There seems to be a new talking point that accuses Liberals, Feminists, Political Correctness, etc. for the decline in free speech on college campuses. The accusation is that these left wing forces are driving people out, harassing people who don’t agree with them, and silencing any opposing thoughts. Now I won’t deny that these things happen, but the causal attribution here is not only misguided, it’s hypocritical.
The real problem is that we have lost a respect for rhetoric and have become irresponsible in our speech. Rules of logic are gone, and fact checking and other versions of reality testing are now attacked instead of embraced. What we have created is a debate culture that irresponsibly focuses on insult, mockery, and boastful ignorance. The hypocrisy comes from the fact that the attacks are made on the groups not the behavior, and the hypocrisy exists because the people making the attacks are repeating the same bad behavior, and most of the time, are regularly guilty of that same bad behavior.
Rhetoric, logic, reality testing, etc. are not the singular domain of any one group. I know Liberals who argue according to these rules, and I know Conservatives who argue according to these rules. I know Liberals who abandon logic for vitriolic attack, and I know Conservatives who forgo rhetoric and reality testing for the same rancor and insult. Rhetoric, logic, and reality testing are skills, and as such are available to most of humanity, the way other skills like playing an instrument, fixing a car, or riding a bicycle are available. Anyone willing to dedicate themselves to these skills can master and apply them, regardless of their personal or political views.
Now I know that many will look at this last statement and immediately start pointing fingers at the groups they feel started it. It is true that certain conservative radio and news networks are known for their consistent use of attack punditry that intentionally defies logic and reality for the sake of emotional manipulation. It is true that they were the first to make the political attack ad a 24/7 barrage. But as much responsibility as they hold for their bad behavior, they did not create the attack ad, and they did not force us to like them.
The real problem has been a failure of gatekeeping. Rhetoric and logical argument, like any skill, are only developed when we aspire and adhere to standards and rules. Like any skill, they require discipline, testing, and authorities who grant or deny permission to practice in the real world. In other fields, this gate keeping is crucial, because you would not want to get in a cab with an unlicensed driver, you would not trust your car to just a guy with a wrench, and you really would not trust your child’s health to someone who just read some stuff on the internet. When things are important, you need to have a standard to meet to be allowed to practice, and given the importance of national debate, we need to return to these standards.
So why did the gatekeeping fail? Right now, fingers are being pointed at political correctness. However, research shows that when a “politically correct” environment is constructed, the environment actually promotes freer contribution and creativity. This is because the essence of political correctness is respect. It is a respect for individual differences. Apparently, when you create that environment of mutual respect, people are more creative and productive. The failure of gatekeeping has promoted the exact opposite effect, so political correctness cannot be blamed.
What has caused this failure of gatekeeping, is actually the opposite of political correctness: intolerance of difference. When you look at the groups who are the most prone to breaking the rules of logic, they are also the ones most prone to attacking people according to the groups they belong to, rather than actually attacking the arguments they are making. In essence, they are the one who don’t construct arguments, they attack opponents. They do this because constructing an argument takes a lot of work and forces you to face the possibility that your stance might be wrong. Attacking a person is easy and since it avoids actual argument, buffers you from the possible reality that you might be, in fact, incorrect. Because of this, the focus is no longer on testing beliefs, no longer about letting ideas compete, but rather the focus is now on just assaulting the other person just for differing in thought and idea.
This ended up creating two groups of debaters. One of these groups still held to the ideals of logic and rhetoric, and focused on putting the effort into making their arguments. The other required little effort. For a time, the gatekeepers would enforce the standards to make sure the former had the stronger voice, while the latter was relegated to the fringes until they could learn to apply the skills of argument and rules of rhetoric and logic. Essentially, if you were demonstrating that you were not taking the time to craft your argument, the gate keepers would rightly not allow you into the argument. The second group, however, instead of learning the skills and putting in the effort to improve their arguments, just turned and began to attack the gatekeepers. If you insisted on peer reviewed research, numbers and facts, or adherence to rules of rhetoric, you were now no longer holding a standard, you were now an elitist thumbing your nose at the people below you. You were no longer holding people accountable for their views, by insisting on standards, some how you were censoring them.
Once the coup was completed, and the gatekeepers removed, the new generation of thinkers saw the two debating styles, and as both were now viewed with equal regard, began to choose the way of the attack over the way of the argument. After all, forming an argument takes effort and risks admitting you were wrong, while attacking is reflexive and does not have that same risk. So if both are acceptable why even bother with an argument? With the last generation, you may have seen one ideological side more prone to the attacking style, but today, all groups are just as prone to the fallacy of the attack style.
As a result, we have a culture of attack that is attacking in all directions assaulting people that threaten the spread of only their beliefs both within and without. For conservatives, if you don’t tow the most radical party line, you get labeled a RINO (Republican In Name Only). In liberal circles, groups are similarly turning in on themselves as well. Silence the other, within and without, has now become the game, all due to the acceptance of the attack debate style.
So if you are wondering what happened to free speech on college campuses, the media, etc., that is what happened. We accepted a behavior of attack in debates, and this is the consequence. If you are trying to blame liberals, you are making an argument of attack, and are a hypocrite. If you are blaming conservatives, you are making an argument of attack and therefor a hypocrite. If you are blaming a specific group at all at this point, you are making an argument of attack, and are therefor are a hypocrite. The only way to avoid such hypocrisy is to stop blaming people and start blaming the behavior of the attack argument.
How do we turn things around? The simple answer is to start the process of reinstating the gatekeepers on all sides of the political spectrum. Start to learn the rules of rhetoric and logic, and learn to avoid the logical fallacy (also here). Learn to become the authority who says. “you are allowed to make your argument, but you are not allowed to attack your opponent,” on your page, in your forums, and in daily life. Be willing to tell your friends to calm down when they step out of line, and be willing to give credit to those opponents who argue properly.
Set the tone and raise the bar, because the alternative is system that just destroys itself regardless of the ideology of the players within it.