The Paradox of Dogma
If you try to shut down public debate, is this a way of ensuring that you win—or an admission that you have already lost?
The question seems relevant today, because the most remarkable characteristic of our current national debate is that one side wants desperately to stamp it out whenever it occurs.
Recently, for example, a gay New York businessman had the temerity to sponsor a "fireside chat" with Republican presidential candidate and arch-conservative Ted Cruz. He was, of course, required to repent the error, calling it "a terrible mistake" to actually talk to a politician who disagrees with him about gay marriage. We can assume that no gay businessman or activist will repeat that error any time soon, which is the whole point.
More recently, the actress Alice Eve got into trouble for stating the obvious fact that Bruce Jenner is not a woman. She, too, was forced to recant, concluding: "I felt confused and now I feel enlightened and like I know what education I need to move forward."
What gives this a creepy totalitarian feel is the way she found it necessary, not only to change her views, but to express gratitude for her re-education.
College campuses have long been on the forefront of this kind of "speech code," and Judith Shulevitz recently wrote an eye-opening description of the latest innovation: the campus "safe space." In this case, the safe space was created in response to that most troubling of events: a debate (in this case, between a feminist and a libertarian).
The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall—it was packed—but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.
God forbid anyone should have to encounter viewpoints that go against their beliefs. And on a college campus, of all places!
Even some lefty college professors are starting to become uncomfortable—and afraid that the new revolutionary tribunals will devour them, too. Posting anonymously, here is how one academic describes it.
Saying anything that goes against liberal orthodoxy is now grounds for a firin’. Even if you make a reasonable and respectful case, if you so much as cause your liberal students a second of complication or doubt you face the risk of demonstrations, public call-outs, and severe professional consequences....
Personally, liberal students scare the sh-- out of me. I know how to get conservative students to question their beliefs and confront awful truths, and I know that, should one of these conservative students make a Facebook page calling me a communist or else seek to formally protest my liberal lies, the university would have my back.
The same cannot be said of liberal students. All it takes is one slip—not even an outright challenging of their beliefs, but even momentarily exposing them to any uncomfortable thought or imagery—and that’s it, your classroom is triggering, you are insensitive, kids are bringing mattresses to your office hours and there’s a twitter petition out demanding you chop off your hand in repentance.
The Onion, as usual, manages to encapsulate the whole thing in a headline: "College Encourages Lively Exchange of Idea: Students, Faculty Invited to Freely Express Single Viewpoint."
The cultural and political left is cocooning itself in a bubble of ideological uniformity. This is intended to totally suppress dissent on key issues by making it impossible for anyone to even express a divergent opinion. The result is to entrench leftist dogma, in the hope that a whole generation will graduate from college unable to engage in thoughtcrime.
That's the dilemma for anyone trying to overturn any aspect of this dogma. How can you debate an issue and change anyone's mind, when the discussion has been rigged so that your viewpoint is dismissed as illegitimate before anyone has even heard it? So the new orthodoxy seems impenetrable and its hold on the young unbreakable.
Yet the safe space described by Shulevitz, with its Play-Doh and frolicking puppies, captures the infantilizing nature of the ideological bubble. As Shulevitz puts it:
People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?
If I were to come up with one idea for how the left could cripple itself over the long term, it would be: teach your young adherents that ideological debate is an abnormal trauma and that it is a terrible imposition to ever expect them to engage in it. It is a great way of raising a generation of mental cripples. And that is exactly what they have set out to do.
If you want a small taste of what it looks like when a leftist emerges from the ideological hothouse of academia and is forced to encounter opposing ideas he has never seriously grappled with, well, we've been living through it for the past six years. When President Obama drops the "post-racial politics" façade and embraces the idea that everyone who opposes him is just a racist "cracker" (which is the point of the Key & Peele routine he borrowed at the White House Correspondents' dinner), then he will never understand the real issues, he'll never be able to engage his opponents, and he won't be able to convince anyone. Which pretty much explains the results of his presidency. Yet Obama came of age in an era where he had to encounter a lot more ideological opposition than most of today's college students.
When the left attempts to envelop itself in a bubble where all decent people believe the same things, they are only fooling themselves. They are creating the illusion that all the intellectual battles have been won and they no longer need to debate or justify their positions.
At the same time, out in the real world, Democratic politicians are scrambling to move to the right just to survive.
At the beginning of the year, I speculated that we may have reached "Peak Leftism," the point at which the left has achieved such uniform control of the commanding heights of the culture that they have no place to go but down. Their mania for soft ideological conformity suggests a mechanism for this decline. They are growing so accustomed to living in an ideological "safe space" that they will no longer understand what it means to debate their positions, much less how to win the debate.
The most powerful historical precedent for this is the totalitarian creed of the Soviet Union—a dogma imposed, not just by campus censors or a Twitter mob, but by gulags and secret police. Yet one of the lessons of the Soviet collapse is that the ideological uniformity of a dictatorship seems totally solid and impenetrable—right up to the moment it cracks apart. The imposition of dogma succeeds in getting everyone to mouth the right slogans, even as fewer and fewer of them understand or believe the ideology behind it.
This is the Paradox of Dogma. To return to the question we started with: if you try to shut down public debate, is this a way of ensuring that you win—or an admission that you have already lost? The answer is: both. It might ensure that you win in the short term. But over the long term, it abandons the field to those who do believe in ideological debate.