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Everything we think about the political correctness debate is wrong

Support for free speech is rising, and is higher among liberals and college graduates.

Campus protests are real, but don’t reflect broad trends
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Many American pundits seem to firmly believe that the country stands at a precipice in which young, left-wing college students and recent graduates are the leading edge of a rising tide of illiberalism that comes in the form of “political correctness” and poses a clear and present danger to free speech and rational discourse.

David Brooks’s column last Friday starts with a reference to the heckling of Christina Hoff Sommers at a recent speaking engagement at a small private university in Portland, Oregon. But he swiftly pivots to broad generalizations about his “basic understanding of how citizenship is supposed to work” versus “today’s students” for whom “reason, apparently, ceased to matter” and instead “see public life as an inevitable war of tribe versus tribe.”

Eric Boehm writing in Reason, similarly but even more bombastically, refers to a climate of “cultural decay” and “authoritarian political correctness” that is leading us toward the sort of dystopia depicted in Ray Bradbury’s science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451.

Conviction that these trends are big and real is so firmly entrenched that when Bari Weiss cited a fake Twitter account as evidence for her thesis about political correctness run amok — another column built around the Summers speech — the New York Times simply removed the example and appended an editor’s note without otherwise altering the column.

It is so accepted that there is a growing climate of authoritarianism that whether or not individual examples are true is fundamentally irrelevant.

Except robust data suggests that maybe it isn’t. 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. Indeed, a 2016 Knight Foundation survey showed that college students are less likely than the overall population to support restrictions on speech on campus. Among the public at large, meanwhile, the group whose speech the public is most likely to favor stifling is Muslims.

The alarm about student protesters, in other words, though not always mistaken about particular cases, is generally grounded in a completely mistaken view of the big-picture state of American society and public opinion, both on and off campus.

What the data says about free speech

Since the 1970s, the General Social Survey has posed a question about whether five hypothetical speakers should be allowed to give a speech in your community — a communist, a homosexual, an opponent of all religion, a racist, and a person who favors replacing the elected government with a military coup.

Justin Murphy of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom aggregated trend data about all five kinds of speakers and found that public support for free expression has been generally rising:

Now what’s true, obviously, is that public support for disallowing racist speech is not rising. Instead, it’s stayed roughly flat over the past 40 years or maybe fallen very slightly. But it’s simply not the case that anti-racist activism is just a particularly salient example of an overall trend toward less tolerance of free expression.

On the contrary, society has become dramatically more tolerant. If you want to find a disturbing trend here, you should probably look at the increased support for the coup advocate (labeled “militarist”), which is arguably a form of tolerance gone too far.

When Murphy does a breakout of the GSS’s seven-point ideological scale, you can see that the trend people think they’re seeing isn’t exactly fake — but it provides a very incomplete picture.

What you see here is that people on the moderate left really have become less tolerant of racists while growing more tolerant of all other groups. Meanwhile, the other five ideological subcategories seem to have become more tolerant of everyone.

Also note that in general, people with left-wing ideological commitments are overall more tolerant than people with right-wing ones. There’s simply no evidence for the Brooks view that left-wing politics is producing closed-minded people. Indeed, as Murphy notes, this is not really much of a surprise as there is a well-known correlation between left-wing political commitments and the personality attribute known to psychologists as Openness to Experience. Somewhat ironically, two of the best-known popularizers of this point, Jonathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson, are vocal anti-PC activists, though survey data confirms exactly what their research predicts — left-wing people are more supportive of free expression.

I would not make a big deal out of this ideological disagreement, however, because the important thing is that there’s a generally rising level of support for free speech. The United States is a big country, and it’s possible to cherry-pick examples of lots of different things happening. But to assess broad trends, we need to look at systematic data, and the data indicates a trend toward more willingness to hear from disagreeable people, not less.

One important exception, however, comes from a newer question about Muslim speech.

People want to block “anti-American Muslim clergymen” from speaking

About 10 years ago, the GSS added a new hypothetical speaker to its list — “now consider a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community preaching hatred of the United States, should he be allowed to speak, or not?”

Most Americans say he should not be allowed to speak, and that number seems roughly constant over the past decade.

An even larger share of the population, about 66 percent, says such a cleric should not be allowed to teach in a college, and a very slight majority, about 51 percent, says such a cleric’s books should be removed from a library.

Concern about the Muslim preacher is driven, one assumes, by the fact that anti-American violence committed in the name of Islam is a real phenomenon in the world, and people see anti-American advocacy from Muslim authority figures as potentially contributing to the violence.

Americans are, however, considerably more likely to be killed by right-wing hate groups than by Islamic extremists; the Anti-Defamation League finds that right-wing extremists committed 74 percent of ideologically driven killings between 2007 and 2016, down to “only” 59 percent in 2017.

College graduates are more tolerant, not less

It’s also interesting to note that, contrary to the vision of a generation of young authoritarians brainwashed in elite universities, there is very little age polarization on these issues — 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.

Given the stark generation gaps that we see on many political issues these days, that’s a remarkably small divergence. It’s also quite possibly driven by compositional effects, since white people are moderately more supportive (62 percent) of letting the racist speak but whites are a smaller share of the younger cohort. African Americans have become more supportive over time of letting racists speak, with 56 percent saying it should be allowed in 2015 versus 47 percent back in 1975.

Last but by no means least, there is a strong correlation between educational attainment and support for allowing free speech — though it has narrowed a little bit over time.

College graduates are most likely to want to allow both the racist and the anti-American cleric to speak.

This likely reflects both college graduates’ generally higher openness to experience and probably also their greater ideological sophistication, which leaves them more likely to focus on the free speech aspect of the question rather than simply register disapproval of a bad speaker. Indeed, data from the College Senior Study appears to show a causal relationship between attending college and more open-mindedness — indicating that liberal arts education is more or less performing its expected function of exposing people to new ideas rather than serving an indoctrination function.

The PC debate would benefit from more facts and rigor

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.

Conversely, a clearer and more specific account of what's wrong with heckler’s veto tactics — rather than broad-brush efforts to castigate them as emblematic of a broad social crisis — might be more effective at actually persuading people not to engage in them.

If nothing else, it would be useful for writers to do a better job of distinguishing between how life feels when you participate in unmoderated online exchanges — where being on the wrong end of pile-ons can certainly create the subjective impression that vicious mobs are constantly trying to shut down anything they find disagreeable — from what we actually see in the data, which is a public that is increasingly supportive of free expression, with liberals and college graduates being especially supportive.