A while back, I had the opportunity to attend a senior retreat at a Catholic school. Many readers may remember their own retreat experiences as high school seniors. It is truly a transformative experience for many, both students and leaders alike. While many of the retreatants were Catholic, some were not, yet they participated along with everyone else, and it's always a good time.
Keeping in mind the diversity of the retreatants, we decided to hold a brief Q & A session, to allow students to ask questions about the Catholic Church. Normally, it works very well and is both fun and informative. Along with our retreat's priest chaplain, I ran that session a couple of times. The first time was great, and we all learned a lot about the Church and each other. A year and a half ago, we got ambushed.
A girl raised her hand and pertly asked why the Church does not permit same-sex marriage. Both the priest and I gave the standard Catholic response, but she wasn't having it, and suddenly we had a mob of bullies on our hands, shouting and insulting and being spectacularly rude and intolerant. The crime? Speaking about the Church's teaching on homosexuality and marriage. But the group didn't stop there. Since I had spoken about the Church's teaching, I was now a bad person, and one boy started picking away at the wording of a speech I had given an hour earlier. He could now delegitimize me and demonize me for my Thoughtcrime, and he was determined that I would be punished. Never mind that up to that point, I had a perfectly normal relationship with him. No longer. I was now a homophobe, a religious bigot and an extremist tool of the One Percent.
Therefore, when I read Kirsten Powers' The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech, I understood what happened last year on retreat. I suddenly realized that these kids were doing exactly what Powers talks about in her book: ganging up on someone they disagree with, delegitimizing them and demonizing them.
The premise of the book is perhaps nothing new. I've written about similar issues right here at the Artful Catholic, and many other writers have done the same thing. Basically, she shines a very bright light on a very ugly side to the liberal, or rather, illiberal mindset, showing their intolerance for all to see. Powers, herself a lifelong liberal Democrat, is quick to make an important distinction, that those who engage in this kind of intolerance are in fact an insult to liberals and are in fact, illiberal. I think that is an important distinction to make, and it goes to the heart of her argument. Disagreement is not wrong. Disagreement is healthy and normal. It is through a rigorous debate, therefore, between differing sides that people can learn and grow and become truly tolerant. That's the ideal. Powers and I would likely disagree on many things, but I'm entirely with her on this one.
In the book, she takes the reader through dozens of examples of illiberal intolerance, often against other liberals. Early in the book, for example, she talks about the way CNN's Campbell Brown, a lifelong liberal, was delegitimized after she dared to "challenge teacher tenure rules that protect underperforming teachers" (21).
Teachers unions and their illiberal left allies quickly deemed Brown public enemy number one. Rather than debating Brown and challenging her arguments, the illiberal left began a delegitimizing campaign. Brown was no longer an accomplished woman, nor was her desire to improve the education system sincere. No, she was a nefarious right-wing bimbo under the control of conservative men lurking in the background (21-22)
And you should read what the illiberal left has to say about conservative women such as Michelle Malkin. You'll have to buy Powers' book to read that one.
Powers also highlights the treatment of Emily Yoffe, a liberal feminist, who challenged the statistic that one in five women would be raped during their four years of college. Pointing out the far-fetched nature of that statistic (which was originally limited to one or two campuses, not to all of them), Yoffe was attacked on Twitter and called a "rape apologist." "She was accused of 'perpetuating rape culture' while one user asked if her son was 'a serial rapist or something.' Alexandra Brodsky, the founding co-director of Know Your Title IX, wrote at Feministing that Yoffe was a 'rape denialist' and Tweeted, 'There is a special place in hell for women who are Emily Yoffe'" (184-185).
Powers' book is filled with these shocking examples and more, bringing to light a frightening trend that silences speech and shuts down any sort of debate. One point that I thought was particularly brilliant was Powers' observation that so many of these unhinged college students come from a generation of kids that were coddled and pampered and bubble-wrapped. This was the generation where everyone got a trophy, even if you didn't play. This is the generation that has been so protected that they automatically view dissent as harm. To quote Hollywood, "they can't handle the truth."
Naturally, there are many young people who can handle the truth. One such young woman is Thrin Short, a teenaged pro-life activist. Powers details the physical assault on Short by UCSB professor Mireille Miller-Young, who objected to Short's anti-abortion signs depicting aborted fetuses, and in fact, was absolutely unapologetic, citing that these signs were upsetting and harmful (70). So rather than engage the teen in a debate, which could have been friendly and interesting, Miller-Young lashed out with violence and destruction of personal property. The kicker is, as Powers points out, the university supported Miller-Young, even after she had been convicted of battery and theft.
Dr. Stephanie Batiste, an associate professor in UCSB's Department of Black Studies and English, expressed sympathy with Miller-Young's reaction to the activists, reimagining the bullying that ended in a physical altercation as a simple and understandable outgrowth of Miller-Young's 'kindness combined with her commitment to justice'...Miller-Young is so 'kind' that she has never directly apologized to the girl she attacked, or to the students she intimidated and mocked and attempted to silence' (73).
We don't all need to agree on everything, when it comes right down to it. I have many conservative friends, but I also have many liberal, even radical friends. We may not see eye-to-eye on politics or religion, but we can still peacefully coexist. And we should be able to engage in a healthy discussion on these sensitive topics, with respect and with open minds.
This is why Powers' book is such an important read. If disagreement is viewed as hostility, to be answered only with ad hominem attacks, then there is no discussion, no authentic debate. If we can't respectfully disagree, then how can we learn from each other? If we can't be proven erroneous, or prove someone else to be erroneous, then what do we become? If we are bullied into silence by demagoguery, then when are we free to speak our minds? This Orwellian trend is reminiscent of dictatorships where "Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death" (Orwell, 1984). This uniformity of thought turns us into drones, too afraid to have an independent opinion.
How many of you feel like you have to whisper in corners because your opinions might be slightly (or very) conservative? How many of you are reluctant to admit that you listen to Rush Limbaugh because you agree with what he says? Even if you are liberal, how many of you might not mention that you watch Fox News? By the way, Powers points out that 30% of Fox viewers are Democrats. How many of you might even fear for your job security if you post a conservative article on Facebook, or Favorite a conservative tweet on Twitter? If that's you, then you must read this book because you'll see that you are not alone.
At the end of her book, Powers rightly suggests that "we should all make efforts to invite people who hold different views into our worlds. Contrary to popular thought, familiarity doesn't breed contempt. It breeds understanding and tolerance" (202). This book is a starting point for people of all political and religious views, and once you've read it, you might just be inspired to fight against this silencing, for everyone's sake.
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Culture is all around us, in the city, the country, everywhere. We see it from the old world and the new, and as Catholics, we have a rich tradition of developing Western culture throughout our history.