The Anti-fragile Assumption

On October 6th, Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership in the Stern School of Business at NYU, spoke to my American Experience Focus cluster. Last year, he coauthored an essay in The Atlantic titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which argued that trigger warnings in an academic context provide a disservice to students by protecting them from challenging material.

Haidt’s talk was essentially a condensed version of his essay. He cited examples of college campuses taking it too far by pushing to remove monuments to historical figures identified as racist. He expressed concern for the mental health of young people who, in his view, are increasingly encouraged to identify as victims. He urged students to “run like hell” from safe spaces, which all but guarantee the protection of their pre-existing viewpoints. All of these sentiments had been communicated in The Atlantic a year earlier.

Haidt did, however, introduce new lingo into his arguments. Flaunting the syntax and cadence of a high school science teacher, he outlined a new natural law.

“The big idea is this: human beings are Antifragile. So what does that mean?”

Antifragile is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a risk engineer and quantitative analyst who also teaches at NYU. Taleb is not a psychologist.

The word describes an entity that is strengthened by stress. A fragile object fractures. A durable object maintains its integrity. An antifragile object may break now, but you can bet it will bounce back from the experience stronger than ever.

It’s easy to see what Haidt is getting at. Human beings are supposed to be resilient. Our ability to document, analyze, and learn from our hardships has made us an adaptable species. On the surface, this perspective is appealing: it offers a triumphant view of our existence, a plucky narrative in which adversity is simply a segue to prosperity. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? No wonder websites called The Art of Manliness and Startup Bros seems so keen on Taleb’s terminology.

But this philosophy is more than naive. In application, it is quite a dangerous framework for interpreting experience. Haidt has created a lens of analysis that instantly justifies harm. If adversity is seen as an asset, hostility becomes a gift. Consider the two examples he himself presented: bullying in school and sexism in the workplace.

Haidt plainly asserted that children “need to be bullied.” Bullying is a useful experience because it teaches children how to deal with torment. Similarly, sexism in the office should not be policed from above, as confrontation teaches women to become resilient.

Are bullying and harassment experiences from which children and women can draw meaning? Of course, certain individuals may come to view painful events as meaningful. Some may even, according to a personal timeframe, decide that such experiences were ultimately rewarding. But is it fair for institutions to make that decision for them?

The antifragility argument assumes that humans will transform their traumatic experiences into positive experiences. The great irony is that its proponents simultaneously seek to dismantle the resources which are created precisely for that purpose. It is odd that Haidt wants us to move past trauma, yet fails to see the value of spaces designed for comfortable reflection. Haidt wants us to move past painful associations, but not at our own pace. Haidt thinks we’re strong, but apparently not strong enough.

A a great number of Haidt’s explanations at the talk began with “Because human beings are antifragile…”

Although Haidt presented Taleb’s theory as a psychological axiom, there is no scientific evidence to evaluate it. There is nothing close to an academic consensus that Haidt’s “big idea” is true. After all, the concept of antifragility is only four years old. Haidt has only been applying it to the human mind since last year.

Place yourself in the examples Haidt gave and consider whether you would benefit from bullying and harassment. Consider whether you would feel empowered by an environment in which you must remain on guard? As a woman, do you suppose the quality of your work would benefit from the presence of coworkers who do not respect you? As a child, do you think that facing ridicule on the regular with no intervention from authority would make you eager to learn?

Schools and offices don’t police harassment because they believe humans are delicate; they police harassment because they understand that humans operate best in a secure environment. The point of a school is to learn, not to get toughness points. An office is a place for meaningful work, not a daily self-instructed defense lesson.

Wanting a secure space to work doesn’t mean a person is weak- it’s almost the opposite. It means that that person is secure enough to understand his or her person comfort level and deliberate enough to seek it.

I agree, Professor Haidt: Humans aren’t fragile. But for now, your “big idea” appears to be.