“Groupthink” – Enemy of Civil Discourse

“Groupthink”—Enemy of Civil Discourse

By Donald Shoemaker

I taught for many years at a Christian university with conservative theological convictions. Professors were expected to accept and advocate these convictions.  Requiring adherence to this theology meant a modification of “academic freedom” and the institution was up front about this expectation

[see footnote on limits to Academic Freedom].

At the same time, an academic institution with a religious creed has to be careful. It can lead to closedminded “Groupthink” on theology and even other topics. I’ve been in clergy organizations that not only agreed on some points of theology but so impaled themselves on a point along the political spectrum that one would be excluded (or at least feel excluded) if he didn’t embrace the group’s political viewpoint as well as its theology.

My key point is this: What conservative theological schools and churches do openly and honestly is often done by other institutions—academic or publishing especially—without them really admitting it.

I attended a professional conference at a prestigious university with religious affiliation. While I was hardput to find the spirituality of that religion evident on campus, leftism was easy to spot. I walked past a long row of faculty offices. The faculty seemed to be competing to see who could plaster the most leftwing political statements on office doors. If I hadn’t known better and couldn’t read, I might have thought I was looking at classroom doors of a nursery school. I actually asked a faculty member if there were any conservatives on the faculty. I’ve heard ratios of 1 to 11, conservative to liberal, on secular campuses—even that statistic might be too low in reality.

This non-conservative religious campus was infected with “Groupthink”.

Newspapers? I was a guest at a luncheon of newspaper reporters. The conversation around the table was entirely leftist—so much so that the reporter who invited me later apologized, maybe fearing I couldn’t handle it. These reporters were infected with “Groupthink” and I fear that, no matter how objective one tries to be, the ethos of the newsroom has got to have an influence. A widely embraced way of thinking becomes the “norm” and serves as a lense through which information is received and evaluated.

Campuses, unfortunately, are fertile soil for “Groupthink” because they (students, but especially faculty) become insular. That’s when we speak of a “[name of institution] bubble!”

The recent blow-up at the Berkeley campus of the University of California over outrageous libertarian Milo Yiannopoulos (his speaking event was cancelled) should alarm anyone who believes that robust free speech is an essential element of a truly liberal education as well as a constitutional right. That the speaker happened to be a gay conservative seemed to make the event especially leprous to the violent protesters. He violated the mold, so opposition must be extra virulent.

Disruption (the “heckler’s veto”) is another enforcement of “Groupthink.”

Public schools? “Public education partisanship has radicalized… As identity politics and critical theory have spread from the universities downward into high schools and beyond, the party line in education has grown more progressive but increasingly illiberal. The result is a militant bureaucratic approach, using schools to push revolutionary cultural ideas and political change” (Long Beach Press-Telegram editorial, February 8, 2017).

Alternative religious schools are viewed as narrow and sectarian. Truth is, they offer an alternate indoctrination (which they admit to) contrasted with the indoctrination of the public schools (which they would not admit). The religious schools acknowledge the “Groupthink.” The public schools that fit the profile above would be places of “Groupthink” without fessing up to it.

If we are to get past the rancor and rejection and stereotyping and polarization we are seeing more and more today, we must reject “Groupthink”.   We must start engaging in mutual understanding, genuine dialogue and efforts to find as many commonalities as possible, even as we honestly recognize our differences after giving a fair listen to the other side.

FOOTNOTE: “Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.” (American Association of University Professors, “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure”)


Reprint (with slight edits) of Guest Commentary in the Long Beach Press-Telegram (February 26, 2017)

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