NEW: "Extraordinary U: The HxA Model of Statement Neutrality"

When should university leaders "weigh in" on controversy? A principled approach.

Read the Brief.
Heterodox Academy
Back to Blog
Stefen tan K Yw1e Ux1 J7 Y unsplash
October 6, 2015+April Kelly-Woessner
+Viewpoint Diversity

A Response to John K. Wilson

I would like to thank John K. Wilson for sending me his comments about my Heterodox Academy blog and inviting me to respond. There are a lot of points to cover.

First, John K. Wilson disputes my finding that young people today are less tolerant than their parents. He claims “young people only seem modestly intolerant by comparison because older Americans have grown more tolerant to a degree unimaginable in human history.”

In our private email exchange, Wilson defended this argument by pointing to increased tolerance toward homosexuals. Indeed, people are more accepting of alternative lifestyles, minorities, women’s rights, etc. than at any time in the past. But political tolerance is a measure of how we handle disagreement. Tolerant people allow those they consider dangerous to society to speak and participate in the democratic process. Allowing one’s friends and political allies to speak is not a sign of tolerance. Young people may like more people, but they are especially intolerant of disagreement.

In this way, intolerance is not a static measure. If it were, we would still be measuring it based on freedom granted to communists, as Stouffer did in 1955. In fact, some studies in the 1970s did just that, declaring that Americans had become more tolerant as their hostility towards communists declined. But Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus (1979) pointed out that these increases in tolerance were “illusory,” in that communists were simply no longer the most disliked group. Intolerance had shifted to other groups. The same is true today. While attitudes towards communists and homosexuals have changed over time, the majority of Americans still deny rights to their political enemies. According to the 2012 GSS, 77 percent of the population will deny rights to at least one of the groups mentioned, with Muslims being the most frequently oppressed group.

The overall levels of tolerance in society do fluctuate. People are more willing to restrict political rights to their foes during times of war or international threat. Yet, while the baseline for tolerance fluctuates over time, it has always been the case, until recently, that younger people were the most tolerant. This relationship between age and tolerance is what led Stouffer and others to conclude that our society would grow more tolerant over time. The fact that this trend has now reversed has significant implications. If it continues, we will grow less and less tolerant over time.

Second, Wilson rejects the idea that this new intolerance reflects the influence of the New Left. He argues that “almost nobody has heard of” Marcuse or his theories. Yet, young people echo many ideas today that have roots in philosophies and documents that they cannot identify. Indeed, many do not know that their ideas on liberty were influenced by Locke, or that their ideas on market economics were influenced by Adam Smith. My late colleague, Stanley Rothman, makes a compelling and thorough case for the lasting impact of the New Left on American values in his last book, The End of the Experiment. Marcuse is widely regarded by political theorists as the most influential philosopher of the Frankfurt School. Would Wilson argue that the New Left and the politics of the 1960s had no lasting impact on our collective values, or that these values do not include perspectives on speech and expression? It’s absurd.

But one doesn’t have to read Rothman’s book to understand that young people are now articulating a New Left philosophy about free speech and academic freedom. Students repeatedly ban speakers who offend their sensibilities while framing their objections in Marcuse’s terms. For example, in an op-ed in the Harvard Crimson last year, a student argues for “academic justice” to replace academic freedom. In this view, universities have a social responsibility to be intolerant towards those who would promote racism, sexism and homophobia. She writes,

“If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”? Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.”

Yet, Wilson argues that the New Left would not produce intolerance towards such a wide range of groups. He asks, “Marcuse and the New Left have made young people less tolerant of communists and Muslims? What kind of sense does that make?” It actually makes perfect sense, if one understands the research on political tolerance. As I explain in my book chapter, it is not simply the case that conservatives are intolerant towards leftist groups and leftists are intolerant towards conservative groups. Rather, intolerance towards one group is positively correlated with intolerance towards all the other groups. Intolerant people simply deny expression to anyone who might offend others. In fact, people who are intolerant of others even impose limitations on their own political expression. James Gibson (1992), arguably the leading scholar on tolerance, concludes that intolerance creates a culture of conformity that makes all people more hesitant to exercise political liberties. So this is the irony of speech codes. When we teach students to silence racists, they also silence Muslims, atheists, and anyone who makes other people uncomfortable. Intolerance creates a general prohibition on controversial expression.

My research finds that the younger generation perceives a tension between social justice and free speech that previous generations did not. Wilson tries to dismiss this correlation between social justice orientation and intolerance but his argument is misguided for two reasons. First, he claims that it is simply natural for those who support rights for blacks to also limit the speech of racists. Yet, he fails to explain why this relationship is not significant for those over 40. Why is it not natural for everyone? Second, I explain in the book chapter that I anticipated this objection. Thus, I ran the model again, removing racists from the measure of intolerance. The relationship still holds. In other words, those under 40 who have a social justice orientation are generally more intolerant than those who do not. Again, this relationship is not present for those over 40. Those over 40 tend to articulate classical liberal philosophies, which emphasize the right to expression, even for our political foes. Ludwig von Mises argued that liberalism “demands toleration for doctrines and opinions that it deems detrimental and ruinous to society” since “only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace.”

Wilson argues that there is some other explanation for the decrease in tolerance among America’s youth, perhaps their socialization into a post 9/11 world. Yet, the evidence is that this shift has been gradual and that it started well before 9/11. Take, for example, willingness to allow racists to speak in public. The figure below shows the percent of people in each age group that would allow a racist to speak. Older people have become more tolerant over time, as Wilson suggests. But younger people have declined in tolerance, contrary to Stouffer’s predictions and contrary to Wilson’s argument.

The figure below shows the percent of people in each age group that would allow a racist to speak. Older people have become more tolerant over time, as Wilson suggests. But younger people have declined in tolerance

Perhaps there are other forces that explain these generational gaps in attitudes towards free expression. What is clear, however, is that older generation behaves as if they are influenced by classical liberalism and younger generations are behaving as if they were influenced by the New Left.

Yes, the kids are intolerant. That is, they are intolerant if we define tolerance as researchers have for the past six decades, as a measure of willingness to extend basic democratic rights to those one finds most objectionable. The kids are much more tolerant if you redefine the concept, such that tolerance is measured by support for non-traditional, leftist groups.

In Marcusian fashion, Wilson suggests that certain types of intolerance might be more acceptable than others, “Hating blacks and hating racists is not the same thing. There is a fundamental difference between saying that a group of people should be oppressed because of their identity and saying that people who engage in hate should be oppressed. Not all intolerances are equal.” Perhaps silencing racists and homophobes isn’t so bad. Intolerance is okay, so long as it oppresses the Right people (pun intended). Yet, for the past sixty years, researchers have documented the harmful effects of political intolerance on public discourse. If Wilson and others want to argue that intolerance in the name of social justice does not produce the same negative effects as intolerance in the name of security or prejudice, they have some obligation to produce the evidence. Otherwise, it’s hard to take this new perspective on intolerance as anything other than ideological defensiveness.


Get HxA In Your Inbox

Related Articles
Abhishek Saha Protecting free speech in universities
Protecting Free Speech in Universities: Insights from the UK
February 14, 2024+Abhishek Saha
+Viewpoint Diversity+Open Inquiry+Campus Policy+Campus Climate
Make a donation
Make a Donation

Your generosity supports our non-partisan efforts to advance the principles of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement to improve higher education and academic research.

This site use cookies.

To better improve your site experience, we collect some data. To see what types of information we collect, read our Cookie Policy.