Chanting Slurs

The Shaming Of Thought

On 3/06/2017, Dan Senor hosted a discussion on PBS’s Charlie Rose between Frank Bruni, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt. Here is part of that conversation.

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Dan Senor: Last Thursday, Middlebury College experienced a scene that’s becoming increasingly familiar. Dr. Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was invited to speak. A massive protest greeted him. The intent was not to simply express peaceful dissent, but to shut down his speech. Dr. Murray and the Middlebury professor who interviewed him ran into a mob of protesters, several of whom physically assaulted Dr. Murray’s interviewer and forced her to the hospital. The incident and others like it bring into sharp relief a growing tendency on American campuses, an intolerance for freedom of speech …

First of all, how did we get here? This incident with Dr. Murray at Middlebury was not the first time this has happened. We’re seeing this all over the place. …

Frank Bruni: … This is the “everybody gets a trophy” generation, right? So, no one modulates themselves. … There is not a lot of ideological diversity on a lot of the campuses where this is happening. And so the notion that somebody with a perspective totally contrary to your own, deserves the stage, deserves to be heard, that’s sort of going away because there’s so little diversity and there’s so little appreciation for that in a really important ethos of education and of civil debate.

Jonathan Haidt: … At NYU, we have a new bias response team. So, any video I show, anything I say in class, if it offends a student, there are numbers all over, in every bathroom, urging them to call, report me. So that changes the way we teach. And then as Frank said, if students aren’t exposed to diverse ideas, then if somebody like Charles Murray comes, well, you know, he spoke at Middlebury ten years ago and there was no big problem. …

Frank Bruni: … I went within the last couple of years, I want to be vague, to a very esteemed liberal arts college in the northeast. When I was there, the president had a dinner …. And all these faculty members went around the table and sang the praises of the school. And I heard about the affinity group they had for this group. I heard about XYZ. We got to the end, there were like 20 faculty members. At the end, they said, do you have any questions? … I said, is there a group for Republican students? And they looked at me like it had never occurred to them. And there was one student there, and she said, I think there is but they maybe have one member. Now schools trip over themselves to get racial diversity. … But what about this whole other kind of diversity? …

Dan Senor: Talk about when these students are leaving their senior year of college and they’re actually pursuing jobs, professionally. Not just lack of ideological diversity, but what this means for them in terms of their ability to compete in an increasingly cut-throat, competitive, you know, employment environment?

Frank Bruni: Well, they’re very, very rigid in their notions of how things should be. And I think that translates well beyond politics to everything else. I hear employers complaining all the time about this generation of students because they hate to be challenged, they hate to be countermanded. They have been told you’re right, you’re right, you’re right. And that “you’re right” extends to their ideological beliefs in these incredibly homogeneous enclaves that we constructed for them in the Ivy League …

Jonathan Haidt: … What I am hearing from students because lots of students write to me now, is that education schools and social work schools are the worst. … the ones I hear about are really, really repressive. So I think that should be very concerning.

Frank Bruni: … I was forwarded Tweets where people who were saying things like I never knew Frank Bruni was such a racist. … so you asked how did Jonathan’s colleagues react to him? When I talk to people in higher education, he is a hero because he is bringing up stuff about free speech and ideological diversity … they won’t say the same things he is saying because they are so worried about a kind of shaming that the left, right now, sadly seems to specialize in.

Jonathan Haidt: … So, young people who go through these colleges, they’re exposed to rhetorical training that prevents them from learning how to engage. They are trained carefully in how to basically discredit your opponent. Slur, they learn to slur. They do not learn to argue.

Frank Bruni: So go look at the tape from Middlebury and that’s exactly what you see, you see students with their backs turned, and they are chanting slurs, they are not having an intellectual argument.

Jonathan Haidt: … it actually seemed to start just two to four years ago, this sort of new — this new way of thinking, this new moral order. If you look at terms like safe space, trigger warning, they only really begin to emerge around 2012, 2013, if you look at Google trends. The big wave of dis-invitations was 2013. So there is a kind of new moral order. And I think social media is absolutely central to this. … kids who had been growing up on social media just graduated a year or two ago. … They have grown up totally linked to each other, always with their finger on the button, always knowing anything I say, I could be not just shamed in front of seven people, but in front of the entire planet. …

Dan Senor: So, when I was on college campus, I was active in the Israel debate, the Israel debate about the peace process.When I speak to students today on campus, they say the BDS movement, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions debate, boycotting Israel, getting campuses to boycott Israel, it’s no longer just between those who support one policy on Israel and those who oppose another policy which it was like when I was going to college. Now, those who are hostile to Israel or U.S. policy towards Israel, are joined by almost like a coalition of all these different factions who know nothing about the issue, but they all lock arms.

Jonathan Haidt: That’s right. The key to the new morality is a method of looking at society and looking in terms of power and privilege. … There is a good kind of identity politics,which is, you know, if black people are being denied rights, let’s fight for their rights, that’s the good kind. But there is a bad kind which is to train students to say let’s divide everybody up by their race, gender, other categories. We’ll assign them moral merit based on their level of privilege, [high] is bad, and victimhood is good. Okay, now let’s look at everything through this lens. … the Palestinians are the victims. So therefore, they are the good and the Jews or the Israelis are the bad. … All social problems get reduced to this simple framework. I think we are doing them a disservice. I think we are actually making students less wise.

Frank Bruni: You know what else I see on campuses, Dan, is students who … don’t have the party line down pat. I will say to that student, how comfortable do you feel bringing up your religion or God in class or in the fraternity house or sorority house or whatever … they are so happy I asked the question, you know, “I almost never talk about it.” …

Dan Senor: So in the Middlebury case, so Murray and Stanger are driven from the stage, they decide to set up a separate room like a satellite room where they are gonna conduct their interview and live stream it into the audience.

Frank Bruni: Right. Someone pulls the fire alarm.

Dan Senor: Someone pulls the fire alarm and then the sort of mob — according to the public reports there is a good report in “The Washington Post,” a good report in the “Weekly Standard” here from a former student there, Middlebury, so this mob of students with masks on. … They start — they’re listening on the live stream for whether or not the fire alarms are breaking through in the live stream so they can determine if they are getting closer to the room and then they could storm the room. …

Jonathan Haidt: … It is the dawn of a new religion and I study moral psychology as though it’s religion, politics, even sports tribalism, they are all manifestations of a tribalism. And I think we see this in the Charles Murray case very clearly. I just watched the video again today before coming here. … what you have to see is the campus is their church, that’s right, you cannot have blasphemy on campus. And so the best way to understand what happened I think is an “Auto-Da-Fe.” It’s a religious right coming together to punish the sinner, to punish the devil, and to reaffirm our community. So I think, I mean it is a crazy time, but it’s also an incredibly fascinating time to be a social scientist because this is like straight out of Emile Durkheim what we are seeing today.

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