Don’t Be Intimidated into Silence

By Jim Tonkowich Published on November 5, 2018

Back in January 2017, just after Donald Trump’s inauguration, a Facebook post proudly displayed a photo of a TV playing to an empty room. Trump’s inauguration was on and a professor at a prominent law school was boasting that no student would lower him or herself to watch. They were all, he implied, 100% committed to the progressive agenda — that is, to his agenda.

Hmmm. A big law school and no one watched the Trump inauguration? Sounds fishy.  

Were these law school students who have no interest in politics? Yeah, right. Many live for politics. Were they law school students with no curiosity about Mr. Trump’s agenda? Again, it’s unlikely. And even students who hated Trump needed to watch for ammunition to denigrate the president and crack politically correct jokes.

So how do we explain the empty room?

Students watched on laptops, tablets, smart phones, or TVs in private places far from the prying eyes and camera of their very, very progressive professor. Why would they risk his disapproval? That could mean lower grades. And low grades in law school have long-term professional and financial ramifications. Trump voters and conservatives in the student body, were (and are) simply smart enough to lay low and keep quiet.

Survey Finds Students Are Intimidated In Sharing Contradictory Beliefs

That story came to mind while reading The Wall Street Journal’s James Freeman’s “Best of the Web” column a couple weeks ago. Freeman sites a survey of undergraduates by McLaughlin & Associates on behalf of Yale’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program.

According to the survey, when asked if “any professors or course instructors that have used class time to express their own social or political beliefs that are completely unrelated to the subject of the course,” 52% answered, “Often.”

Freeman notes, “A majority—53%—also reported that they often ‘felt intimidated’ in sharing their ideas, opinions or beliefs in class because they were different from those of the professors.” And 54% felt intimidated about expressing their ideas, opinions or beliefs to their peers if there was risk of disagreement.

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What a way to go through college: afraid, intimidated, unable to say what you believe and, as a result, isolated. Students choose between remaining silent or dishonestly and cynically spouting the party line for the sake of a grade.

“American academicians,” Freeman concludes, “unfortunately appear to be just as political and overbearing as one would expect.” Once you give up on reason and honest debate — something many academics have done — the only thing left is power and intimidation.

Students, of course, understand that and play the game. But for many the sentiments only run as deep as the inkjet print on their term papers.

Suffering From Silence

As Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann observed in The Spiral of Silence, because we fear social isolation, we will echo the loudest and presumably most dominant opinions rather than risk rejection by expressing contrary opinions.

The long-term results on the minds and spirits of these college students can’t even be guessed. Will they forever “go along to get along” or will the cognitive dissonance and cynicism catch up with them? And if it does, what happens next?

Of course, it’s not just college students who are stuck in this mess.

Now that the U. S. Department of Justice has jumped into the investigation of sexual abuse and cover up by Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, they will without doubt find that many knew and disapproved, but no one said anything for fear of reprisal. Up to now a young priest calling out a homosexual bishop has been a career killer. Perhaps that’s about to change.

And we could see the result of what used to be called “the silent majority” in the midterm elections. Political polls at this point may have the same difficulty as religious polls: people say what they think the pollster wants to hear. So while Democrats are salivating over a House majority and more Senate seats, I wouldn’t count on it. No one is looking in the voting booth. People can choose without fear privately and say the opposite publicly.

Speak Out

The classic tale of intimidation into silence is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Andersen wrote, “Everyone in the streets and the windows said, ‘Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!’ Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool.” Until a child, unafraid of the opinions of others, noted that the emperor was naked. Suddenly everyone else noticed that too.

Our culture is increasingly filled with lies. In truth the arguments are risible, the posturing is pretentious nonsense, and the emperor has no clothes.

How should we respond? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian novelist who lived from 1918 to 2008, spoke out against communism and raised awareness of the Soviet Union’s Gulag forced labor camps. He summed it up for all men and women of good will: “You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

Be not afraid.

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