I was rummaging around my office the other day when I stumbled upon a deck of cards. It's a deck I try to keep hidden. In the past, I have tried to throw it away or destroy it; but it keeps reappearing. I use it to stifle debate. We all have such a deck. Whenever conversation turns to a topic or issue we don't want to discuss or we don't truly have an answer for, we can pull out one of these trump cards, throw it on the table, and cut off the discussion. The technique works exceptionally well.
Let us begin with the "gun nut" card. On several occasions I have been engaged in a discussion of the Second Amendment as regards gun laws in this country. When you point out to people that laws restricting guns or their use really don't work, or that they have little relationship to violence, they grab the card, yell "you're just a gun nut," and throw it on the table. That invariably ends the conversation, despite my pleadings that I don't even own a gun and have no interest in owning one. The problem here is fairly obvious. Many of us have very little interest in truly discussing those things with which we disagree vehemently. Seriously listening to someone is very dangerous--if we truly listen, we risk having to change or experiencing a high level of cognitive dissonance. We believe that we are the center of the universe and that what we believe is always true. Changing the mind of a well-educated person is incredibly difficult. There is actually a name for it: the Planck Problem. It is sometimes referred to as Ideological Immunity. Physicist Max Planck believed that very intelligent people seldom change their minds. They find it difficult to admit they were wrong in the first place. Therefore, when challenged, they are apt to throw a card, such as "gun nut," on the table. It is a lot easier than being forced to reevaluate a long-held position. Going a step further, Jacques Ellul believed that the educated are the most susceptible to propaganda because they believe in a world of symbols and ideas--which they hold onto tenaciously once acquired.
In the academic world, as elsewhere, the cards may be used in combination with one another. This may heighten their effectiveness. As an example, three individual cards--"diversity," "strategic plan," and "mission statement"--can be part of a very powerful hand. Assume that your university decides to conduct a diversity survey. The survey asks: Do you have diversity throughout your curriculum? Do you display diversity in the classroom? You decide you need a definition of diversity before you can answer. Does diversity refer to ideas, race, ethnicity, religion, economic level, lifestyle, or some combination of all these? Looking for answers, you pose this question to those who initiated the survey. If you are lucky, your question will be ignored. If you are unlucky, the response will question your commitment to diversity without ever defining it for you. The card is merely thrown on the table. If you are very unlucky, the response will include the mission statement card telling you that diversity is a part of the university's mission and one of the strategic plan's stated goals. It is as if someone has told you this is all "settled science." And if you are not careful, they will throw the race card at you. You try to take the nonconfrontational way and answer the survey as best you can, while at the same time realizing that your question was never answered because having that debate was not in someone's interest.
It is not just the stifling of debate that occurs. When using these cards, The Law of Unintended Consequences also plays a role. The tragedy is all those paths not taken. It is all the things not written because of a fear of reprisal. When a card stops debate, we allow others to control our world. Martin Niemoller wrote these oft-quoted lines in 1945:
First they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up
because I wasn't a Communist. …