Last March, protestors at Middlebury College in Vermont sent professor Allison Stanger to the hospital with a neck injury. Stanger’s crime? She had the nerve to ask the protestors to allow the conservative/libertarian author Dr. Charles Murray to speak, and then to engage in a debate after his speech.
According to news accounts, after about 20 minutes of protestors shouting down Murray’s ability to speak, “Professor Stanger then took the microphone and asked the students, ‘Can you just listen for one minute.’ Many in the audience replied, ‘no.’ She added that, ‘I spent a lot of time preparing hard questions.’ Finally, she conceded that, ‘You’re not going to let us speak.’”
Stanger is a liberal professor who chose to combat Murray’s ideas with words, not violence or the heckler’s veto. This was simply unacceptable to the protestors.
After moving to another location on campus, Stanger and Murray were confronted when attempting to leave following their discussion. What followed was minutes of pushing and shoving, and “(w)hen Stanger tried to shield Murray, according to a Middlebury spokesman, a protester grabbed her hair and twisted her neck.” Stanger ended up going to a hospital where she received a neck brace to treat her injuries.
Over the last year and a half, we’ve witnessed a rash of accounts of college campuses being turned into riot zones by Leftist protestors hoping to shut down conservative or libertarian speakers. Middlebury is just one, and far from the worst , of such examples.
These protestors would rather incite violence than listen to a viewpoint that challenges their own.
The War on Curiosity
Why is the Left so afraid of an opposing opinion? How do they justify resorting to violence to shut down a dissenting voice rather than engaging in debate?
One such explanation is the war on curiosity.
This war is engaged by anyone without the faintest interest in learning about political philosophies, economic theories or moral principles that challenge their existing worldview.
Are you a soldier in the war on curiosity? Take this litmus test:
How do you react when presented with new information or a viewpoint that contradicts your beliefs?
If the revelation stimulates your intellect and makes you thankful for the chance to expand your knowledge and gain a better understanding of an opposing position, you have the gift of curiosity. You welcome the opportunity to challenge your beliefs with this new information, a process that may enable you to more strongly confirm the justness of your belief and sharpen your argument in favor of it. Or, if the new viewpoint is persuasive enough, you alter your belief, owing a debt of gratitude to the one who opened your eyes.
On the other hand, if you react with anger, anxiousness or a general feeling of being threatened, you are likely allowing your emotions to snuff out your intellectual curiosity.
Social psychologists, writing in a 2017 LA Times article , described such reactions as “motivated ignorance.” People engaging in motivated ignorance “neither know — nor want to know — what the opposition has to say.”
Indeed, in one study cited by the authors, “people we surveyed said they anticipated getting angry if they were to listen to the other side, and suspected that it might damage their relationship with the person spouting off.”
Those who are not curious close themselves off to other views. Over time, they can’t figure out how any normal human being could possibly think differently than they do on political issues. Sinister motives, or stupidity, must be the only explanation. This is where the nastiness comes in. If one disagrees, surely they must be evil, dumb, racist or transphobic.
And because those who are not curious become convinced the other side is some sort of cartoonish villain, the uncurious feel compelled to not just ignore opposing viewpoints, but to silence them. Nobody should feel the indignity of being exposed to such “hate speech,” they’ll reason.
Using Shaming or Bullying to Silence
Violence is the most extreme and dangerous tactic in the war on curiosity, but far from the only one.
Safe spaces offer protection for those who feel threatened by opposing viewpoints. There are campuses that offer mental health counseling to students who cannot bear “even the thought of an individual coming to campus” to express non-politically correct views. That the mere thought of someone with opposing views setting foot on your campus can threaten your mental health takes motivated ignorance to the Nth degree.
Public shaming or bullying is another popular tactic. Anyone who disagrees with a Leftist is obviously a racist, or homophobe or a tool of the rich and therefore must be discredited through name-calling. Why bother with debate when mindlessly dismissing other viewpoints as “not worthy” of discussion is so much easier, and empowering? After all, moral authority is valuable currency in the Left’s desire to gain the top slot in our social hierarchy, and demonizing opponents has proven to be a more convenient route than open debate of ideas.
Leftists Tend to be More Uncurious of Opposing Views
To be sure, the war on curiosity is being waged by people of all political stripes. However, Leftists seem to be outgunning their opponents when it comes to motivated ignorance. Indeed, social scientist Jonathan Haidt in his book “ The Righteous Mind” reported on a study which found “clear and consistent” results that “(m)oderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions” when people of varying political bents were tested on how well they understood their ideological opposites.
In other words, Leftists don’t understand their opponents’ views as well as their opponents understand theirs.
When is the last time you heard of a Leftist speaker being shut down by violent protestors?
The Role of Confirmation Bias
Enabling this war is confirmation bias – the strong tendency in us to interpret all new information through the lens of our prior beliefs. Whatever your political philosophy is, you can easily immerse yourself into media outlets, social media and internet content that exclusively reaffirm your convictions. One can comfortably spend hours a day consuming political information without once encountering a differing viewpoint.
Moreover, most Americans can go thru thirteen years of public education, plus four or more years in university, and never be confronted with a viewpoint counter to the orthodox Leftist vision of government as benevolent dispenser of justice.
Lack of exposure to other viewpoints may help explain why so many Leftists can muster no greater argument than “shut up, racist.”
The war on curiosity serves only to dumb down political debate. Non-Leftist viewpoints get silenced, while progressive arguments need never be thoroughly presented because intimidation and name-calling prove much easier and satisfyingly self-righteous. History proves such trends lead to ugly outcomes.
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Contributed by Brian Balfour of Mises Institute.