Charges of “Incivility” Silence: Lessons from School

Posted: Jan 20, 2011 10:32 AM

For college students at the memorial service for the victims of the January 8th shooting at Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ event the benediction by a longhaired college professor invoking “masculine energy” and “feminine energy” that somehow coalesces in a magical middle confirms the validity of their lessons in multiculturalism and the virtue of primitivism. It was an appropriate way to introduce someone in whom they’ve placed their faith, with vague promises of “hope” and “change,” and “healing the planet.”

President Obama’s campaign narrative, recalled at the memorial through the passing out of slogan-emblazoned t-shirts, echoes the dominant narrative of school lessons—that all problems can be solved with the right feelings and thoughts, and with faith in someone from one of the racial, ethnic, and gender categories officially designated as “oppressed.” Indeed, our President did seem to emphasize that it was right after his visit that Congresswoman Giffords opened her eyes for the first time.

Many commentators afterwards, even on Fox News, attributed the inappropriate cheering and applause to the setting of the arena at the University of Arizona, giving Obama a pass. On Fox News, Brit Hume praised the speech. Charles Krauthammer heralded the “brilliant rhetorical approach.” Obama was praised for his diplomacy for simply criticizing generic "discourse" that is “sharply polarized.” This was a reference to the charges by the left that right-wing rhetoric was responsible for the shootings, and the defense from conservatives who pointed to violent images and metaphors from the left that went so far as to wishfully call for the assassination of President George W. Bush. It is ironic that this was the network that Obama had been singling out for attack by name in a quite polarized manner, until his party got “shellacked” last November.

But the news hour after the memorial service was not a time to point such things out, as Obama’s handlers assuredly knew. It would be extremely “insensitive” to bring up such facts at such a time.

Proponents of real “civil discourse” have thus been pushed into a corner, the same corner college students find themselves in, where they are charged with being offensive, insensitive—and now “uncivil.” Our national political debate mimics the situation on college campuses, where speech codes and mandates to not use offending language in classrooms stem off legitimate criticisms. A new standard has replaced the old one of fairness. Now students are ordered to use gender neutral language, to scour their consciences for deep-seated prejudices, and to be on high alert for others’ feelings. To give an official, federal imprimatur, the Obama administration has used tax dollars to send National Endowment for the Humanities director Jim Leach on a nationwide campus-to-campus "civility tour".

Barack Obama, former professor, at the memorial reinforced lessons that college students have been drilled in. They are now judged not on their abilities to use logic and evidence to make a cogent argument but on the attitudes they hold. Socratic dialogues and Aristotelian rhetorical strategies are rarely mentioned in the classroom. On an education program recently, I heard a teacher assigning a five-paragraph essay exploring “inside feelings.”

The new argumentative strategies have evolved into their own disciplines. Now entire classes and programs of study are available in “conflict resolution” and “peace studies.” As I discovered by spending two days in workshops at a conflict resolution education conference, discourse that deviates from the peace and one-world government orthodoxy is silenced. It is silenced, not by words or logic, but by social ostracism. In one workshop on discussing certain preselected “upstanders” who worked on behalf of social justice, I found my tentative suggestion of a free market alternative to a social problem met with the benevolent looks usually directed at people who rant about fluoride in the water. Participants simply repeated “Be the change.” To engage me in debate, in their opinion, would mean engaging in rhetoric that is less than “peaceful.”

This meme is being repeated on the national political stage by Professor Obama. Conservatives have fallen into the same trap set for college freshmen: agree or face accusations of “incivility.” And the definition of “incivility” broadens. Now even to claim that Obama or any of his allies are “socialists” is taken as a personal attack. Those like Cliff Kincaid or Stanley Kurtz, who painstakingly pull together the evidence, are simply ignored. But for a long time now, the discussions about socialism and communism have been off the table in the college classroom. Ironically, such history has been reduced to scurrilous clichés, like “McCarthyism,” “the red scare,” “witch hunts”—as my students’ ready descriptions tell me.

College professors have been revising the terms of the debate for decades now. Conservative politicians and talking heads fail to see this shift and assume that the opposition is engaging in their kind of logical debate, with the same rules the West has been using since at least Aristotle. They are not. Incivility now means disagreement.

The suggestion that the two parties sit with each other during the State of the Union Address is a trap. Two bad choices are presented: Accede and thereby admit that indeed something needs to be done about “incivility,” or face charges of “insensitivity”—and incivility. Through this symbolic act, Republicans, like Tom Coburn who has agreed sit with Democrat Chuck Schumer, will be acknowledging that “uncivil discourse” had something to do with shootings done by someone who by all evidence seems to be mentally ill.

Conservatives are playing into the hands of the forces that began on college campuses with speech codes and “civility” lessons in the classroom. The first step to ending this game of manipulation is to understand the new terms and the new rules for debate that are being imposed. For this the commentators and politicians need to go back to school.