Insights About Campus Expression From A Survey of Undergraduate Students in New Zealand
Little middle ground seems to exist between progressive concerns about “fascism” and conservative concerns about “woke brigades.” Conservatives claim that their voices are being drowned (“cancelled”), and progressives claim that the conservatives are promoting values incompatible with those of an enlightened age. In university settings, this leads to the question, “Who is afraid to speak up about which issues and why?”
Between September and November 2021, Heterodox Academy (HxA) surveyed 1,495 full-time college students ages 18–24 across the United States as to how comfortable or reluctant they were to speak their views in the classroom on five core controversial topics — politics, race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender — as well as one specific controversial topic (the COVID-19 pandemic). Students also reported their comfort or reluctance to speak their views about noncontroversial topics for comparison. The HxA researchers found that 60% of US participants expressed reluctance to discuss at least one controversial topic. Students who reported having low interaction quality with classmates (i.e., not much opportunity to get to know other students) also reported higher reluctance to discuss all five of the core controversial topics.
These trends from the US campuses may seem worrying. It is possible, though, that these views reflect only the United States, with its two-party system and high rate of polarization. How similar is the situation in British Commonwealth countries like New Zealand?
Unlike the United States, New Zealand has a progressive parliamentary democracy, although the country is of course not free of political disagreement. The political system of New Zealand grapples with issues that drive political divisions in the United States as well, including racial prejudice, gun laws, vaccination, taxation, and climate change. However, on the whole, New Zealand society does not display the deep partisan mistrust that characterizes American society.
Bradley Wendel has written about significant differences in the notion of fairness and trust in the government that separate the American and the New Zealand political systems. New Zealand also ranks highly in international metrics on measures of peace (on the Global Peace Index, New Zealand ranks second in the world and the United States 129; on the Human Freedom Index, it stands second in the world and the United States 11th; Transparency International ranks New Zealand as the least corrupt country, and the United States as the 27th least corrupt country, in the world).
That said, these national metrics did not prevent a lone Australian gunman from carrying out a shooting spree at two mosques in Christchurch in 2019, killing 49 people. In turn, this event sparked a near-immediate ban on the assault weapons used in the attack, with the support of most political parties. Following this event, the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, led an initiative (Christchurch Call) involving 120 governments, online service providers, and civil society organizations acting together to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. This shows how different New Zealand is from the United States, reflecting both the rarity of serious political violence and a culture of conformity.
New Zealand is also a good comparison as the country has similar issues around political disagreements as the United States and shares the same social issues, including prejudice, inequality, vaccination, taxation, and climate change, that drive political divisions in the United States. At the same time, it is free of the partisan mistrust that characterizes much of American society. It is quite possible that the pattern of responses by New Zealand students would differ from their US counterparts. To find out if this is true, we replicated the US survey with 792 undergraduate students across three of New Zealand’s largest universities.
We found that New Zealand based–students, like their US-based counterparts, were most reluctant to discuss politics, followed by religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Nearly 40% of the students we surveyed reported that they were uncomfortable to speak about politics, and about 35% students reported that they were uncomfortable to speak about religion (see the figure below).
Female students were more uncomfortable sharing their views about politics and religion. Male students were more uncomfortable sharing their views about gender and sexual orientation. Right-leaning New Zealand students, like their American counterparts, were more reluctant to speak about issues of gender and sexuality than left-leaning students. Students who described themselves as nonreligious were more reluctant to discuss religion and less reluctant to discuss sexual orientation than religious students. Straight participants were more reluctant than nonstraight participants to speak on gender, politics, and sexual orientation (we had to group participants into these categories in order for the sample sizes to be comparable).
Our survey results regarding students’ perceptions of other groups’ discomfort about expressing their views in the classroom are also of interest. About 60% of students thought that students who were Muslims, identified as transgender, or were of Pasifika origin would be less likely than the “average” student to share their views in a classroom discussion. About 50% of respondents thought Māoris, Hindus, and Asians would be less likely to do so. Most students felt that left-leaning students are quite comfortable expressing their views in the classroom (only about 10% of respondents thought that left-leaning students would be uncomfortable sharing their views, while about 40% of the respondents thought right-leaning students would be less comfortable than the average student sharing their views in the classroom).
Occasionally, students’ perceptions of other groups’ discomfort to freely share their views in the classroom did not conform to reality: It was straight, not LGBTQ students, who were more reluctant to speak their minds in class.
Irrespective of the idiosyncrasies of each country’s political system, a substantial fraction of American and New Zealand university students seem to be reluctant to open up about issues that dominate public discourse: politics, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. This is important because students who are afraid of contributing to class discussions, but who are not recognized as such, are likely to become further alienated.
Chilled university campus speech is not confined to the United States. Despite significant sociopolitical differences between New Zealand and the United States, students in both countries often feel reluctant to express their views in the classroom. The potential impact of this self-censorship on the stated goals of tertiary education deserves further scrutiny. We encourage other researchers to administer their own versions of the survey to their own students — and academic staff — to create a more accurate picture of the international situation on university campuses.
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