First He Came For Cancel Culture. Now He Wants to Cancel Smartphones

When James Comey became head of the F.B.I. in 2013, he sent reading recommendations to his staff, including “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg and “The Righteous Mind” by a professor at New York University’s business school, Jonathan Haidt.

Stumbling on that last book, a 2012 best seller, felt, Mr. Comey recalled, as if he were consulting a how-to guide on leading a stuck-in-its-ways Washington bureau. The book’s core lesson is simple: Humans make moral decisions based on emotional intuition, not just reason. When you’re trying to change minds, you have to change hearts as well.

Read through all of Mr. Haidt’s canon and it can be summed up as a guide to changing yourself (“The Happiness Hypothesis,” 2006); changing other people’s minds (“The Righteous Mind,” 2012); changing your own mind (“The Coddling of the American Mind,” 2018); and changing your tech-addicted children (“The Anxious Generation,” on shelves March 26).

Is all that actually possible? He would like to think so. And his work has drawn acolytes who would like to think so, too — including some of the very people in big tech whose work Mr. Haidt seems to hold responsible for the rising generation’s social ills.

Mr. Haidt’s writings promise these power players something elusive: a scholarly, social scientific explanation of the crises they’re facing, combined with a Silicon Valley founder’s level of confidence about how to fix them. (Mr. Haidt often sounds like what might happen if the doomsayer Cassandra swallowed Dale Carnegie: alarmed by the catastrophes humans have cooked up, but stubbornly chipper about our capacity to undo them.)

Toby Shannan, the former chief operating officer of the e-commerce business Shopify, has called on Mr. Haidt for advice on facing ideological battles in the workplace. He said Mr. Haidt got him through a bumpy period in the lead-up to Donald J. Trump’s election in 2016, when some of his employees were fuming about Shopify hosting online swag shops for right-wing groups like Breitbart News. With Mr. Haidt’s counsel, Shopify determined that users could sell merchandise with political commentary, but none with explicit calls to harm.

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