How do you talk with someone who thinks talking itself is an attack? That’s a question that Americans need to ask of our institutions of higher learning.
One great way to worsen our already gaping political divisions is to engage in what Internet chatroom denizens call “nutpicking.” That is, the deliberate search for the “nuts” on either side of the political aisle to use as unflattering representations of opponents.
It should go without saying that nutpicking is unfair and dishonest. After all, we Christians don’t like it when those in the media portray Westboro Baptist members as typical churchgoers. Picking out “nuts” only reinforces false prejudices and makes us less likely to give those we disagree with a fair hearing.
But when it comes to many American college campuses, the nuts seem so plentiful, you practically need a bushel basket—even in the heartland. And they’re peddling ideas that directly contradict what education itself should be.
Take an example: the two professors from the University of Northern Iowa, who recently published an article attacking what they dub “whiteness-informed civility.” These professors claim that civility, as practiced and expected in American higher education, is “a racialized, rather than universal, norm,” and it represents a form of white privilege that “functions to erase racial identity” and exclude people of color.
In other words, treating others with decency and common courtesy is racist. To quote the inimitable Dave Barry, I’m not making this up.
Steve Salerno points out in the Wall Street Journal that this type of nuttery has become all-too-common, especially in the world of collegiate debate. Not just the rules of decorum, but the requirements that students use evidence and reason are increasingly coming “under siege as manifestations of white patriarchal thinking.”
He tells of a formal academic debate final at Towson University in 2014 in which students ignored the resolution on foreign policy to instead give a profanity-laden rant about racism in American society—and they won. Others have won by disregarding time limits, or even challenging the “format, goals and ground rules of debate itself…”
Now, lest we inflame our nut allergies, it’s important to note that a number of influential voices on the left are—thankfully—calling out this silliness. Writing in the New York Times, Frank Bruni, who is no one’s conservative and openly identifies as gay, urged “soul-searching” from his fellow liberals on this issue of civility:
“We’re in a dangerous place,” he wrote, “when it comes to how we view, treat and talk about people we disagree with.” “Madonna fantasizes about blowing up the White House, Kathy Griffin displays a likeness of Trump’s severed head”—and so-called “protests” at UC Berkeley, Evergreen State and Middlebury colleges erupt into violence and property destruction. Over and over during the last two years, places dedicated to civil debate and discourse have transformed into virtual bonfires.
Just last month, Bruni bemoaned an opinion piece that ran in Texas State University’s main newspaper, in which a student wrote to white people, “I hate you … you shouldn’t exist.”
“What has happened to our discourse,” Bruni asks, “and how do we make necessary progress—when hate is answered by hate, prejudice by prejudice, extremism begets extremism and ostensible liberalism practices illiberalism?”
These are all very fair questions. And the answer is clear: We can’t. And things will only get worse and our political divides only deepen until we learn to speak with each other again.
This means that Christians must give up our favorite partisan hobbies, especially nutpicking. It means committing to see those around us as fellow creations of God in need of reconciliation and restoration, not as enemy combatants. And it means that we must never stop proclaiming the truth and getting better ourselves at making the case for that which is true, good and beautiful.
And we ourselves have to demonstrate civility, the willingness to talk instead of fight, even if our ideological opponents disagree.
John Stonestreet is President of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and BreakPoint co-host.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.