Where Are We? by
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Prompted By The Twilight Zone

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"...to escape this deepening Twilight Zone of thoughtless reacting to an imaginary world of maufactured facts."

Whatever happened to intelligent public discourse?  It seems to have disappeared from our contemporary Twilight Zone?  If there is one institution where open discussion and critical argument is to flourish, it is academia, named after the Academy that Plato established in Athens and thriving for 400 years.  The University of California at Berkeley, the birthplace of the student Free Speech Movement, has been embroiled in controversies regarding being a host site for highly politically conservative (and to many highly offensive) social positions.  There are many reasons why the university may not be a fitting venue for such presentations, but the content of the speech is not a legitimate reason for prohibition. Truly offensive ideas can be effectively countered with opposing argument.  To prohibit such presentations is a missed opportunity.  To suppress expression of even despicable ideas is to suppress freedom of thought, critical evaluation, and the discussions that can result in a discovery and reaffirmation of one’s values.

I witnessed how such fruitful public discourse could occur.  In the early 1970’s I was a student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, a university and region with a strongly conservative pedigree.  Next to the Student Union was an alley that served as the Free Speech Alley forum once a week.  There was an actual box, and anyone could step up and speak about anything. Once David Duke, the premier KKK clansman, stood up and delivered a passionate call to arms for a thinly disguised white supremacy position.  He was not booed.  He finished his speech.  Then, speaker after speaker got up and dissembled Duke’s arguments, invalidated his “facts,” and soundly refuted his position to the audience’s applause.  This is how it should work in a democracy, and especially in academia.

In recent years, I have heard of the weight of “political correctness” invading the academy and smothering the freedom of discourse and associated critical thinking.  In one instance, a philosopher noted that in a university course on ethics he could not discuss abortion because it was too controversial.  Too controversial in a course on ethics?  If not there, where could such a discussion be held?

Our Twilight Zoneis also populated by fantasies, events that have never happened, fueled by the ease of distributing almost anything on social media and the uncritical acceptance by consumers of this virtual world.  It seems to matter little what has actually happened, what has some truth validity, instead of whether what is reported is something one wants to believe or not, consistent with personal preferences and prejudices.

There is a cynical, though perhaps too realistic, perspective on these restrictions of free and open discourse and distinguishing facts from fiction.  Our citizens are dominated by emotional first reactions without subsequent reflection and examination of an initially unwelcome idea.  This is a limitation common to our species because of our brains having evolved to solve immediate problems quickly without much deliberation and to maintain allegiance to our local tribe.  However, this neurological predisposition can be recognized and supplemented with careful thought.  We need to extend ourselves from simply reacting to actually responding (i.e., being responsible).  Such an accommodation is achieved through education in schools, in the home, and most importantly in media.  We need frequent and public models demonstrating this process of evaluating positions if we are ever

 

Profile photo of Lou Moffett Lou Moffett
I was born in 1946 and raised in the Bywater district of New Orleans.
I attended Jesuit High School and then Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, graduating in 1968 with a major in psychology and a minor in philosophy. In 1968-69, I did graduate study in personality at the University of California, Berkeley, I returned to LSU to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology although my dissertation was on the psychology of sculpture. I completed my internship at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, and then became a staff psychologist there specializing in the treatment of men with severe substance use disorders. During those years I also taught at Stanford's School of Education and was a clinical educator in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the Medical School.
I also taught at Palo Alto University, and, in 2008 I retired from the VA and became a full-time professor at PAU and then retired from there in 2013.


Comments

  1. John Zussman says:

    Your essay is persuasive that we are indeed living in a topsy-turvy, Twilight Zone world of “free” yet limited campus speech and alternative facts. I love your David Duke story, a great model for universities today. But you left me hanging. What do you mean to say at the end?

    • Lou Moffett says:

      What I meant to write was that (a) every level of our public education needs to incorporate critical thinking skills, especially the distinction between beliefs and facts, (b) parents should model such critical thinking in the home, and (c) media journalists need to go beyond “He said….she said” to include the factual basis of statements such that an audience routinely expects some genuine education about an issue. For example, if one reports a plan to reduce the number of immigrants, then some information about the rate of immigration in recent years is also reported to give some factual context.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    I agree that political correctness has invaded the Academy and drowned out free speech. College years should be a time of exploration, not limiting what can be expressed, but it seems, ideas can no longer be civilly explored and debated. And facts are denied. I fear for our democracy.

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