?Campus Debate, Hurt Feelings, and “The Culture of Shut Up”

Joe Hogan

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Recently, the Lanthorn has strongly urged students to claim their voice in all debates on university policy — and to do so boldly and emphatically. Now, it would be smart to qualify this call: we should first adopt an attitude of humility, one that encourages us to think deeply, critically and empathically about all viewpoints — and all parties — in a given debate before voicing an argument.

In an article that provides support for this suggestion, Jon Lovett discusses in “The Atlantic” what he’s termed “The Culture of Shut Up.” Lovett’s thesis: that the discourse of “manufactured outrage” and politics of hurt feelings native to online comment sections — the discourse that consists only of “vicious personal attacks” (Ex: “Obama is a commie socialist!”) and “self-righteous calls for apology” (Ex: “Your idiocy offends me, racist!”) — has made its way into the mainstream, into politics, academia, and everywhere else. And, according to Lovett, it’s “chilling free speech.”

As remedy, Lovett proposes that we stop telling each other to shut up — that means not just to people whose views seem stupid, but to those whose ideas strike us as “offensive” and even “dangerous.” Why? Because no matter how noble we think ourselves or our beliefs, our attempt to silence opposition is “a demand for conformity that encourages people on all sides of a debate to police each other instead of argue and convince each other.” In other words, “you don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea.”

Our campus is no exception to Lovett’s admonishment. Often we find ourselves in discussions that, unchecked, spiral directly into the kind of politics of hurt feelings Lovett describes. Someone presents a strong argument. Another takes offense and responds ad hominem. Soon there are calls for apology from parties, each believing itself the victim.

The most disconcerting aspect of such discussions is the willingness, usually on the part of both sides, to categorically dismiss as politically suspect (often with the ready-made application of some –ism) views that are not their own. This tendency, it ought to be said twice, dominates both sides of any discussion. Indeed, there is nothing more damning on the right than getting dismissed as a “radical leftist” for thinking corporate money should not equal speech; likewise, there is nothing more damning on the left than being labeled a “disgusting sexist” for being pro-life. Regardless of the potential truth-value of any such characterizations, they are cancerous to the cultivation of free speech. Why? Because they are attacks on people, not ideas. They seek not to address the nuances of any particular argument, but instead seek to ascribe to the whole argument some awful, irredeemable feature so as easily to dismiss it out of hand. We fail to see an obvious truth: although some opinions and beliefs are examples of those horrible –isms, many are only reduced to such.

Therefore, the greatest danger of the culture of shut up, Lovett tells us, is that it “replaces a competition of arguments with a competition to delegitimize arguments. And what’s left is the pressure to sand down the corners of your speech while looking for the rough edges in the speech of your adversaries. Everyone is offended. Everyone is offensive.” This tendency leads not only to a culture of self-censorship in which our primary anxiety is expressing an unpopular and thus unforgivable view, but also to a culture that encourages us to remain ideologically entrenched within our respective in-groups. The final, free-speech-killing result: we fail to develop empathy for others due to the disdain we have for their views. We remain content in our utter lack of imagination, in our failure to understand how another human being could hold beliefs diametrically opposed to our own and still, in one way or another, be a good person.

As we students secure for ourselves a greater voice in university policymaking, and more generally as we continue to discuss issues relevant to the fate of our campus and world, we should take seriously Lovett’s warning. That first requires we acknowledge that in any debate, we do not simply address ideas but people, with whom we should always attempt to empathize and identify. This, in turn, requires the humility to consider one disturbing possibility: that perhaps we are the ones who are wrong after all.