I consider myself an open-minded person who values diversity and respects the feelings of others, but I am beyond annoyed at today’s expectation that we must filter everything we say through a screen of politically correct speech. This concept emerged from good intentions—the idea that we should treat others with differing ideologies, lifestyles, and religions with respect. Not necessarily respect for the beliefs, but respect for the person. But it has grown from an innocuous courtesy into full-blown censorship, an inability to engage in intellectual debate that muffles free expression and reduces communication to near meaningless small talk. Politically correct censorship is one more nail in the coffin of intelligent civil discourse. I fear the death of civil discourse will also be the death of critical thinking.
Take our public schools for example. The primary job of a teacher is to guide students through the process of learning, and that begins with critical thinking. But nowhere else is critical thinking stifled more than in the public school classroom. We have a million rules against it, beginning with “Don’t offend anyone,” “Don’t discuss anything potentially volatile,” and “Respect everyone’s beliefs.” I’m all for trying not to offend people, and I think we should always respect each other, but our definition of respecting beliefs has become an insistence upon accepting all as equally valid, regardless of how they may be based in ignorance or logical fallacy.
Before anyone misunderstands, let me say that I am not suggesting we disparage a person’s faith, cultural norms, or political ideologies, nor am I suggesting that we try to change them. I’m simply asking what happened to good old fashioned discussion? We seem to be going through an age of anti-intellectualism that is resulting in the dumbing down of our youth. Sure, they know how to play nice, but can they think? In my opinion, we are discouraging independent, critical thought, and unbelievably, they are going along with it.
I have always encouraged students to voice their opinions freely in my class. I have never considered it wrong or inappropriate for students to educate me and the rest of the class on aspects of their religion, regardless of which religion it is. I have enjoyed hearing their political evaluations, their suggestions for change, and listened respectfully to their views on just about every subject. My students have always felt safe doing this, knowing they would not suffer any negative recriminations for whatever their thoughts were or how they may differ from mine or anyone else’s in the class.
I’ve let students write on their experiences of coming out of the closet as homosexuals. I’ve let a student recount a beautiful memory of a childhood Ramadan celebration. I’ve welcomed students’ presentations on heroes of their faith, Christian missionaries who were martyred for their beliefs, and I’ve allowed students to do book presentations on everything from the Bible to the Wiccan Rede. I cannot fathom how talking about what you believe can hurt anyone, at least short of hate speech. I would not allow any speech that sought to single out for criticism a specific group or disparage another people, so I guess I do believe in some censorship, but the expectations of self-censorship is reaching levels of hilarity, except I’m not laughing. I’m afraid.
This year, for the first time in my teaching career, my classroom debates were a complete disaster. Why? Not because someone said something offensive, hateful, or shocking, but because students were so overly concerned with political correctness that they would barely speak at all. They hedged around every issue, and when their opposition posed a blatant fallacy, in some cases completely wrong information, the opposing team would not point it out. And I know they noticed it, but they would simply change the subject rather than critically discuss an issue.
This generation has been conditioned since their early childhood to be nice, respect all beliefs, and not rock the boat so much so that they are almost incapable of confronting an illogical argument on a topic for fear of offending a classmate. Perhaps, you may think this is a good thing. Well, I don’t believe it is good for anyone.
First of all, we should all have our ideas challenged. It’s good for us. For one thing, we need to know how to defend what we think. Defending our ideas helps us to define why we believe what we do, to look at our beliefs critically, and to see if they stand up to scrutiny. If they do, this only makes us stronger in our beliefs. Additionally, it teaches us how to defend our beliefs logically to others, rather than relying on fallacious arguments. But possibly most important is the growth we attain in our ability to think, judge, and to avoid being fooled by Machiavellian word play. Finally, we learn to communicate effectively—listening, synthesizing, analyzing, and evaluating first, and then returning discourse in an intelligent way that seeks common ground, or at least understanding rather than manipulation. But most of all, when we learn how to confront flawed arguments, we aren’t stifling our reasoning to passively sit in agreement with whatever enters our ear, quietly feigning acceptance.
Everyone needs to learn to evaluate the validity of ideas for themselves without fear of upsetting someone simply for disagreeing. It seems like today, we aren’t allowed to have differing opinions that deviate from the popular view, but instead of fearing attack or retaliation, we fear upsetting someone. Should that really be so devastating? What’s wrong with a little healthy disagreement? We seem to consider every oppositional comment hate speech.
The other day in class, I literally had to stop the conversation and change the topic three times because students were afraid to discuss a topic or point out glaring logical fallacies. In AP Language, one of our main learning objectives is to understand rhetoric, identify claims, appeals, and fallacies, and to counter them with sound reasoning and solid support. Try to teach that in a classroom where everyone is afraid to point out that a girl’s facts are in error when she stated, “The majority of scientists believe the earth was created in seven days because they’ve proven this to be true, while evolution is just a theory; therefore, only creation science should be taught in school,” or another one who said, “Just because the right to bear arms is guaranteed in the Constitution doesn’t mean we can have guns now. Those rules are out of date.” Another stated that everyone would rather play video games than read books, so teaching literature in school should no longer be required. Not one student had the nerve to call these students out on their lack of factual information or ludicrous logic. The class just sat there in stunned silence until the group moderator suggested moving on to the next topic.
I sat there in dumbfounded silence because the only thing going through my mind was that intellectual thought had just died, right there in front me, all because we have been conditioned to think that it is taboo to say, “Wait, that makes no sense,” or “I believe your facts are in error.” Why? Because it would be seen as attacking religious or political beliefs when, in fact, it is merely confronting an invalid justification. We see this in the general public’s avoidance of mentioning the word “Islam” in the same sentence as terrorist, as if we are somehow embarrassed for law abiding Muslims, which has the effect of an artificial non-communication dynamic that, instead of solving problems, only hides them, and I fear, has a much more insidious result. We have become our own thought police, co-conspirators in our own re-education, creating a Newspeak to prevent saying what we really think, and in the process, killing our critical thinking skills.
I think we all need to toughen up a little. Go ahead and disagree with me. I can take it.—Christina Knowles