Polarized thinking, victimhood, and the problems of rational debate.

My attention was caught last week by an article  involving a student at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, who felt that he was being victimized by a sermon in the university chapel on  1 Corinthians 13. For those not familiar with it, it’s the chapter of the Bible you often hear quoted at Christian weddings about the importance of love. According to the university president, “It appears that this young scholar felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love. In his mind, the speaker was wrong for making him, and his peers, feel uncomfortable.”

Amhirst College (Credit Daily Beast)
Amherst College Demonstration: Let’s all take a selfie. Credit: Daily Beast.

It’s a long time since I’ve been a religious believer, and I don’t share many of the stated opinions of the university president, (especially when the subsequent radio interview gets to Syrian refugees) but it’s hard to think of a chapter less likely to victimize anyone.

So what’s going on?

Again to quote the university president, ‘“I’m not making this up. Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic. Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them “feel bad” about themselves, is a “hater,” a “bigot,” an “oppressor,” and a “victimizer.” ’

I had recently read an article about three students at Amherst College in the US going on a hunger strike, demanding that the university college administrators find who had distributed a flyer proclaiming the death of free speech at a different university.  (The other university was Ole Miss – the University of Mississippi). Someone was also claimed to have plastered over “Black lives matter” posters at Amherst with anti-abortion and “All lives matter” posters. The students at Amherst want administrators to subject the perpetrators to mandatory sensitivity training.  I’m not joking. (Ironically, given the comments above about students being narcissistic and self-absorbed, the Daily Beast’s  photograph of the Amherst demonstrations appears to show about a third of the students ether taking selfies or photographing other demonstrators. (See above.)

If there are racial discrimination problems at Ole Miss, they should be investigated and fixed (although Ole Miss seems a historically hard case). Society has fixed a lot of racial discrimination problems over the last fifty years, and the task (sadly) will probably be going on for decades to come. But it’s not like the students at Amherst have no voice.  And it’s not as if students haven’t been plastering posters over each other’s posters since before time began. Social media allows almost every group to publicize its views and students have demonstrated over lots of things for as long as I can remember.

But a hunger strike is different. A hunger strike is basically a threat to commit suicide in slow motion.  Irish Republican Army prisoners used it against the British in the 1980s. It’s a tactic normally reserved for the gravest of causes.  And now a hunger strike is being deployed over the rights or otherwise of someone to distribute a leaflet on one campus about whether free speech is dying on a different campus. And because some other student group stuck a leaflet over the top of yours.  Anyone see any irony here?

At the same time, I’m seeing more and more articles, websites and Facebook posts assuming that there are only two sides to any question, and that if you disagree with someone else’s position you must be a bigot or a hater. Expressions like, “You’re just part of the PC brigade,” or “You’re an islamophobe,” or ‘You’re a tree hugger.”I don’t know about you, but on most political religious or other social issues I could generally think of four, five, or six positions that might be possible. For example, I can think of six possible positions on abortion. Right now, I’m just going to rattle them off to illustrate that point. I don’t really care if you agree or disagree with any of them, but here they are:

  • life begins at fertilization, so even IUDs or the morning after pill are an abortifacient,
  • life begins at implantation, so IUDs are ok, but abortion after that that isn’t OK,
  • abortion is OK up to the feus being pain-capable,
  • abortion is OK up to viability,
  • abortion is OK up to viability but after that abortion is OK only in cases of serious fetal deformities, or
  • abortion is OK anytime.

(If you’re Australian and wondering why I included (i) and (ii), google the US Hobby Lobby court case.)

Similarly, I can think of at least five positions on climate change, or whether there is any inherent tendency in Islam for jihadist-style violence. To save space I’ll put them in footnotes [1] [2].

Ali Rivzi, who spent part of his younger years  in Saudi Arabia, wrote an article for The Huffington Post addressed to Muslims about scriptural inerrancy. Rivzi started his article with a list of things he wasn’t saying. Why? Because debates of just about any policy issue now involve participants ‘reading things into’ just about anything by just about everyone. If people have to spend half their time defending themselves about things they’ve never said in the first place, this just about kills any hope of rational discussion.

Combine (i) the belief that no one should ever be offended with (ii) the belief that claiming offendedness is a trump card in discussions, with (iii)   the tendency to claim victim status (on behalf of yourself or a third party who you want to defend) (iv) assuming that there are only two possible positions on anything and we have a recipe for disaster.

It might be time universities introduced a couple of subjects for all undergraduates on logic, reasonable argument, logical fallacies, and forcing students to identify multiple positions on different questions. At the university I’m most familiar with, one subject on logic is taught in the Maths department, and deals only with mathematical proofs, and there is one subject  at first year level in philosophy on reasoning and logic. This subject is not compulsory.  Humanities and Social Science students can do an entire arts degree without specifically studying these things as a separate subject. I suggest this needs to change.

And I think people need to stop assuming that there are only two positions on anything, and that if your opponent doesn’t agree with you, he or she must have the polar opposite view.

[Edit note: a section relating to claims by Sam Harris on the motives of suicide bombers has been removed after I discovered writings by Robert Pape, of the University of Chicago, that contradicted Harris. See footnote four below. I will make that disagreement the subject of a separate blog post in the near future if possible.]



[1] Here are five possible positions on climate change: (i) it’s all bullshit. It’s a conspiracy to get government funding for pet research projects, (ii) there is a natural cycle of ice ages and reversals and we’re just coming out of a cold cycle, (iii) same as (ii), but human activity might be heightening it, (iv) human activity is the main cause of global warming and we need to fix it now, or (v) science will find a way to enable us to live and we’ll just learn to deal with it. Remember, I’m not (in this post) advocating any of those positions, I’m simply illustrating that there are more than two positions.)

[2] And here are five possible positions on Islam and terrorism: (i) Islam is an inherently violent religion (in which case, what do you say about Indonesia?), (ii) It’s the product of European errors in drawing national boundaries in the 1920s, (iii) it’s the product of social disadvantage (say, in France),  (iv) it’s due to the influence of Wahhabism  and Saudi Arabian money around the world,  and (v) it’s vastly over rated compared to white supremacist and non-religious violence, at least in the US. Remember, I’m not (in this post) advocating any of those positions, I’m simply illustrating that there are more than two positions.

I’m not concerned here about which of these is correct. All I’m doing is illustrating that multiple positions are possible.

[3] Also, for the record, the Muslim community in Ballarat have the same rights to build a mosque  as a bunch of Buddhists would have to build a temple, and yes, we should accept some of the Syrian refugees, and to me the ‘Reclaim Australia’ bunch look and sound like crazy people. Ditto Donald Trump’s outbursts in the last week about banning Muslim immigration.]

[4] Robert Pape, at the University of Chicago, maintains a database on terrorist suicide attacks and claims to correlate the number of attacks in various countries with the extent of foreign troop presence in that country, claiming that this demonstrates that most suicide attacks are not theologically motivated. See here.