Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Notes on Kirsten Powers: "The Silencing"

In her new book The Silencing—great title, incidentally—Kirsten Powers calls out her fellow liberals for their decidedly illiberal practices toward the exercise of free speech.

Efforts to shut down free speech, to create a climate of groupthink are coming from the academic left, from leftist radicals. They come from a left that was defined by radicals like Saul Alinsky and that gave us Barack Obama.

In an excerpt from her book for The Daily Beast, Powers writes:

The root of nearly every free-speech infringement on campuses across the country is that someone—almost always a liberal—has been offended or has sniffed out a potential offense in the making. Then, the silencing campaign begins. The offender must be punished, not just for justice’s sake, but also to send the message to anyone else on campus that should he or she stray off the leftist script, they too might find themselves investigated, harassed, ostracized, or even expelled. If the illiberal left can preemptively silence opposing speakers or opposing groups— such as getting a speech or event canceled, or denying campus recognition for a group—even better.

Beyond the fact that this paragraph sorely needs an editor, Powers is correct to show the extent to which leftist academics have imposed an ideology on college campuses. Or better, as Powers says, they have shut down dissent and have forced everyone to follow their script. There is no marketplace of ideas on many of the best college campuses today.

Liberals like Powers are appalled because these activities are discrediting liberalism. They might even be playing a role in the slow-motion disintegration of the Democratic Party.

Radical leftists are marching behind the banner of sensitivity. They are saying that certain oppressed groups are so beaten down and so thin-skinned that they do not know how to deal with the least offense—i.e. microaggressions.

They call for sensitivity, but they use violent methods that remind us of Ernst Rohm’s Brown Shirts and Maoist truth squads.

When someone deviates from the party line, he is attacked, vilified, harassed, condemned, ostracized and expelled. This pertains especially if he is a privileged white male.

The thought police will not even accept that someone might have made a mistake. The least, even unintended transgression becomes a crime against humanity, one that needs to be punished mercilessly.

These radicals are masters of rhetorical hyperbole: all offenses, from bad language to wrong ideas are equivalent to the Holocaust. Or else, a man who touches a woman inappropriately is labelled a rapist.

In truth, the ambient culture is not very much better. A politician who leans right and who says the wrong thing will be routinely excoriated, even to the extent of being driven from politics.

Well before the current administration, the long knives came out to attack Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas because one Anita Hill testified that he had made some inappropriate, grossly sexual remarks

Of course, when Bill Clinton was credibly accused of sexual harassment and even rape, the same thought police gave him a pass.

Justice, such as it is, was anything but blind.

Here, Powers describes the atmosphere on college campuses:

This Orwellian climate of intimidation and fear chills free speech and thought. On college campuses it is particularly insidious. Higher education should provide an environment to test new ideas, debate theories, encounter challenging information, and figure out what one believes. Campuses should be places where students are able to make mistakes without fear of retribution. If there is no margin for error, it is impossible to receive a meaningful education.

The radical left has created a hostile learning environment. Perhaps this is yet another reason why so many students today are concentrating in STEM subjects and hard science.

The situation Powers describes pertains, of course, to the university as a whole, but it is more prevalent in the Humanities and social sciences.

Obviously, universities should teach ideas, theories and information, but I am far from convinced that those who are teaching Humanities courses today are capable of doing so. I suspect that they obsess about offense in order to cover up the fact that they do not know their disciplines well enough to teach them. And of course, even in a time of massive grade inflation, many students are incapable of passing classes, even in education school.

Powers recounts one incident:

In November 2013, more than two dozen graduate students at UCLA entered the classroom of their professor and announced a protest against a “hostile and unsafe climate for Scholars of Color.” The students had been the victims of racial “microaggression,” a term invented in the 1970s that has been recently repurposed as a silencing tactic. A common definition cited is that racial microaggressions “are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.” Like all these new categories, literally anything can be a microaggression.

So what were the racial microaggressions that spawned the interruption of a class at the University of California at Los Angeles? One student alleged that when the professor changed her capitalization of the word “indigenous” to lowercase he was disrespecting her ideological point of view. Another proof point of racial animus was the professor’s insistence that the students use the Chicago Manual of Style for citation format (the protesting students preferred the less formal American Psychological Association manual). After trying to speak with one male student from his class, the kindly 79-year-old professor was accused of battery for reaching out to touch him. The professor, Val Rust, a widely respected scholar in the field of comparative education, was hung out to dry by the UCLA administration, which treated a professor’s stylistic changes to student papers as a racist attack. The school instructed Rust to stay off the Graduate School of Education and Information Services for one year. 

Of course, Powers is not alone in condemning this radical agenda. Liberal lawyer Wendy Kaminer has been there before. Powers explains Kaminer’s idea:

In an article in the Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer—a lawyer and free-speech advocate—declared, “Academic freedom is declining. The belief that free speech rights don’t include the right to speak offensively is now firmly entrenched on campuses and enforced by repressive speech or harassment codes. Campus censors don’t generally riot in response to presumptively offensive speech, but they do steal newspapers containing articles they don’t like, vandalize displays they find offensive, and disrupt speeches they’d rather not hear. They insist that hate speech isn’t free speech and that people who indulge in it should be punished. No one should be surprised when a professor at an elite university calls for the arrest of ‘Sam Bacile’ [who made the YouTube video The Innocence of Muslims] while simultaneously claiming to value the First Amendment.”

Do you remember Sam Bacile?

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was trying to shift the blame for the attack on our consulate in Benghazi she conveniently chose to scapegoat Sam Bacile, aka Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.

When Sam Bacile was tossed in prison, no one, left or right, really cared.

Hillary Clinton went on to even more fame and fortune.

[Addendum: Powers has an essay on illiberal feminists in today's Daily Beast. Link here.]


Sam L. said...

"illiberal feminists": What other kind is there?

Anonymous said...

Are you familiar with a book entitled
"Dictatorship Of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future" by Richard Bernstein published in 1994?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

People are always offended. Now what do we do? Notice the response. Hold your nose.

Ares Olympus said...

It is interesting that the Left gets to be responsible both for the unwise "moral relativism" and unkind "moral silencing". I wonder if the Left notices the possible contradiction?

I recall the idea that "polite discourse should exclude topics of Sex, religion and politics", like this blog suggests for work environments:

But universities apparently are supposed to help expose students to a wide range of beliefs and opinions and not compel them to follow any one, right?

But as we discover topics like "oppression" and "justice" are ones humans have always had trouble with, and self-righteousness against other people's oppressive behavior, especially groups of people, makes it easy to overstep, and sort of "become what you hate" to degrees, more so, if you have politics or social power to silence your opposition, and not see the hypocrisy.

So my thought is that humans have always been hypocrites . The question to me is whether we learn from it or stay blind to it by only projecting it.

I think of this quote as well, or which ever variation you like.
"If You Are Not a Liberal at 25, You Have No Heart. If You Are Not a Conservative at 35 You Have No Brain"

So there's a shallow sort of morality called "good and bad", and if you think you're being lead by your heart, you can start labeling everthing you see as good or bad, and have an idealism that the bad can be eliminated through proper "awareness".

Anyway, for me, if we're going to take seriously the idea of "The Silencing" then we need to look further than "good thoughts" and "bad thoughts", but actual expressions of power, and "disapproval" is the smallest sort of power people have over you, and yet its also the sort where you can learn assertiveness, and not let yourself be silenced too easily.

And since we're all easy hypocrites, we're more comfortable with people who agree with us, and the pressure to conformity is high, in any environment, and so when we leave our own "echo chambers" of same-thought, it seems like we find enemies in the world, while those others may or may not be enemies, although you can usually make them your enemy if you treat them that way.

Still, it's always a two way street, and one side's immaturity can provoke the other side's immaturity, and nothing is learned. And actually these sides exists WITHIN communities that might have once appeared unified, and differences are smaller, or between communities with wide gulfs to bridge, and so in either cases, there's a question how to discuss differences and know when to "agree to disagree" and when to hold the tension a little longer, just in case something new happens.

I appreciate Scott Peck's view of community and idea of stages, and each stage would seem to require different skills, and different awarenesses to pay attention to. His approach is based on the idea of voluntary association, rather than hierarchy, where order is simply imposed from above.

Based on his experience with community building workshops, Peck says that community building typically goes through four stages: 1. Pseudocommunity 2. Chaos 3. Emptiness 4. True community.

It is in this third stage that Peck's community-building methods differ in principle from team development. While teams in business organizations need to develop explicit rules, guidelines and protocols during the norming stage, the emptiness' stage of community building is characterized, not by laying down the rules explicitly, but by shedding the resistance within the minds of the individuals.

So I'll put "Silencing" in Stage 2, and see it as a positive if participants can detach a little and look for common ground.

Ares Olympus said...

Here's Kirsten Powers on Bill O'Reilly about her book, 5 min.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkU37es5Cv8 How The Left Is Silencing Free Speech

She says debate is silenced by attributing "bad" motives on the other side, like calling someone a racist, as if that categorically dismisses a point of view to have any validity.

Hopefully she'll get some exposure beyond Fox News, at least if she wants to influence the Left's tactics and blind-spots.

Clearly some of what she's talking about is intentional like partisan spinmasters, and some is ordinary people caught in their own passionate confusion wanting things simpler than they can be.

Ares Olympus said...

I see Kirsten Powers participated in a debate in February on this subject of liberals stifling debate, and a majority (59%) of the audience was convinced this is true.

Pre-debate Poll Results: 33% for | 21% against | 46% undecided
Post-debate Poll Results: 59% for | 32% against | 9% undecided

What is college for? For many, it’s a time for personal and intellectual growth, to meet new people, and to explore ideas and philosophies that challenge their beliefs. Or is it? Recent cancellations of conservative speakers, rescinded honorary degrees, and scrutiny of certain campus groups have heightened perceptions that there is pervasive liberal intolerance on campuses. Are liberals shutting down speech and debate on campus? Or is this theory a myth, based on the preponderance of liberals at universities rather than intentionally discriminatory actions?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Silencing is a Leftist tactic, and always has been. Now it seems to be going mainstream. And a great many declare they are "offended" and "bullied" because they FEEL what they hear is bad and mean. And mean people suck. We've descended into bumper sticker slogans as meaningful exchange. No one is responsible for how they receive and process speech, and the meaning they assign to what is said. Like just about everything in American society today, it's someone else's fault. This is modern discourse: a contest over who is the most aggrieved, and thus due goodies as recompense.

Our President Obama is now getting in on this in a big way lately, as he seems to be getting more uncomfortable with criticism... if that were even possible. Obama is pointing out his disdain for Fox News, and that "the media is going to have to report differently." Hillary recently said that "religions will have to change core standards, beliefs and codes" about gays and gay "marriage." I can only assume they believe themselves public benefactors in the search for truth. The key in all this is "have to," which implies we will all be compelled. Or else WHAT? What would they do? I'd like to know. This is all about using the power of the national government to impose speech codes, which are really thought codes.

You mustn't think a certain way. Why? Lest people be offended or upset by what you say and believe. Well, you can't control for that, and no one is teaching personal responsibility anymore, so it's your problem. It's the juvenilization of public discourse. It's the "I'm okay, you're okay" mantra writ large... except it's clear that it's now "I'm not okay if you don't think I'm okay, and that means you're a bad person!" That's what multiculturalism, Barney and anti-_____ campaigns have given us. Things are not better. People are more fragile, thin-skinned and sensitive than ever! We've become a country of nationalized elementary schoolchildren. Where does this all end???

What's next? Whether it offends others' sensibilities that you question the "settled science" of Climate Change (née Global Warming, nee Global Cooling, and so on)? Al Gore, the great spokesman for this scientific fraud, will not even publicly debate anyone on the subject, while he jets around the earth making pronouncements of impending doom for us all.

This is all bat shit crazy!

Dennis said...

I have to admit that I believe this to be a good thing. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but think about it for a moment. The use of name calling, pejoratives and invectives to silence others only create the conditions for the Left to lose the ability to present well reasoned argumentation for their ideas thus enhancing the arguments presented by others and also alienate a considerable segment of the population.
One can only cry "wolf" before ones' protestations begin to lose value to the point that every growing numbers of people no longer pay attention to them. It becomes counterproductive.
There comes a point when that silencing begins to silence the very people who used it. http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/241845-now-president-obamas-warren-critique-sexist Consider the value of the race and sex card that was/is being tossed around so cavalierly in the past and currently. It is increasingly used by many to discount the person who uses it. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, et al ring a bell. Do we really give credence to these people?
As with all things the pendulum always moves and what was the "in" as dogma becomes the "out." It is why one sees the constant denigration of the media, public education, academe and those who would use silencing as a tactic to control others. Far too many people are willing to challenge them and will eventually take center stage. This due to the fact that the Left and its ilk will eat itself.
Mao once stated "that in disadvantage lies the seeds of advantage and in advantage lies the seeds of disadvantage." Here is a case where those who think they have the advantage are only spreading the seeds of disadvantage for themselves.
This is a great time to ridicule, undermine, challenge and general attack both democrats and the Left. I could not be happier that the Left is destroying itself which I believe Powers is beginning to realize. The Left is retiring from the battlefield of the marketplace of ideas and we should encourage them. You go Lefty.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Dennis, I get what you're layin' down. My only concern is that people have to be sharp enough to hear and process a cogent argument. Sure, nature abhors a vacuum, but civilization is the accumulated knowledge of makind. Is it being handed down? To paraphrase Lincoln, I hope we can put aside the "lesser demons of our nature" long enough to appeal to what lifts people to their highest, bets and greatest contribution. Contribution is about giving, not taking. Right now, the takers and destroyers are winning. All that gloom aside, the laws of nature and nature's God certainly endorse your viewpoint. I hope for the vision you've put forth here, and am certainly doing my part in my little corner of the world. Thank you for your optimism.