Stigma Beats Dogma

Late yesterday afternoon, I happened to catch a short-but-insightful lecture by one of my favorite Christian apologists, Ravi Zacharias. In the midst of an interesting discussion about the allure of Eastern mysticism in Western culture, he made a fascinating statement (I’m paraphrasing): In the battle of ideas, stigma always beats dogma. In other words, through stigmatization, one can defeat a set of ideas or principles without ever “winning” an argument on the merits.

I was instantly reminded of not just my own experiences in secular higher education, but also the experiences I see and hear every day while defending the rights of students and professors. Why convince when you can browbeat? Why dialogue when you can read entire philosophies out of polite society? That’s not to say there aren’t intense debates on matters of public policy, but all too often we see social conservatism not so much engaged as assaulted.

I fear that we like to comfort ourselves by saying something like, “kids see through this heavy-handed nonsense.” This is simply wishful thinking. Most people don’t like to be labeled as “bigots,” and they often assume that such overwhelming ideological consensus is the product of considered thought. If “everyone” seems to believe something (especially when “everyone” includes all of your professors and other academic authorities), then mustn’t it be true?

Here’s a question for conservative parents and teachers: Are we really equipping young people to face the challenges of college if we teach them arguments? Or should we instead be primarily preparing them to face scorn and hate with inner toughness and good cheer? After all, when a professor calls you a “fascist bastard” for defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, what is he doing if not trying to defeat dogma with stigma? 

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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