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Persuasion by Intimidation

Last week in my philosophy class, in a unit on politics, gender, and culture, the subject of preferred pronouns came up in discussion, like it does every semester.

We have all sorts of conversations in class on a ton of topics--you name it--but I write about the pronouns conversation a lot because it is the wedge…this is currently where the pressure to conform is most intense, at least here in the U.S, so if you observe these conversations closely, you will get a crystal clear look at the world’s playbook.

The world is simply obsessed about gender ideology and will not let it go until everyone comes around, so we in the Church have to “go there” not just once, but multiple times. Like Napoleon’s guard dogs in Animal Farm, some of your kids’ classmates might aggressively assert themselves in school and on social media to seize social power. There’s a lot at stake, so we shouldn’t give in and throw our hands up. Push back we must.

This is why I write about this topic often.

What happened in the discussion last week is a great example of a pattern I’ve observed time and time again: the use of social power moves to persuade…actually, not really persuade as much as to intimidate into silence and shame into conformity.

Later in the discussion I stepped in and asked some tough questions to try to thaw the dogmatism, but for the first 10 minutes or so I sat back and just observed and watched the students talk with each other.

There are a handful of students in my class who are very militant and zealous about this issue, and they jumped in immediately with supreme confidence:

“That guy in the debate (note: the previous day we watched a debate on identity politics where the subject came up) was just an idiot and needs to be educated.”

The speaker they were referring to was Douglas Murray. He is not lacking for education.

“If you have a problem with anyone’s preferred pronouns, you need to go back to 8th grade biology and learn some basic respect to boot.”

One student then proceeded to draw a diagram explaining the difference (as she saw it) between gender and sex, using a patronizing tone of voice as if she was speaking to a group of kindergartners.

The vocal ones in this group were all on the pro preferred pronoun side, and they were utterly confident in their assertions, as if it was crazy to doubt. They peppered their confident assertions with your garden variety name calling aimed at anyone who took the other side.

This all was pretty effective. Like sheep dogs nipping at the heels of the farm animal pack, they got everyone in line. No one voiced any concern, doubt, skepticism, or opposition to what was said, and heads nodded solemnly in agreement.

So what was going on here?

Perhaps some of you have read The Worst Case Scenario Handbook. If you haven’t you should, because you are missing out.

There is a chapter in that book titled “how to escape from a mountain lion.” When you are in the woods and you come upon a mountain lion, (I guess) you are supposed to flare out your jacket and stand tall to make yourself look bigger than you really are, in the hopes that the mountain lion will mistake you for a big animal--a bear or something--and leave you alone.

I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never ran across a mountain lion, ever, but it’s a good metaphor for what happened in this conversation, and it is a pattern that I see a lot in student interactions. The progressive/social justice oriented students will manufacture consensus not through reasoning or the strength of their rational arguments, but through various social maneuvers.

A few I’ve already noted as present in the discussion:

*Talking down to those who are contrary or who are thinking of doubting (“let me educate you”), along with a patronizing and sarcastic tone of voice, similar to when Texas beauty pageant moms say “oh bless your little heart!”

*Ad hominems and dismissal through labeling.

*Extreme confidence in bald assertions, without argument. Acting incredulous when questioned.

*Employing vague and ill-defined, but comforting (or the opposite) sounding buzz words, while smuggling in their own extreme ideological content on the sly: love, hate, ignorance, respect, kindness, etc. “Uneducated,” for example, doesn’t really mean someone who is really lacking in education as much as it means “this is someone that disagrees with me.” The heavy negative connotation does all the work, though, so most people in these conversations don’t really see that.

The goal of all this is simple: make criticism/disagreement/contrary expressions awkward to express. They do not want to convince you; they want to shame you into jumping onto the bandwagon of the cause, like the queen bee of the school does in the lunch room to fellow classmates.

This tactic is incredibly, incredibly effective, mostly because we all want to be highly thought of. We want to appear nice and respectable. This is, dare I say, an idol in middle class America, and in the middle class suburban church. Even for those who *say* “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m my own person,” we have a reputation to keep up, as a kind and loving human being. Someone who is actually ok with being hated is a pretty rare bird.

There’s nothing wrong with respect, kindness, and love etc. The problems are, one, that we want to *appear* like that and are willing to go to great lengths to protect the rep, and two, social justice minded folk have injected their own particular ideological content into those words, so the words become synonymous with the extreme ideas they peddle, yet the emotional, connotative content of the original meanings are maintained.

But the bait and switch happens on the sly.

The question now becomes “how should we respond when we see this happen in conversation?”

Here are some brief thoughts:

1. In your own heart, set apart Christ as Lord. Make up your own mind here and now that you will not bow to this intimidation in your own heart. Even if you don’t directly say anything in the conversation, refuse to burn a pinch of incense to Cesar in your own soul. Parents, display this in your own life and explicitly talk about the importance of this first step with your kids.

2. Train. I repeat this ad nauseum: you must take your own intellectual training seriously, for several reasons, the pertinent one here being that without it, you won’t have the chops to be able to spot the ruse when it’s upon you. You must be in the Word, yes, but this goes past Bible reading, memorization, and study. You must be a reader, you must be a thinker, you must be a philosopher. You are already all three of those actually. The only question is whether you’ll be a good one or a poor one. This is just like taking care of your body physically--find a way to make it a priority. Here is a brief game plan to make this simpler amidst your (probably) busy life. Parents, take your own intellectual training seriously, and build your kids’ minds too. Don’t siphon this off to the youth pastor. This is your job. Without that, your kids will be vulnerable to these herd tactics. Here are some suggestions for how to do that.

3. Give them the tools and let them practice using them. We all know the Bible verses about persecution and opposition, and most of us are pretty good at teaching them to our kids. But that is half the battle. We must go further and specifically teach our kids what to look out for and how to spot the game afoot. Just talking to them about what I layed out above is a great start. Give them the tools--the lenses, if you will--that they can use to recognize that they are being had. From there, you can role play situations with them in conversation, ie, “if someone in class says XYZ to you, how would you respond?” Play out the conversation a few rounds. Play the role of the sheep dog. This kind of “scrimmaging” will help them when the real situation arises. You can do this while in the car, at dinner time, or somewhere else. Just make sure to do it, repeatedly.

4. Teach them specific moves. If you were a martial arts instructor, be it Tae-Kwon-Do, Jiu-Jitsu, or wrestling, would you simply tell your charges “so, uh, when he lunges at you, you just gotta fight back! Don’t let him do that to you!” Would you leave it at that? No. You’d teach specific moves. Your opponent does X, you parry by doing Y. He does Z, you do A. So on and so forth. It is the same for the subject of dodging the social power moves. This is not about “being combative” or “pointless arguing.” This is about giving yourself and your kids protection, so that you and they are not overwhelmed by trickiness and strong arm rhetoric. Some specific “moves” I recommend are: *You don’t need to feel like you have to be stereotypically “nice,” (ie, softening the blow so you avoid hurt feelings) but neither do you have to “go low” with them. That is, speak the truth forthrightly and clearly, but no need to use ad hominems and invective like they do. It might be good to think of some specific things you can say ahead of time and journal through it and practice it with a partner/parent. Otherwise you might trip over your words, your emotions will get the best of you, and you’ll start either rambling or hemming and hawwing, neither of which are good. *When in a conversation where these moves are being employed, before you do anything--like respond verbally--A) pray a quick prayer for help and strength, and B) breathe two deep breaths. Both are necessary to responding effectively. You gotta keep your BP under control. *Don’t apologize. If you have done something actually wrong, like call someone a name or curse at them, apologize then, but do not apologize just because you have caused “offense” or because someone claims you are “perpetuating harm.” Just because you have offended someone does not mean you are wrong. Apologies will embolden the mob, not placate them. *Don’t try to strenuously defend your character. A quick comment, maybe, but avoid lengthy pleas for understanding. Instead, go on the offensive. *How? Point out what they are doing, and make it glaringly obvious. Say something like “Just now, rather than make an actual argument, you spoke down to me patronizingly, as if I am five. If you want to be taken seriously, you’ll need to use reason to persuade, not social shaming. Can you please explain to us clearly why X?” Or “you just called me a name. What does that mean? Why did you do that? Notice I have not treated you that way at any time in this conversation, so if you want us to listen to you, you’ll need to come up with something better, rather than resorting to those kinds of attacks.” Or “in this conversation you’ve engaged in name calling, labeling, and insults. When you did all that, you position yourself as kind and right, but when I simply disagree with you, I’m a bigot? How’s that?” Or just a simple “that kind of social manipulation won’t work. You’ll need to come up with an actual argument” will do. You can think of your own short responses to add. Write them down and practice them. The point is to make it known what they are trying to do with the rhetoric--shame rather than persuade. Be clear, be short, and be direct. Do not ramble. Once people see the sleight of hand, it loses its power. *Lastly, become adept at using questions to maneuver in conversation. Greg Koukl’s Tactics series is a great place to start for this. Some of the above can serve as examples. In sum, know what to look for, recognize it when it happens, and neutralize the rhetoric. Planning ahead of time will make it more likely that you and/or your kids will be brave when the moment comes. These issues--what social shaming looks like and how to respond to it--should be a part of our discipleship of our kids. There is no way to avoid these sorts of tactics, so they must be addressed directly through teaching in the home and Church.

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