Perhaps one of the most dangerous threats to truth, meaningful communication, and human liberty is the increase of calls to regulate people's thoughts and speech. There is a terrible idea floating around that people have a right to avoid encountering ideas they don't like. As this approach to public speech expands from the most militantly postmodern enclaves to the broader culture, it is destroying lives and will eventually contribute to the intellectual crippling of the population.
The Insecurity of Safe Spaces.
One need not look any farther than the so-called Safe Space movement on college campuses. These are areas set aside where students can recover from being exposed to ideas--no matter how genteelly expressed--which conflict with their existing worldview.
One troubling concern with this approach to truth is that trains young people who should be exploring the deep truths of the world that they can live in a bubble of ideas that match their presuppositions. While this sort of thing might help prevent students from being converted to conservative viewpoints or having to go through the admittedly challenging process of figuring out in rational terms why they believe what they do, it seems to be very unhelpful for society in the long term.
Attempts to shield people from competing ideas is exactly what creates bigots (used in the traditional meaning of the word). This is the approach to truth that leads to people who are, in fact, narrow minded and incapable of seeing anyone else's perspective. In present times, the sheltered minds are saved from realizing their status as actual bigots by the convenient redefinition of the term to include people that hold positions that are out of vogue with the folks that edit the online dictionaries.
Of course, the reaction to the bubble forming culture can be (and presently is) just as bad. This is the point a lot of modern discourse has gotten to where prominent political candidates become popular simply because they are willing to say things intentionally to offend people or Twitter mobs swarm anyone who dares raise a point criticizing their dear leader. That sort of reaction is based on the same foundation used by the creators of safe spaces--emotional response instead of dialogical engagement.
Sometimes comedians are the best cultural exegetes. This is not always to say they are right, but that they often see things and are able to point out issues in ways that many of us can see. John Cleese, who is no theological conservative, commented on the dangers of silencing debate and extreme forms of political correctness earlier this year. He frames his concern as a loss of comedy, which is his livelihood, but the same concerns could be applied to the ability to think any thoughts beyond the thought patterns presently approved by society.
Whether it is in the recent attempts to prosecute anyone who funds, talks about, or openly questions the extent of climate destabilization or the rabid pillorying of anyone who disagrees with a novel and popular expression of sexual ethics, attempts to shut down speech by force are not helpful and, in fact, endanger the sort of dialogue that makes democracy possible. It also intellectually cripples those that are never exposed to any challenges to their worldview.
The complaint that contemporary society is forming people who lack the ability to think critically and engage in meaningful dialogue is not new. It can be found plainly in the pages of C. S. Lewis' essay, "Men Without Chests," and just as clearly in Dorothy L. Sayers' plea for classical education, "The Lost Tools of Learning." Both call for an approach to learning the recognizes emotions, but calls reason to work despite emotions. In other words, it is necessary to move toward something that approximates absolute truth rather than simply something that merely feels good.
Setting aside for a moment the important, but very large question about the nature of truth and whether there actually is any objective truth, let us presume that there is an objective reality that is not merely socially constructed but actually extant. Even accepting the realistic and valid corollary that we biased, finite, and flawed humans can never fully comprehend the totality of objective truth, we can approximate it more or less well. However, in order to consider approaching anything like the objective truth we must be willing to engage with thoughts that we do not already have.
Environmentalists rightly complain about monoculture in the contemporary factory farm. This is the proclivity to plant the same crop year after year on the same fields. The trouble with this approach is that each type of plant draws only certain nutrients in a particular ratio from the soil. To replace those nutrients, scientists have developed various fertilizers in laboratories that help replenish the needed elements in the soil. However, there is evidence that the chemical cocktails are not quite adequate for proper replacement. Eventually, despite the best attempts or replenishment, monoculture has the tendency to deplete the soil. This is analogous to what happens when only a single ideological perspective is made available to people.
Over time, if children and adults are only exposed to one worldview and all others are either excluded or dismissed without engagement, the soil of the culture will be depleted. Even if the ideas that are popular are right or better than others, the basis on which the ideas are held will be neglected if opposing viewpoints are not considered. The increasingly anemic culture that remains unchallenged can be artificially supported through propaganda, emotivism, or violence. However, sooner or later the crop will fail or a heavy rain will come and wash away the depleted soil, which has been made vulnerable due to its abuse.
The present milieu is one that promotes ideological monoculture through safe spaces and ironic but belligerent accusations of bigotry for deviations from whatever the popular orthodoxy of the day is. There is still resistance to this intellectual abuse, but that resistance is increasingly being legislated against, sued, and assaulted in the public square. It remains to see whether the so-called politically correct monoculture will triumph, but signs point to its growth rather than its diminution.
The natural reaction to intellectual violence of the advocates of ideological monoculture is to try to fight fire with fire. If they take words out of context, then it seems fitting to do the same. If they overreact to your words, then you overreact.
If the monoculturists were sufficiently self-aware, then this might help them recognize the irony of their actual attacks on people who dare to express contrary positions in their presence.
In reality, fighting fire with fire threatens to burn the whole place down.
The answer must be something else. It is likely that in casual interactions, the ideological monoculturalists are unlikely to ever except a contrary view, especially if they are challenged in public.
I don't think there are any quick answers. Things seem to have only gotten worse since Lewis and Sayers wrote, and we're farther from the foundations of classical education. I do think that part of the solution is working toward a society that values critical thinking and reasoned arguments more than cheap shots and cheesy entertainment. In the present climate, I'm just not sure how to get started on the project except by cultivating my own little garden of children at home.