Illusion and Agreement in the Debate over Intolerance


A good number of very smart, interesting, and creative people signed onto an open letter, published in Harper’s this week, applauding “wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society” while lamenting “the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”

They write:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.

I think this is a very interesting subject for a number of reasons, not least of which is that there is so much disagreement over the diagnosis: whether it is in fact true that, as the authors of the Harper’s letter put it, “the free exchange of information and ideas… is daily becoming more constricted.”

For a thoughtful take that proceeds from agreement with this diagnosis, see “Yes, And” by Oliver Traldi (Notre Dame).

I am rather skeptical of this diagnosis. On Twitter, Regina Rini (York) writes: “What bugs me about the Harpers letter is the idea that free speech is more endangered now than in recent years.” I agree, and I think it can be useful to think beyond just recent years. In an essay published a day before the Harper’s letter, journalist Osita Nwanevu discusses worries about “cancel culture” and dubs many of the people concerned with it “reactionary liberals.” He says:

The past is useful to them primarily as a source for wild allusions: to the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, and so on. It would be a bit more difficult to carry on as they do if they were genuinely informed by it⁠. For instance, the idea that a cluster of controversies at college campuses here and there could foretell the end of the liberal university, or liberalism, or the West simply isn’t credible to those who understand the remarkably cyclical nature of student unrest and protest in this country over the last century.

I, too, have urged a more historical look—in the context of freedom in academia—in a post here four years ago, hoping for recognition of what I called “the great academic absorption”:

Here are some empirical claims about higher education in the United States. In comparison to 100 years ago:

1. There are fewer or weaker institutional, social, and material obstacles to non-white-male people entering academia.
2. Academics today regularly and with institutional approval study a greater number of topics, including topics previously thought taboo or unworthy of study.
3. Academics today regularly and with institutional approval employ a greater variety of research methods.
4. Academics today regularly and with institutional approval teach a greater variety of topics using a greater variety of source material.
5. Academics today may, without any kind of formal or informal institutional sanction, entertain and defend a greater variety of theses.

These claims are obviously true. That is: there has been an increase in the kinds of people who have the liberty to become academics, an increase in number and types of areas of inquiry academics are at liberty to investigate, an increase in the kinds of methods academics are at liberty to use in their research, an increase in the topics they are at liberty to teach, and an increase in the diversity of ideas academics are at liberty to defend.

Though these claims are about academia, I think analogous patterns are discernible in the broader U.S. culture, which is much more tolerant of a diversity of views and ways of life than it was 100 years ago, or even 30 years ago.

Why does it not seem like that to so many people? Why do people think society is growing increasingly intolerant?

One possible answer has to do with trends towards social egalitarianism. While historically many people in society have had to watch what they say (members of racial minorities, women, atheists, gays, communists, etc.) lest they offend those with more power over them, now even those who are members of traditionally privileged and powerful demographics have to, too. And since so much of our cultural understanding of society is dominated by voices and images of the privileged, we hear about and notice the imposition and operation of these speech norms more when they are applied to them. (We tend not to hear so much about the cancellation of the voiceless.)

Another possible answer, an old favorite of mine, is that we’re subject to the availability heuristic, mistaking the increased ease with which we can recall a few noteworthy cases of “cancelling” for an increase in its frequency. There are many plausible alternate explanations, though, besides increased frequency, for the ease with which recent “cancellings” come to mind, such as: there have been lots of articles about the phenomenon because it sounds controversial and the media favors controversy, or, we’re hearing about it more because there has been lots of talk about it on social media, or, it’s easier to think of (or come across information about) recent examples than of ones from a few decades or more ago.

A third possibility is that, owing to information technology and social media, the local is now global: we may be hearing about more problems, not because there are more, but because we have access to information from all over. What in the past might have been reported, if at all, in just the local news, is now easily accessible and readily shared around the world. In 1960 you might not have heard about a man several states away being fired from his job because he objected to racism in his workplace. The reporting on such an event might have been limited to local gossip. Today, an analogous “cancellation” would likely make some news outlet, and the internet and social media provide the means for people all around the world to hear about it. So perhaps we learn of more cases, but that’s not the same as there actually being more cases.

Each of the foregoing possible answers suggest that at least to some extent, society’s increasing intolerance is an illusion. But let me also offer some conciliatory points.

First, even if there hasn’t been an increase in intolerance, current levels of it may be problematic. Some might argue that the focus on trends is a distraction. I think the frequent couching of the issue in terms of trends is actually interesting and informative, but I will not go into that here.

Second, maybe a distinction can help move the debate a little. One measure of how intolerant a culture is could be this:

(a) how many people approve of some form of social, economic, or legal punishment for someone expressing an opinion they strongly disagree with?

This question asks about people’s attitudes or values.

Another measure of how intolerant a culture is could instead ask about the behavior people have engaged in:

(b) how many people have publicly expressed approval of some form of social, economic, or legal punishment for someone expressing an opinion they strongly disagree with?

Note that one cannot infer an increase in the answer to (a) from an increase in the answer to (b). The answer to (a) may have remained the same or decreased over time, while the answer to (b) may have increased not because of a change in attitudes but because of an increase in the occasions and means for the behavior.

I think some people mistake an increase in (b) for an increase in (a). This is worth noting, first, because the appropriate and effective responses to one of these may not be appropriate or effective for the other.

But it is also worth noting because—perhaps—it is an opportunity for progress on this debate, that is, for some agreement on the diagnosis. The “reactionary liberals” preoccupied with cancel culture no doubt believe that there has been an increase in the answer to (b). But so, too, should their critics, like me. As I said above, owing to today’s information technology and social media, many more people learn about local events elsewhere, and so are in a position to form and communicate opinions about them. So I would bet that the answer to (b) has gone up over, say, the past 30 years. In short, I don’t think society has gotten more intolerant, but technology has facilitated, among other things, the expression of intolerance. (I recognize this may cut somewhat against the “availability heuristic” answer, above.)

There’s the further question of whether, and if so, to what extent, an increase in the expression of intolerance is, on balance, a problem. This post is already too long to take up that matter, which I have come to think is more challenging than it seems. But perhaps we will get lucky, and the solutions to this possible problem—which may involve new technological developments or new ways of regulating institutions to render them less sensitive to expressions of intolerance—will be measures that even those who don’t think it’s a problem could support on other grounds.

Discussion welcome.

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