The “PC College Students vs. Free Speech” Narrative is Baloney

Overall public support for free speech is rising over time, not falling. People on the political right are less supportive of free speech than people on the left. College graduates are more supportive than non-graduates. 

That’s a summary of recent data by Matthew Yglesias at Vox.

[from Justin Murphy, “Who’s Afraid of Free Speech in the United States?”

Among the various findings:

  • public support for free expression has been generally rising
  • college students are less likely than the overall population to support restrictions on speech on campus
  • there is little age polarization on matters of free speech (e.g., 56 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds support the right of the racist to give a speech, versus 60 percent of the overall population.)
  •  data from the College Senior Study appears to show a causal relationship between attending college and more open-mindedness
  • there’s no evidence that left-wing politics is producing closed-minded people

One exception to the pro-free-speech trend concerns people’s views of whether a “Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States” should be allowed to speak. Most Americans say the clergyman should not be allowed to speak.

As I’ve often mentioned, commentators are quick to take a few cases of genuinely egregious anti-free-speech behavior by college students and imagine that there is some huge cultural shift going on regarding free speech (see availability heuristic).

Yglesias comments:

The overall debate about “political correctness” as a phenomenon tends to suffer from an excess of vagueness and ambiguity.

On the one hand, there is a fairly narrow debate about the attempted use of heckler’s veto tactics on a handful of college campuses — often in response to speaking invitations that appear to have been constructed primarily for the purpose of attracting hecklers. On the other hand, there is a fairly broad debate about a wide array of anti-racist activity that includes everything from the #OscarSoWhite hashtag to people being mean on Twitter to Bari Weiss to efforts to push the boundaries of who can be described as a “white supremacist.”

By rhetorically lumping in instances of rare, fairly extreme behavior with much more common behaviors under the broad heading of “political correctness,” it is easy to paint an alarming picture of the hecklers as a leading edge of an increasingly authoritarian political culture.

The fact that there does not appear to be any such trend—and that public desire to stymie free expression is concentrated in the working class and targeted primarily at Muslims—ought to prompt a reevaluation of the significance of on-campus dustups and perhaps greater attention to the specific contexts in which they arise.

The whole article is here.

Related: “Tough Enough: Resilience in Academia“, “Are We Being Chilled or Should We Just Chill?

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