Do Colleges Teach ‘Cheap Dodges’ to Debate & Discussion?

Earlier this fall I was honored to be invited to guest blog at the Volokh Conspiracy and in my first post I wanted to explore whether readers think, as I argue in my book, that college censorship teaches “cheap dodges” to meaningful debate and discussion. Here is my longer explanation, but I’d love to hear what Ricochet readers think:

One theme that I started to develop in the book that I hope to explore further in future writing is how higher education legitimizes and hones what I call “cheap dodges” to debate and discussion. Probably the most well-worn of these campus dodges is the claim of being “offended” by certain speech, but other tactics exist, including the related concept of “feigned outrage.”

In illustrating what my friend and Brookings Institution scholar Jonathan Rauch likes to call the “offendedness sweepstakes,” I draw on a number of examples from popular culture, including the whole kerfuffle around Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke, and other controversies involving Bill Maher, Sarah Palin, and, most ridiculously, Robert DeNiro and Callista Gingrich [check out that story, here].

I also identify cheap dodges that I have run into, both in law school and later on in my work with FIRE. I refer to them as “selective relativism” (the ability of some students to be morally absolutist at one moment and relativist the next, depending on whether it allows them to short circuit a debate they don’t like) and “selective uptightness” (similar to selective relativism, of course). For an illustration of the latter, check out this wacky story about an incident at Cornell involving Margaret Cho and a forbidden font. Yes, a forbidden font.

[Therefore] I have two questions for you:

1) If you do agree that we as a society have become too adept at using cheap dodges to avoid meaningful debate, what do you think the most common of these tactics are?

and

2) Do you think our colleges and universities are doing a good job of teaching students to avoid these easy outs, or are they in fact encouraging them?

Of course, if you don’t think the use of easy tactics to avoid debate is currently part of a societal trend, please let me know. I’m looking forward to your responses!

  1. Innocent Smith

    Yes I do, and Yes I do.  Probably one of the most ridiculous classes I ever took was called “interpersonal communications,” and I’m not even sure what the point of the class actually was.  The teacher was extremely liberal, and just used the time to harp on personal issues.  One class period we did nothing but watch a PETA propaganda video about the fur industry.  There was no discussion, and certainly no discussion that would have been open to a conservative viewpoint.  The class could almost be summed up as a semester-long lesson in liberal outrage.  And that was at Montana Tech!!  I can only imagine the sorts of classes you get at far more liberal institutions.

  2. Dr Steve

    I see this trend, and worry. Two examples from teaching college-level history classes: (1) student begins statement with “this is just my opinion, of course, but . . . “; and (2) “I don’t want to get us off track, but . . .”.

    In the first case, the student was seeking to participate in the class (and get the “participation” points) without actually grappling with the issue then under discussion. In the second, the student was, in fact, trying to get us off track. Both were examples of behaviors that waste time, energy, and patience, but which “seem” to be participation in the discussion. Without evidence, I blame parents and earlier teachers, who encourage comment no matter how pointless, and may even have taught the terrible lesson that “all opinions (or worse, feelings) are equally valid.”

  3. Schrodinger

    Colleges do not teach students how to think or defend their positions. The students learn the “cheap dodge” by necessity or by watching others use it to avoid or shut down unwanted questions. The technique is given the imprimatur of legitimacy by the reliance of politicians, journalists and academics on the technique. I would bet that if you asked students your questions, they would consider the technique a legitimate debating tool.

    I would say the most frequently used dodges are:

    1) ad hominem attacks;

    2) reversal – i.e. accusing the other side of what you are doing.

  4. Mike H

    Mainstream Liberal argument, as opposed to the rare breed, the “honest liberal,” requires the “cheap dodge.”

    My favorite instance that I’ve recently discovered is the liberal intellectual’s appeal to authority. I was in a debate with someone where I was pointing out the incorrectness of their positions. Eventually this caused him to throw up his arms and declare that he had his “experts” that he liked, and I must of had different experts that I liked. His position was that “experts” were the best source of knowledge and any other argument was merely “guessing,” automatically inferrer to an expert’s position.

    This way he was impervious to my application of logic, which baffled and frustrated me. 

  5. Modus Ponens
    Schrodinger’s Cat: Colleges do not teach students how to think or defend their positions. The students learn the “cheap dodge” by necessity or by watching others use it to avoid or shut down unwanted questions. The technique is given the imprimatur of legitimacy by the reliance of politicians, journalists and academics on the technique. I would bet that if you asked students your questions, they would consider the technique a legitimate debating tool.

    I would say the most frequently used dodges are:

    1) ad hominem attacks;

    2) reversal – i.e. accusing the other side of what you are doing. · 2 minutes ago

    Not to mention Appeals to Authority which are frequently used and can take many forms. One of my pet peeves is the use of quotes as a way to end and argument, rather than to support it. Jonah Goldberg’s book, “The Tyranny of Cliches”, was a very enjoyable read for just that reason. I agree with you that many of the people who use these fallacious arguments do so because they are exposed to it ad nauseum. I would recommend, from personal experience, that every college student take a class that requires the use of logic.

  6. OSweet

    Relatedly: At a Barnes and Noble yesterday, I picked up and skimmed through George Lakoff’s latest, a pocket-sized scripturesque offering called the Little Blue Book. Contained instructions on what progressives should say to prevail in political arguments. Engage in good-faith exchanges? No. Instead, always cast the leftist’s argument in the best absolute light, viz. generosity and compassion, and the counterargument in the worst absolute light, viz. sternness and paternalism. 

    Wouldn’t the liberal ideal call for acknowledging opposing arguments in a fair manner and sympathizing with them as valid and legitimate before critiquing them and presenting your own position as better?

  7. KC Mulville

    Rhetoric is one of my favorite topics, and the sad state of public rhetoric is one of my deepest regrets. 

    I’m convinced that the decline in rhetoric is tied to an ever shorter attention span (or better, patience span). We want answers instantly. We favor the short answer (the quip, zinger, or gotcha answer) instead of the longer argument. That draws us to emotional shortcuts, which usually depend on stereotypes and pre-packaged biases. Why lay out an argument when you can pull people to your side by appealing to their biases?

    That should be the opposite of “study” … which implies a long process of research and dealing with multiple perspectives. But that’s a glaring weakness in our formal education these days. Too much of the current classroom is where the teacher presents his personal point of view, and the student is graded a success only when he can repeat and regurgitate that perspective. The students subconsciously learn how to give the teacher emotional affirmation instead of developing intellectual self-sufficiency.

  8. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    This all great. Please keep it coming. I really want to think more on this as I watch how we use dodges as sort of a portable bubble to bring our echo chambers with us even when we leave them.

    I have been talking a lot in speeches about the idea of cultivating a sense of intellectual duty to seek out the smart person you disagree with for engagement, but when you so often can’t speak your mind on campus without getting in trouble we are light years away from my quaint little goal!

  9. KC Mulville

    Consider two recent public events, and see how the discussion is distracted.

    1. Benghazi. What started as an attack on a US facility became a lecture about a video, then whether the Obama Administration was given the right analysis from the intelligence community, the Petraeus scandal, and now we’ve just gone through a spell where the conversation was whether we’re being racist in questioning Susan Rice. We’ve discussed everything except any actual response to the attack – it’s been three months, and the Obama Gang hasn’t taken a single step (other than offering empty assurances) to bring anyone to justice. 

    2. Newtown. Apparently, the moment we ban assault weapons, the country can brush off our hands and pat ourselves on the back for having “responded” to the situation.

    It’s pure distraction, and it works by using a standard debating tactic, which is to focus the audience on the arguments you think you can defeat, while ignoring all the ones that would defeat you. 

  10. BlueAnt

    This is deeper than a college level problem.  Our schools are not training up citizens which think about argumentation in rational terms.

    My perspective is a debate nerd’s; I was on a competitive debate team that did teach us formalized rules for arguing.  We learned when a counter-example matters, when it doesn’t, all the logical fallacies, and how to “win” an argument by destroying an opponent’s argument in specific ways.

    (Sure, there are cheap dodges in formalized debate.  We once “won” a debate by pointing out my opponent’s statistics were 5 years older than our own.  It wasn’t a substantive refutation of the position his statistics supported, but we won technical points.)

    Greg, the main difference between true debate and what colleges face is that true debate is rational, while the “offendedness sweepstakes” is emotive.  The problem is schools assume emotional arguments are equal in worth to rational arguments.

    It always galls me when people think that someone feeling bad is an ironclad argument against a thing.  It’s how hypocrisy comes to be treated as worse than bad policy; and it is how rights become subordinated to minority outrage.

  11. Merina Smith

    One favorite tactic of the left is avoiding debate altogether by semantic tricks.  I noticed this especially here in CA during the Prop 8 trauma of 2008.  They first tried to short circuit everything by saying the question was all about “marriage equality.”  But of course, equality means nothing more than treating like things alike. The question is, what are the differences and why are they or are they not relevant?  Many people who don’t think very deeply never get beyond the word “equality,” an overrated word if there ever was one.  Then, of course, they followed this bit of shady trickery with the unclever “h8,” as if people who don’t agree with them are hateful.  Everyone would be much better off if we could have some honest discussion about this and other issues, but the left routinely resorts to such cheap tricks, as was especially evident during the election.  There was no war on anybody and the public was not well-served by Obamaniacs constantly declaring there was, but the irony is that the more such tactics are used, the less people are able to see through them. 

  12. outstripp

    My favorite is “argument by exception.”  If you say men are taller than women, they say, “My Aunt Millie is really tall.”  I answer, “I have a cigarette here that didn’t cause cancer. So what?”

  13. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    Very well put. I also think that something that makes emotive arguments even more effective these days is that part of PC is that you are not allowed question when someone says they are offended or outraged. It leads, in part, to the epidemic of feigned or half-sincere/half-tactical outrage. 

    BlueAnt: 

    Greg, the main difference betweentruedebate and what colleges face is that true debate is rational, while the “offendedness sweepstakes” is emotive.  The problem isschools assume emotional arguments are equal in worth to rational arguments.

    It always galls me when people think that someone feeling bad is an ironclad argument against a thing.  2 hours ago

  14. Goldgeller

    This has been a good thread to read. I’ve been out of college for 4.some years now… so I don’t know what colleges “teach.” Not every class had a lot of discussion– in econ class… we had to learn the graphs and the math. Not a lot of room for debate there.

    If I think about anything in the actual classes, it was the unspoken assumptions of “leftism” in the country– gov’t spending is assumed to be equivalent to helping people as part of the question, inequality was assumed to be bad, people were assumed to make morally wise choices and be their own moral arbiters. People are taught deconstructionism as the only way of reading, as opposed to seeing it as a way of reading.

    It wasn’t so much that the teacher would call you an idiot– it’s just that your countervailing questions simply wouldn’t be understood by the class and the  look bewilderment was enough to give many conservatives pause.

    I can’t think of many  teachers that got into YouTube style arguments or said anything that horrible during class or office hours. It happened once or twice in 4 years.

  15. Goldgeller

    Also, I think people should learn to be “logical” but they also should be encouraged to let the emotional side of their life inform their logic (and the other way around as well). When people become emotional, it can often be a good way to dig deeper into what they are really arguing for or about. Sometimes the intellect will be used to mask something that is a purely emotional response. The drive to be “smart” may cause us to miss a chance to have real meaningful dialogue with a person. 

    Not everyone knows they are doing “dodges.” Some people genuinely confuse emotion and thinking, but are more or less willing to argue in good faith. I don’t think it’s fair to say to someone “set your emotions aside” rather we should encourage them to “set them in their proper place.”

  16. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    I think you (especially KC) may enjoy my final post at Ricochet:  “Schizophrenia about Religion on Campus in 2012: a Christmastime Finale!”

    Let me know what you think.

  17. Front Ranger

    Greg,

    I’m probably too late to this discussion party, but there’s no question you’re onto something here. Cheap dodges are being taught in the universities — and they are being positioned (implicitly through professorial endorsement) as enlightened. 

    One tactic might be called preemptive disqualification. What we rightly see as dodges are championed as necessary offsets to centuries of oppression. White males haven’t played fair, and the only way they can be stopped from oppressing again is to be banished from the discussion. Therefore, your gender and ethnicity may disqualify you from weighing in on a range of issues. Every white male in history falls into the same category and need not be engaged. In one karate-like leg sweep, students are prevented from being well educated in the name of education.

    Another tactic is shame. If you don’t agree on an issue, it’s a sure sign you are ____ (fill in the blank with a bigot, a hater, backward, Hitler’s spawn, etc.).

    Finally, there’s the rights tactic. Whatever an emotional liberal argues for is in fact a right. A selfish desire is thereby made equivalent to the noble desire of slaves seeking emancipation.

  18. BlueAnt
    Greg Lukianoff:

    part of PC is that you are not allowed question when someone says they are offended or outraged.

    I’d be willing to concede every claim of offense, if only the claimants acknowledged the proper priority of those claims, i.e. very low.

    For the sake of completeness (debate nerd instincts kicking in): emotion is not an invalid consideration.  But when dealing with policy, you need a structure rationally designed to enable freedoms while avoiding contradictory regulations.  And a few thousand years of human history tell us that a logically constructed system of rights is better than rule by discretion.

    Forming policies based on emotion–whether offense, anger, or fear–rarely leads to positive outcomes.

    Yet a certain segment of the elite have been taught (or choose to believe) that emotion is a perfectly legitimate basis for rational argumentation.  This shows through every time you hear someone say “Well I just think that X…” as a foundation for some policy.  The resulting structure tends to be as unstable and unpredictable as, well, emotions themselves.

    If you want freedom, get emotion out of policy setting.  If you want tyranny wrought in miniature, allow some administrator to make judgement calls.

  19. Stephen Tielemans

    President Obama fully embraces feigned outrage as a tactic.  Remember the second debate, “And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive” (emphasis added).  Roger Simon called this cheap dodge one of the ugliest displays of narcissism he ever witnessed from a politician and certainly the ugliest if you consider the ramifications of Obama’s behavior.  

    Yet Senator Obama 2007-2008 in “campaign mode” had no problem engaging in the very behavior he later finds offensive:

    March 19, 2008 Fayetteville, North Carolina (underlines added), “This war has now lasted longer than World War I, World War II, or the Civil War. Nearly four thousand Americans have given their lives. Thousands more have been wounded. Even under the best case scenarios, this war will cost American taxpayers well over a trillion dollars. And where are we for all of this sacrifice? We are less safe and less able to shape events abroad. We are divided at home, and our alliances around the world have been strained.”

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