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What Are Students Thinking? Part VI: Dogmatically Uncommitted

It's, like, all good, man...

Part VI in a series. Read past installments: Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V

The next habit of student thinking I’ve noticed in my interactions with them is that they are both highly dogmatic and highly the same time. This is similar to earlier trends, namely, that they are both highly individualistic and exhibit conformist thinking. It might seem like those two things don’t mesh well, but they do. Same thing here. How can students be both dogmatic and uncommitted? Let me explain.

The stereotype on dogmatism is that the conservative religious folk are the dogmatic ones, but the secular progressives are dogmatic too, just as much. Students are dogmatic in the sense that evidence and pushback doesn’t do much to thaw their dogged commitment to protecting their autonomy. For example, in the conversation (that I brought up in a past blog post) on preferred pronouns, students were all in: you are what you say you are. Period. Feelings and the psychology of the inner self is the trump card and is completely divorced from the limits of the body. The body has no say and plays no role. On this they were completely bought in and dogmatic on it. Pointing out real world difficulties of this, the incoherence of the ideology, or just plain absurdity of it all did very little to get them to question their stance. During the conversation, I brought up Fallon Fox, a male to female transgender MMA athlete, and recommended that students look up this athlete. One such student did, and confidently proclaimed after the conversation to me in private that she was entirely comfortable with Fallon Fox competing in the women’s division in MMA, and this example only served to confirm her progressive gender views. After Fox fought Tamikka Brents, Brents ended up in the hospital with a fractured orbital bone, among other injuries. Of Fox, Brents said, “I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night. I can’t answer whether it’s because she was born a man or not because I’m not a doctor. I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right. Her grip was different, I could usually move around in the clinch against other females but couldn’t move at all in Fox’s clinch." And the student who looked up Fox wasn’t phased at all by any of this. That’s dogmatism. How are they also uncommitted? The bottom line for them is maintaining their autonomy, their expressive individualism, so when committing to one side either aides the defence of their autonomy or doesn’t directly threaten it, they will commit. However, when planting a flag would limit that autonomy, they try to remain fiercely neutral and straddle both sides, and again, countermanding evidence or questions that point out inconsistencies or absurdities in their beliefs do little to dislodge them from their committed neutrality….dogmatically uncommitted, dogmatically neutral.

Unless Expressive Individualism features centrally in the discussion--for example, when it comes to issues like sexuality and gender, they are very, very committed to one side, the progressive one--they want others to see them as “independent,” as above the fray, so they maintain an unswerving determination to stay in the middle, in the service of this image. For instance, I’ve had a number of conversations surrounding whether morality--any morality at all--is objective, or if its all subjective, where I’ll push the kids’ hot buttons, and they’ll bite the bullet with a straight face. No balking at all. In their minds, a kind of subjective relativism in regards to morality is the “independent, neutral” stance (it’s not, but they think it is), so they cling to it to the bitter end. One time, after a certain student espoused relativistic conclusions, I asked her about the George Floyd killing. Is it true that what Derek Chauvin did was wrong? Long pause, then “I don’t want to talk about that.” I persisted, pointing out that it seems like she was saying that no, it isn’t true that Derek Chavin was wrong, and I asked her if I was understanding her correctly. She affirmed it. There was no “man, good question. I’ll think about that.” Just a dogmatic assurance. Second story: after watching a debate on God’s existence, we were discussing the moral argument, and a student took issue with William Craig’s (the theist) claim that we all know objective morality. I pushed his hot button, asking him about the actions of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, and he maintained with confidence that we don’t really know that what those men did are wrong. Then I said “so if I viciously murdered your younger sister right in front of you, would I have done something wrong?” “Well it’s my opinion, and I wouldn’t like it.” Me: “But that’s not what I asked. I asked ‘is it wrong period. End of story. Factually.” Him “no, it wouldn’t be wrong like that...just wrong to me personally.” He was pretty confident in that. Like I said, dogmatic. Never paused to say “hmmm good question, let me think about it.”

Maybe he was just trying to save face and defend turf, and maybe he did think when he left class. Maybe. But the anonymous before/after surveys I give in class show that even when they are not defending turf, the dogmatism remains.

More on that in my next post!

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