Resisting Epistemic Tribalism and Cancel Culture in the Classroom

January 2022

“The idea that obnoxious, misguided, seditious, blasphemous, and bigoted expressions deserve not only to be tolerated but, of all things, protected is the single most counterintuitive social principle in all of human history. Every human instinct cries out against it, and every generation discovers fresh reasons to oppose it. It is saved from the scrapheap of self-evident absurdity only by the fact that it is also the single most successful social principle in all of human history.”

– Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: In Defense of Truth, pp. 18-19

One might assume that since the disvalue of tolerating unpopular views is so intuitively appealing, all defenders of academic freedom need to do to cultivate respect for dissent – along with the associated rights of freedom of thought and freedom of expression – is to overcome this wrongheaded intuition by showing those who have it why they should reject it. Alas, although learning why tolerating dissent is socially valuable is straightforward, creating a climate in higher education in which dissent and viewpoint diversity are esteemed in practice is much more challenging. This is so for two reasons.

The first is the pernicious impact of cancel culture. As Rauch explains, although disputes involving criticisms and those employing canceling, or what he calls “coercive conformity”, both consist in people arguing about something, they otherwise dramatically diverge:

“Criticism expresses arguments or evidence with the goal of influencing opinion through rational persuasion. It belongs to the realm of truth-seeking. Canceling belongs to the realm of propaganda warfare: like other forms of information warfare, it seeks to organize and manipulate a social or media environment to demoralize, deplatform, isolate, or intimidate an adversary.” (The Constitution of Knowledge, p. 218)

For evidence of the affirmation of the techniques of canceling among students consider the 2018 Gallup poll in which 10 percent claimed that violence is an acceptable method for preventing controversial speakers from being heard and 37 percent asserted that it is acceptable to shout down such speakers. One might note that such attitudes are in the minority but concern arises from the impact that a small number of agitators can have on a majority who might disagree with their methods but fear their influence.

According to that same Gallup poll 61 percent of students censor their expression of ideas they fear classmates might find offensive, a number that rose to 68 percent in a 2019 poll commissioned by the Knight Foundation. More and more of our students are self-censoring because they fear social exclusion by classmates who practice, or tacitly support, canceling techniques. This results in what Rauch refers to as “epistemic tribalism”: a state in which the proclivity of individuals to engage in confirmation bias is compounded by the group dynamics of conformity bias, resulting in the sort of echo-chamber effect that inhibits open enquiry and the search for truth and knowledge. Via this path education is corrupted.

The second reason why the goal of promoting respect for dissent is so challenging is that the practice of expressing dissent involves bridging the gap between knowing and doing. It is not enough that we share a conviction that we should support viewpoint diversity, we need the courage of our convictions. The main challenge defenders of academic freedom face is not intellectual; it is motivational. It is one thing to learn some truth about the world; another to act on that truth. Acting requires that our students have courage and faith in the goodwill of their peers. Unfortunately, the impetus of the sort of epistemic tribalism that characterizes cancel culture is to threaten those who question their beliefs, generating the appearance that such acts of resistance will be punished.

The key to emboldening our students to have the courage of their convictions is to dispel the irrational fear that has been wielded so effectively by the agents of cancel culture. For the ideologues who practice the techniques of coercive conformity are extremists, and it is analytic to the concept of “extremism” that they remain in the minority, wielding more the appearance of power rather than actual power. Our, and our students’, tendencies to exaggerate that power evidences our propensity to catastrophize, a propensity we must stolidly combat. Yes, cancelers’ actions are destructive but their efforts have been exacerbated by the poseurs, the obsequious, the apathetic, and the fearful who doubt or reject cancelers’ extremist and confused beliefs but who acquiesce in their harmful ways, thereby adding to the illusion of their influence. This is how irrational fear operates. The cancelers’ ability to intimidate largely depends upon stoking this irrational fear.

We can help our students see through and reject this irrational fear by modeling respect for principled dissent in our classes and courses, thereby exposing as false the assumption that to even entertain dissenting views regarded as offensive, harmful, misguided, obnoxious, and so on, is to court danger and social exclusion. As more and more people embrace the principles of the scientific method and reality-based enquiry, the irrational fear that they will be punished for doing so will dissipate, and as this fear dissipates more will join the side of reason. As teachers and professional academics not only can we lead this movement, but we have a duty to do so. We must remember that since coercive conformists are bad at thinking, their only hope of success is that we turn away from reason and reality-based enquiry and embrace irrational fears.

One specific way in which I model respect for dissent and viewpoint diversity in my classes is by regularly playing a game I call “What’s My Problem?” in which I defend an allegedly erroneous or odious view. The class is charged with displaying the flaw or flaws in my thinking. Sometimes when we play I really do have a problem, that is, I really am defending false beliefs and bad values, but sometimes not. Regardless, the game encourages the critical examination of societal dogmas in a way that depersonalizes the supposed threat (because I am playing a role) and results in attacking a set of ideas rather than the proponent of those ideas. This helps liberate those who are afraid of offending just as it energizes passionate defenders of challenged beliefs, but it does so in a way that shifts the information battleground from the realm of propaganda to the realm of reason and critical enquiry. As a practical way of entertaining and expressing dissent and the sort of allegedly obnoxious, misguided, and bigoted views that Rauch references in the opening quotation, it is a start. It is a step forward.

There is much more to say on this topic but I will conclude with a final piece of practical advice. Apart from repeatedly emphasizing my pedagogical goal of encouraging my students to learn to think and care well for themselves, and apart from modeling the critical examination of ideas in my classes, I try to help set the tone for my courses, all of which honour dissent and the pursuit of enlightenment, by inserting the following brief statement into my outlines. Feel free to use it or amend it for use for your own courses:

Freedom of Thought, Freedom of Expression, and Academic Freedom

Since my main goal is to help you to improve your ability to think and care well for yourself, being regularly engaged in the classes is a fundamental part of the overall learning experience and value of the course. This means that I will be encouraging you to contribute your thoughts to our discussions throughout the term. Unfortunately, in today’s anti-rationalist and cancel-culture climate many people are afraid to express their views on a range of topics, including topics that we will be examining, for fear of offending others, and being mocked and ostracized. Although you should always exercise good judgment in deciding what to say, we have a duty to overcome this fear, to resist this groupthink, and, as always, to have the courage of our convictions. We owe this duty to ourselves, to each other, and to wider society.

Becoming educated is a political act, one that is necessary for becoming an enlightened and responsible citizen. The cult of safetyism that claims that logical arguments and principled dissent are forms of violence, and that some topics are too traumatizing to discuss in public, is not only patronizing; it is also subversive. It has evolved into a tool of cancel culture, one that stigmatizes mature enquiry and rational debate, and that threatens higher education. We must resist this insidious force to pursue the worthy goals of our course. Therefore, I will not be avoiding topics for fear of offending you. Such conduct would be infantilizing. Ours is a course for adults.

We will be welcoming principled dissent because it is only through the ethically regulated contestation of ideas that the truth will out. Those who fear having their ideas exposed to the light of open enquiry are attempting to impose their views by the force of ignorant social coercion. If an idea has merit it will withstand critical scrutiny. This process of revealing the truth and the values that we should care about requires us to exercise our rights to freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and academic freedom. These rights also impose corresponding duties on us to respect the rights of others by listening patiently and compassionately to them. Since our goal is to obtain some enlightenment our classroom spaces should be ones in which all are free to make mistakes and entertain ideas free from scorn and contempt. Remember that we are judging ideas here – not each other – and that to do this well we must consider a range of them. Ours is a dispassionate task that requires that we privilege reason over intuition and the cultivating of rational emotions over irrational ones.