimism that social media would be good for democracy, as so many of us thought in the early days of the 2011 Arab Spring.

In 2009, however, the major platforms introduced several fateful innovations, as Tobias Rose Stockwell and I showed in our 2019 Atlantic essay, The Dark Psychology of Social Networks. 2009 is the year that Facebook introduced the Like button and Twitter introduced the Retweet button. Both platforms soon copied each other, and both switched from chronologically ordered news feeds to algorithms that maximized for  “engagement,” which in practice meant “strong emotions.” One of the engineers who worked on the retweet button for Twitter said, after watching Twitter mobs in action: “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”

By 2012, social media had developed into an algorithmicized “outrage machine” (in a tight embrace with cable TV and other forms of journalism) which gave everyone the power to shame or attack everyone else, instantly. This new power was used only by a subset of the population––particularly very-online people at the political extremes––but it had transformative effects on everyone’s behavior.

Imagine if every person in the world was given a shiny high-tech dart gun and the ability to shoot a small dart into the flesh of anyone in the world, instantly and with no risk of retaliation. Imagine if some people (activists on both sides) lived in communities that paid them a dollar for every dart they shot. Everyone would live in fear; leaders––who would be the most popular dart targets––would become especially skittish. This is my core social psychological argument: When the ability to damage other people’s reputations was democratized, incentivized, and freed from accountability in the early 2010s, it caused a phase change in social behavior, converting a free and open society into one with disturbing similarities to the fear cultures found under repressive regimes. It is this phase change in the early 2010s that accounts for the spectacular domino-like collapse of courage and integrity that began in 2015 among professors and university presidents, followed by the rest of the intellectual and leadership class, including editors, publishers, leaders of arts institutions, celebrities, politicians in both parties, and corporate CEOs.

Since 2015 we are living in the post-Babel era. Many of the old rules no longer apply but most people––especially the older ones who lead our institutions––don’t know it. We are increasingly cut off from all that came before, from objective reality, from reliable means of finding objective reality, and from each other. We have a weakened younger generation, an epistemic crisis, a trust crisis, a mental health crisis, a moralism crisis, and an institutional crisis. It feels like we are living in a hurricane within a hall of mirrors, and it might be this way for the rest of our lives. We can never go back to the pre-Babel era, so how can we adapt to our new world?

In part I of Life after Babel I explain where we are and how we got here, with special attention to the transitional years (2009-2015). In part II I examine the damage from a sociological and philosophical perspective. In part III, I examine specific domains of life and offer ideas for how to make the post-Babel world less dysfunctional and more compatible with human nature and liberal democracy. I believe that our predicament is like the one we face with global warming: there are some hard things we can do that will have a big impact, but there are structural obstacles to doing those things. To overcome those obstacles we must strengthen ourselves, the next generation, and the institutions in which we participate.

Fortunately, we have the tools to do it. In Life after Babel I draw on a variety of great thinkers from the 19th and 20th centuries who tell us how to harden and insulate our institutions so that they can perform their essential functions (e.g., John Stuart Mill, Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin). To strengthen ourselves and our children, I draw on the wisdom traditions I explored in The Happiness Hypothesis and in The Coddling of the American Mind, primarily the Stoics and the Buddhists. For example, Epictetus offered advice in the 2nd Century CE on why it is so important to quit Twitter today:

If your body was turned over to just anyone, you would doubtless take exception. Why aren’t you ashamed that you have made your mind vulnerable to anyone who happens to criticize you, so that it automatically becomes confused and upset? [Enchiridion 33]

Life After Babel is a dark book. I want to shock readers, knock down their current mental frameworks, and then help them build new mental constructs appropriate for our shape-shifting time. But it is also a hopeful book. Humanity has overcome near-extinction multiple times in the last hundred thousand years, and I believe we will eventually find ways to adapt and even flourish. But first we must develop an accurate––and widely shared––understanding of our strange new world.

Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION: The First Tower

PART I: RISE AND FALL

   Chapter 1: Young Canaries in the Coal Mine

   Chapter 2: The Second Tower

   Chapter 3: The Solvent of Social Media

   Chapter 4: Collapse, 2012-2016

   Chapter 5: Cycles of History

PART II: THE DAMAGE

   Chapter 6: Structural Stupidity

   Chapter 7: Wisdom Deprivation Disorder

   Chapter 8: Moral Incoherence

PART II: ADAPTATION AND REBIRTH

   Chapter 9: Raising Children after Babel

   Chapter 10: Education After Babel

   Chapter 11: Leadership after Babel

   Chapter 12: Technology After Babel

   Chapter 13: Democracy after Babel 

CONCLUSION: Happiness after Babel