“The country right now feels like a strange, alienating place to many people on the losing side of the election. In that darkness, the word ‘normalize’ becomes a way to send up a flare to others who see the world the way they do—a linguistic Bat-Signal to come together and push back…”
Emily Dreyfuss, Wired Magazine
Psychology Professor Clay Routledge claims colleges are feeling the impact of climate change—social climate change. A dangerous and illiberal “safe space movement is being aggressively used to suppress freedom of speech, particularly speech that challenges leftist orthodoxy.” Even progressive activist Van Jones has some “tough talk” for his liberal colleagues on campus. “You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world,” he chastises, “is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous.”
A recent Knight Foundation study indicates that while high school students say they believe in free speech, they actually think it's more important to protect people from offensive words. The majority of students in the study only believe in protecting speech that no one finds offensive or considers ‘bullying.’ Recent events at Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere reveal that by the time they get to college, students are willing to use coercion and even violence to stop people from expressing views they consider offensive — prompting Newsweek to report, “The Battle Against ‘Hate Speech’ On College Campuses Gives Rise To A Generation That Hates Speech.”
As journalist Frank Bruni bemoans, “Somewhere along the way, those young men and women... got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them. They came to believe that it’s morally dignified and politically constructive to scream rather than to reason, to hurl slurs in place of arguments.”
But condemning a person for his or her views is not an effective way to change minds, and in fact, may make people hold more strongly to their opinions. Daryl Davis, author of Klan-Destine Relationships, and the subject of the PBS documentary, Accidental Courtesy, knows this better than most. In a So To Speak podcast produced by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (where I do research), Davis describes how he uses civil dialogue to change minds. “You challenge them,” he told Nico Perrino of FIRE, “but you don’t do it rudely or violently; you do it politely and intelligently.” Davis, a black man, was curious about what would make people who don't know him hate him because of his skin color. So he embarked on a project to understand members of the KKK. Employing tactics that have been empirically validated, but seem to be disappearing on many college campuses today, Davis discovered that when you engage in conversations and allow people to say whatever they want, “while you are actively learning about somebody else, you are passively teaching them about yourself.” It was important to Davis that the Klansmen know they could say anything in front of him and he wouldn’t be offended. Today, however, Davis notes, “people are so afraid to have conversations because they feel that they have to walk around on eggshells or they might offend somebody. How are we going to progress if somebody is afraid to talk to you?” He adds, “There’s no benefit to hiding the truth and burying things we don’t want to deal with.”
Davis’ willingness to learn about white supremacists and their views led to many of them having a change of heart. “Talking with people is the key,” he says. “Not talking about them or talking at them, but talking with them is the key.” Davis plans to open a museum one day with the more than 25 Klan robes and other Klan paraphernalia he was given by the Klansmen who, because of him, left the KKK.
On college campuses, on the other hand, speakers who are deemed utterly and unbearably offensive have included a rape victim and self-described libertarian feminist who criticizes the terminology, “rape culture” (Wendy McElroy), a professor who is denounced as illegitimate as a feminist because “white feminism is not feminism” (Laura Kipnis), social scientist Charles Murray, and an Israeli Ambassador — among many others. The reasoning behind the effort to stifle speakers such as these is that allowing them to speak would “normalize” them.
Merriam Webster noted on its website that “normalize” is one of the “Words We’re Watching.”
'Normalization' originally described a return to a state considered normal. Later, it was used to describe the act of making something variable conform to a standard. Recently, we've seen it used to describe a change in what's considered standard. In this new 'normalization', the standards change to make something considered an outlier 'normal'—not the other way around.
Charles Murray, whose book, Coming Apart, examines the American class system and in particular, the 40 percent of the country made up of lower-income whites, recently wrote about his experience at Middlebury College. Protesters who made it impossible for him to be heard, shouted slogans, slurs, and expletives, pulled the fire alarm, and injured the professor who dared debate him. Even before hearing him speak (and without, it appears, reading his work), a group of students and faculty at the college judged him to be “a racist, a white supremacist, a white nationalist, a pseudoscientist whose work has been discredited, a sexist, a eugenicist, and (this is a new one),” he writes, “anti-gay” (despite his support for gay marriage). They determined in advance of his talk that whatever he was going to say would be “hate speech,” so it was necessary to silence him to ensure that Middlebury did not “legitimize” him or “normalize” his ideas.
In what linguist, John McWhorter has called “the New Indoctrination,” there are ideas that are judged so offensive that not only are they unspeakable, but just taking a moment to consider the abhorrent perspective—even if only in the service of formulating an appropriate counterargument—makes you a bigot and a thought criminal. In fact, even mentioning a prohibited word in order to criticize it can get you in trouble.
This is the manifestation of modern-day heresy. As William Deresiewicz describes, heresy is “those beliefs that undermine the orthodox consensus, so it must be eradicated: by education, by reeducation—if necessary, by censorship.” When a heretic appears on a college campus, it is a moral imperative to prevent him or her from being heard. “You can’t reason with heresy,” explains Andrew Sullivan. “You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.” With religious zeal, students and even some faculty do whatever is necessary to silence the heretic, lest heretical ideas be “normalized.”
As legal scholar Geoffrey Stone has often pointed out, history teaches that “even the ideas we hold to be most certain might, in fact, turn out to be wrong,” and if we are, indeed, right, “suppression of speech breeds suppression of speech.” In our polarized country, it is more important than ever to remember Stone's warning, “If today I am permitted to silence those whose views I find distasteful, I have then opened the door to allow others down the road to silence me.”
Biddy Martin, President of Amherst College, once proclaimed that college is “for those who are brave enough to put at risk what they think they know.” Robert Hutchins, as President of the University of Chicago, asserted, “universities exist for the sake of [free] inquiry... without it, they cease to be universities.” Stone, a leading proponent of the University of Chicago’s Statement on Principles of Free Expression insists, “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that robust debate and deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” Author and political commentator Andrew Sullivan recently warned, “Universities are the sanctuary cities of reason. If reason must be subordinate to ideology even there, our experiment in self-government is over.”
It seems these principles are too seldom apparent on campus. Author and professor, William Deresiewicz, laments, “the assumption on selective campuses is not only that we are in full possession of the truth, but that we are in full possession of virtue.” Assuming that a perspective is entirely wrong and unworthy of a moment’s consideration is exactly the kind of arrogant certainty that a good college education should eliminate. To quote Geoffrey Stone, “as confident as we might be in our own wisdom, experience teaches that certainty is different from truth.” Greg Lukianoff, President & CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in his book, Unlearning Liberty, warns that having “pure intentions, steadfast goals, and an unwillingness to consider that you might be wrong is the formula for some of the worst evils mankind has ever wrought...” Yet, as Deresiewicz describes, when an issue is discussed in class, the conversation isn’t, “let’s talk about issue X, but rather, let’s talk about why such-and-such position is the correct one to have on issue X.” The problem colleges face is that too many ideas are presented as self-evident truths.
When we live in what has come to be known as a “bubble,” we become more convinced of the infallibility of our views, and as a result, our ideology becomes more extreme. And if anything counts as a “bubble,” it's a residential college community, where the play, The Vagina Monologues, once considered “transgressive,” “revolutionary,” and “iconic,” and hailed as a triumph of feminism was a favorite feminist production. Today it is increasing canceled on campuses because the play puts too much emphasis on white vaginas, and is insufficiently inclusive of trans-women who don’t have vaginas. Even using the word, “vagina” instead of the new, more inclusive term, “front hole,” can result in being labeled “transphobic.” To make matters worse, “misgendering”—calling someone by the wrong gender pronoun— is not merely insensitive, it makes people “unsafe,” and those at Middlebury who wanted Charles Murray disinvited claimed his mere presence would make people unsafe—but they didn't mean at the hands of the protesters.
In an ideological echo chamber, we become less capable of defending our perspectives with cogent and convincing arguments. After all, when a truth is self-evident, the evidence is only itself. So not only are we dumbfounded when asked to provide an argument, we find the mere question “offensive.” Deresiewicz concludes that liberal students (and liberals in general) are bad at defending their positions because they never have to, so they never learn to. Perhaps this is why the new mantra is “anti-normalization” instead of vigorous debate. In the simplest terms, when a point of view does not fit within the already accepted, narrow range of liberal views on campus, a convincing argument against the heresy will be nowhere to be found, so the expression of that heresy must be prohibited or it could become accepted.
As the old saying goes, students are not being taught how to think, they are being taught what to think. They are learning dogma instead of the critical thinking that comes from challenging their assumptions and considering different perspectives (unless, of course, they are conservative thinkers, in which case they are continually challenged, which is why Routledge suggests that conservative students are getting a better education than liberal students).
According to Routledge, in certain fields, scholars care more about engineering the social world than actually studying and understanding it. “Progressive groupthink has set in and at many universities the line between education and re-education is disappearing.”
The purpose of Communist re-education was to “eliminate not only opposition, but also the potential for opposition. Destroy not only dissent, but even the possibility of future dissent.” One method of eliminating opposition and dissent was to publicly discredit and condemn colleagues who engaged in the unacceptable practice of working against the Party. This chilling program is now well established on college campuses in the campaign against “normalization.” After a professor emeritus at MIT whose views on climate change policy are unorthodox was denounced by 22 colleagues who feared that his MIT credentials might normalize his illegitimate view, one scientist told a reporter that the former professor's “activities are working against the efforts of a great many colleagues, and more of us consider it unacceptable.”
Disagreement and debate is, of course, to be encouraged, including publicly asserting when and how a colleague's work is wrong. It appears, however, that it is no longer permissible to be wrong; being wrong—and especially working against the efforts of your colleagues—is “unacceptable.”
It’s no wonder Yale purged the professors who naively declared, “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
"...our constitutional democracy will depend on whether Americans can relearn how to engage civilly with one another..."
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College Professor
(injured in the Charles Murray protest)
For more on this subject by Dr. Paresky: