I first became aware of the distinctly illiberal and prominent element in the social justice movement on Twitter two years ago when I responded to a blog post by a Muslim educator on why she chooses to wear her particular type of Islamic headdress in the USA. She posted with the apparent intention of opening a discussion on the topic. It is an area of great interest to me because I conduct research on community-building in schools in high migration and low income parts of Ulm, Germany where religious and ethnic conflict is common. What I quickly found out, however, is that this author did not want a conversation but was daring anyone to not agree wholly with her point of view. I naively engaged, speaking about how during my research in Ulm many elderly, first-generation Muslims were unhappy with the increased shawling of young women of second and third-generation Muslim descent. To them, this was an act of segregation from German society and a sign of failed integration. Because I was new to Twitter and used to open discussion in my social and professional circles I did not realise that this would automatically send out a siren call to all SJWs that a right-wing extremist had arrived on the scene. I was quickly attacked by a handful of her friends and like minds who wanted to make sure that I (and everyone else) understood that I was Islamophobic. One particularly offended aggressor, a prominent and feted voice on social justice issues in the education community on Twitter, was particularly paranoid and aggressive about my intentions. She was also a Muslim woman and a friend of the author. She tried to pull more (and bigger) “influencers” into the mess in an attempt to bully me and she then blocked me just to make sure I had no chance to communicate my point of view to her and iron the misunderstanding out. It was the social media equivalent of a hit and run and I have since found that this is the behaviour of the extreme left (the natural habitat of the SJW; as opposed to those concerned with actual social justice, which I believe is the majority of people and certainly the majority of educators). The problem is that this small but incredibly loud and bullying group are having an increased impact on public policy in western nations and this is increasingly shutting down effective communication and critical thinking in the public sphere. It would appear that this trend is also the result of a prolonged failure to teach these skills in school.
The most recent example of this behaviour that I have come across – and it is an ever-increasing phenomenon – is the case of University of Toronto Professor Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology, who voiced his opposition to the proposed Federal Bill C-16 which would grant legal protection to gender expression and gender identity in Canada. Peterson opposes the bill citing as an example that it would force him to refer to transgender individuals by the pronoun of their choosing which might be something other than he/she (which he is happy to use). His position is that this bill is a fundamental challenge to his right to free speech in that the bill forces him to use certain, politically fashionable but not biologically accurate, words under the threat of legal action for not doing so.
Whatever your opinion on his position, it is the manner in which SJW protestors have subsequently handled the situation that should frighten any liberally-minded person and which also proves that communication and critical thinking are under severe threat in the public sphere. Since he made his position clear there have been demonstrations and counter demonstrations held at the University of Toronto. No problem there; that should be a fertile breeding ground for communication and critical thinking. Except it was not. At a demonstration in favour of free speech, at which Peterson spoke, his words were drowned out by SJW protestors who used a white noise machine and heckled him throughout his talk. The tragic irony is that his point – which he articulates succinctly here – is that free speech is the vehicle by which we sharpen our thoughts and positions and ultimately solve our greatest problems in society. He argues that in order to get anywhere productive it is important that an individual’s right to mis-speak, think out loud, take logical missteps and hold their ideas up to scrutiny are legally protected. He worries that Bill C-16 will prevent this and those “liberals” who support it but who deny him his very right to free speech pose a massive threat to democracy.
What struck me about Peterson’s case is not what played out on YouTube and in the press but the degree to which his protestors attempted to silence him and to deprive him of his position at the University. In the aftermath of his opposition to Bill C-16, a collection of student organisations conspired to have him sanctioned by the University. A letter was sent to administration accusing Peterson of making “racist, transphobic and anti-black comments” and listed five “demands” which included an apology from Peterson, a town hall meeting with administration to “explain the issues that he (Peterson) clearly does not comprehend” and the provision of “anti-oppression training” for all members of the university. To appease the SJWs Peterson should publicly admit guilt and then be publicly paraded and shamed in front of his accusers by his own administration in the manner of a modern-day witch hunt. Then, just to be certain that this cannot happen again, students demanded that said “training” – which opposes free speech – be institutionalised at the university. To add extra pressure on Peterson, students also contacted the Canadian Union of Public Employees (Queer Caucus – sic! –) which also formally contacted administration commenting on Peterson’s “unwelcome behaviour… comments like these… need to be swiftly and categorically condemned and appropriate actions need to be taken to restore a workplace free of intimidation and hostility” before threatening “Our Union will be organising and acting accordingly”.
Peterson’s situation is ongoing but the model is clear. SJWs have attempted to silence someone who had a difference of opinion. As well as bullying and intimidating him when he attempted to clarify his position publicly, they are currently attempting to take his platform, his profession and his reputation away from him. That, to me, is the definition of a liberal fascism and it is currently unchallenged. In the summer of 2016 I wrote two posts about Brexit which touch on two of the causes for this state of affairs.
In the first post I spoke about how teachers need to be aware of the political biases that they bring into the classroom. It is not their job to “explain” political events from a partisan position or to bend their students’ thinking to reflect their own. It is the job of the educator to provide balanced and reliable sources, promote research and provide a suitable environment for students to think critically and communicate their opinions without fear of being silenced for wrong-think. If we do this, then we give our students something far more important than liberal or conservative biases – we give them the opportunity to make wise choices. Teachers should use social justice issues to explore the values promoted by their school’s Mission Statement and those outlined in their State curriculum and not to trumpet their own personal political stances. They must certainly not use social justice issues to bully students into silence when they have questions or different opinions because that is one certain way to breed extremism and hatred.
In the second post I spoke about the role of the media in days leading up to and after Brexit. Major media outlets including The Guardian, The Huffington Post and The Independent shamefully misrepresented the polling data for remain among voters aged 18-24 to peddle the myth of the young “Screwed by Older Generations” (an actual headline in the Huffington Post). Of course we now know that the young simply did not vote but that did not matter to these media outlets who were, cynically, only manipulating the anger of some young voters to promote their own political agendas. In the run-up to and immediately after the election these media outlets, in place of actual investigative journalism, simply harvested social media posts to gauge the mood of the nation and got it wrong by mistaking the loud noises of the extreme left as the opinion of the majority. The issue then is the very same as has been seen in the US 2016 presidential election campaign and that is that a corrupt, partisan and lazy mainstream media machine is grooming the public into simplistic and dualistic thinking.
The modern decline of the mainstream media in the USA was accelerated by the Bush administration and the partisan positioning of major outlets in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In that era the media first took away the public’s access to nuanced analysis (communication) of matters of grave political consequence and then removed their ability to make informed decisions (critical thinking) through the suppression of important information and by hyper-partisanship. The decline of nuanced analysis coincided with the separation of journalism from news reporting and the rise of news entertainment on 24 hour dedicated news channels. As an example, during the Bush Administration, John Moody, the news chief at Fox News would circulate memos to all news staff indicating how they should spin news stories and providing them with talking points and euphemisms that reflected the network’s biases. This had the effect of reducing news reporting to theatre, overanalysing non-stories and hyping up world events to ensure that there is an ever-rolling “Breaking News” bar. It also gave rise to the era of the “political commentator”, people like Bill O’Reilly who are not journalists but give that impression and who can, because they are not journalists, rather commentators, act as mouthpieces for network biases. Of course, the liberal media is equally guilty.
The 2016 election cycle has seen the credibility of the mainstream media damaged beyond repair. A series of emails belonging to high-ranking Democratic National Committee personnel and leaked by Wikileaks showed that Hillary Clinton has close ties to several major networks including ABC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, PBS, AP, NYT, NY Post and New Yorker and has used these connections to position friendly news pieces for her political advancement. This removal of a fair and impartial media has meant that the public has been denied access to factual information that is available to the media but that it has chosen not to share. This, obviously, has taken away the public’s ability to think critically about major events, form individual opinions and act accordingly. There was no clearer example of this than in a batch of emails leaked by Wikileaks which indicated that while Hillary Clinton was acting as Secretary of State ambassadorial positions overseas were sold to the highest bidder. This should have been a major news story but was ignored by the media, who we now know are influenced by Clinton, and instead stories about a Donald Trump sex scandal dominated these outlets for days hugely damaging his reputation and election prospects.
At this point many readers will be furious at my focus on Hilary Clinton in the last paragraph and say that Trump deserves to have his reputation damaged. He does – if these reports are true. As of now, they are unsubstantiated rumour presented as news by Clinton-influenced media outlets. And love Donald Trump or hate him, everyone should worry about the next president (assuming that it is Clinton) of the USA having that kind of control over the media. It is a very slippery slope to totalitarianism from there. FaceBook and Twitter have not been immune from accusations of blacklisting conservative viewpoints. A report in NewsWeek suggests that staff responsible for curating news for Facebook routinely suppress or omit conservative news stories. Added to this manipulation of the news, a recent study by Columbia University and The French National Institute found that the majority of news being shared on social media sites such as FaceBook was recommended by a peer and of these links, 59% were shared without ever having been read. Essentially, people were sharing news and opinion that they claimed affiliation with without having read it, meaning that people are now more prone to group-think than ever before.
For many, a default position in this 2016 US election has become “Whatever about Clinton’s actions, Trump did much worse” or “Hillary may be corrupt, but Trump is a Nazi”. This is a false equivalence and symptomatic of uncritical and black and white thinking. Yes, you can be a liberal who may never vote for Trump but still hold your own party candidate to the highest moral standard. But this state of affairs exists because outrage is now the de rigueur response to anything social or political. This is, of course, the result of years of seeing partisan “political commentators” shout loudly on network news in place of respectful discussion of the facts. Outrage and volume level are taken as indicators of correctness in the place of well-researched and -argued positions. This practice now dominates on social media also and in an era of prolonged liberal political rule with liberal bias firmly entrenched in education and in the media it is not surprising to see the rise of the SJWs, the extreme and unreasonable voice that needs to shout loudest and be most outraged of all. The problem is, in this current climate of loud noises and group-think, they wield disproportional influence.
Because the mainstream media and social media networks are actively and deliberately eroding critical thinking and communication skills, two of the bedrocks of all stable western democracies, it is essential that schools protect and promote these skills. The price for not doing this will be increased extremism, hate and violence.
For practical ideas on how to foster constructive communication and critical thinking skills in your school, scroll to the bottom of this and this post.