As an English and Philosophy teacher in a public school, I get the opportunity to get into a lot of conversations with students on both current issues and timeless questions.
In these conversations, I have noticed patterns that pop up again and again. It is good for parents and Church leaders to be aware of these patterns so that we (I am a parent myself, in the trenches with you) can respond well to them, shepherding and guiding our kids through them.
In this article, I’d like to point out one of those patterns – the use of social power moves in conversations and online media to persuade.
Actually, not really persuade as much as to simply intimidate into joining the cause or at least not vocally criticize it.
I call these “school lunchroom shaming” techniques. Folks will not try to defeat your ideas and beliefs by argument; instead, they will make certain moves to discredit you socially and shame you so that no one will listen to you and you’ll feel bad about your beliefs.
Other moves in the same boat are designed to make it uncomfortable and awkward for anyone to voice opposition. These techniques are done, again, not as a method of argumentation, but as a pre-emptive strike of sorts to do an end-run around the arguments.
Perhaps some of you have read The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook. If you haven’t you should, because you are missing out.
There is a chapter in that book titled “How to Escape from a Mountain Lion.” When you are in the woods and you come upon a mountain lion, you are supposed to flare out your jacket and stand tall to make yourself look bigger than you really are, in the hopes that the mountain lion will mistake you for a big animal – a bear or something – and leave you alone.
I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never run across a mountain lion, ever, but it’s a good metaphor for what happens often in student interactions.
The progressive/social justice-oriented students will manufacture consensus not through reasoning or the strength of their rational arguments, but through various social and rhetorical maneuvers.
Even if you are a homeschool family and thus your young adults are not in the public school setting, it is good to be aware of these tactics, because your young adults will find themselves in situations where these tactics are used, and if they don’t know what to look for and how to respond to them, they will be vulnerable to them. These realities intimidate and take out a lot of kids in the church.
They will be exposed to them in the movies.
On social media.
In the college classroom.
On the job when they get out into the world.
You get the picture. It’s not a matter of if, but when, so the best response is to directly teach them how to recognize these tactics, why they are shady, and what to do about them.
Prepare them for the challenge ahead.
Exactly how that can be done will be the subject of the next article. For now, let me concretely demonstrate what these moves look like by telling about a recent conversation I observed in the classroom.
In a unit on politics, gender, and culture, the subject of preferred pronouns came up in discussion.
The previous day they had watched a debate on identity politics featuring Douglas Murray and Sylvana Simons, and preferred pronouns came up briefly in the debate. During the student discussion the next day, this was the first thing the students jumped to.
Later in the discussion, I stepped in and asked some deeper questions to try to help them think through the issue more slowly, but for the first ten minutes or so I sat back and just observed and watched the students talk with each other.
There are a handful of students in my class who are very militant and zealous about this issue (there are those kinds of students every semester), and they jumped in immediately with supreme confidence:
“That guy* in the debate was just an idiot and needs to be educated.” (*The speaker the student was referring to was Douglas Murray. He is not lacking for education.)
“If you have a problem with anyone’s preferred pronouns, you need to go back to 8th-grade biology and learn some basic respect to boot.”
One student then proceeded to draw a diagram explaining the difference (as she saw it) between gender and sex, using a patronizing tone of voice as if she was speaking to a group of kindergartners, complete with slow and loud speech and wide eyes.
The vocal ones in this group were all on the pro preferred pronoun side, and they were utterly confident in their assertions as if it was crazy to doubt. They peppered their confident assertions with your garden variety name-calling aimed at anyone who took the other side. Not arguments – just assertions that they were 100% certain about.
This all was pretty effective. Like sheepdogs nipping at the heels of the farm animal pack, they got everyone in line. No one voiced any concern, doubt, skepticism, or opposition to what was said, and heads nodded solemnly in agreement.
Here are some of the tactics they used:
- Talking down to those who are contrary or who are thinking of doubting (“Let me educate you.”), along with a patronizing and sarcastic tone of voice, similar to when Texas beauty pageant moms say, “Oh, bless your little heart!”
- Ad hominems and dismissal through labeling. (“Anyone who doesn’t see this is just plain uneducated.”)
- Extreme confidence in bald assertions, without argument. Acting incredulous when questioned.
- Employing vague and ill-defined, but comforting (or the opposite) sounding buzz words, while smuggling in their own extreme ideological content on the sly: love, hate, ignorance, respect, kindness, etc.
The previously mentioned “uneducated,” for example, doesn’t really mean someone who is really lacking in education as much as it means “this is someone that disagrees with me.” The heavy negative connotation does all the work, though, so most people in these conversations don’t really see that.
George Orwell put his finger on this last one in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” Use good-sounding puff words in the place of argument, and smuggle in the ideological content as a bait and switch on the sly when folks don’t notice. Things like saying, “It’s just a matter of respect. Why would you want to be disrespectful and hurtful? Treat them like you want to be treated.”
The goal of all this is simple: make criticism/disagreement/contrary expressions awkward to express.
They do not want to convince you; they want to shame you into jumping onto the bandwagon of the cause, like the queen bee of the school does in the lunchroom to fellow classmates.
This tactic is incredibly, incredibly effective, mostly because we all want to be highly thought of. We want to appear nice and respectable. This is, dare I say, an idol in middle class America, and in the middle class suburban church.
The world knows this and is able to exploit this desire to its advantage very, very well.
Even for those who claim that they don’t care what anyone thinks and are 100% their own person, we all want to have a reputation to keep up as kind and loving human beings. Someone who is actually okay with being hated is a pretty rare bird.
There’s nothing wrong with respect, kindness, love, etc. The problems are, one, that we want to appear like that and are willing to go to great lengths to protect the rep, and two, social justice-minded folk have injected their own particular ideological content into those words, so the words become synonymous with the extreme ideas they peddle, yet the emotional, connotative content of the original meanings are maintained on the surface.
The question now becomes “how should we respond when we see this happen in conversation? How should we teach our kids to respond?”
That, my friends, will be the subject of the next article. Stay tuned!
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*Contributors: Rich Bordner and Jessica Lovett