The recent events at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (see our two blogs on the topic: here and here), as well as other campuses around the USA and elsewhere has put a spotlight on how activism motivated by a desire to increase tolerance, diversity, and inclusion can, in many ways, ultimately result in intolerance towards those who are perceived as holding dissenting views. The idea that greater ethnic tolerance leads to freedom from any kind of intolerance has become a self-evidently accepted truth among many scholars and progressive activists. For instance, Allport (1954) opined that “a tolerant person makes no distinction of race color or creed and who not only endures but, in general, approves of his fellow men” (p. 398).
New research however indicates that the ethnically tolerant can be intolerant of those who do not share their values and social goals, or in other words their creed. Furthermore, the current campus climate was at the forefront of the researchers’ minds when they conducted the research (Bizumic et al., 2017, p. 1-2):
Recent events at college campuses in the United States have sparked a debate about whether activism that was ostensibly designed to increase tolerance of those with diverse backgrounds has actually become intolerant of those with opposing views. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined an invitation to speak at Rutgers University after student protests, which echoed protests during a similar speech at Boston College in 2006 (Fitzsimmons, 2014). US President Obama (2015), who disagreed with Rice’s policies, opined:
I do think that there have been times on college campuses where I get concerned that the unwillingness to hear other points of view can be as unhealthy on the left as on the right… there have been times where you start seeing on college campuses students protesting somebody like the director of the IMF or Condi Rice speaking on a campus because they don’t like what they stand for. Well, feel free to disagree with somebody, but don’t try to just shut them up.
Since then, a series of controversies at college campuses around the United States have reinforced these issues. A series of overtly racist events at the University of Missouri led to the resignation of several university officials, which led some to question whether they should rightly be held responsible for the acts of non-university affiliated individuals (K. Sullivan, 2015). The issue of whether Halloween costumes depicting people of minority ethnicities are implicitly intolerant of those minorities led to the resignation of Claremont McKenna’s dean of students (Altman, 2015) and an academic at Yale (Friedersdorf, 2015), leading many to question whether political activism in the name of diversity has become intolerant of free speech (e.g., Kimball, 2015; Shire, 2015).
An empirical question can therefore be asked whether the ethnically tolerant are indeed free of any kind of intolerance, and whether there are social groups against which the ethnically tolerant may express intolerance.
In four studies published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Buzumic, Kenny, Iyer, Tanuwira, and Huxley (2017) demonstrate that the ethnically tolerant are intolerant of those they perceive as “not like them.” Studies 1 and 2 exposed Australian participants with lower and higher levels of ethnocentrism to 2 messages related to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers (1 pro and 1 anti). Studies 3 and 4 were conducted in the United States and United Kingdom respectively, and assessed attitudes towards racists and prejudiced people with feeling thermometers.
In Study 1, the ethnically tolerant (who opposed the mandatory detention) reported a desire for greater social distance in intimate relationships (e.g., family, close friends, significant other) from supporters of the pro-mandatory detention message. Likewise, those higher in ethnocentrism reported a desire for greater social distance in intimate relationships from supporters of the anti-mandatory detention message. The same pattern was found for non-intimate relationships among both groups but the differences were statistical trends and did not attain statistical significance.
In Study 2, Bizumic and colleagues included two scales measuring political intolerance, one concerning supporters of the opposing message and the other concerning a judge’s decision to prevent a rally of opposing message supporters. The ethnically tolerant identified less with pro-mandatory detention supporters, and reported more political intolerance and prejudice for such individuals. Those higher in ethnocentrism reported less identification with the supporters of the anti-mandatory detention message although this correlation was not statistically significant. A mediated moderation analysis revealed that identification with message supporters drove the effects of ethnic tolerance on political intolerance and prejudice among the ethnically tolerant.
In Study 3, US citizens completed measures of ethnocentrism and political ideology, and then completed feeling thermometers that assessed their attitudes towards racists and prejudiced people. Ethnic tolerance related weakly to liberalism, “suggesting there could be liberals high in ethnocentrism and conservatives low in ethnocentrism” (Bizumic et al., 2017, p. 9); and moderately correlated with prejudice towards the intolerant. Multiple regression analyses revealed that liberalism did not predict prejudice towards racists and prejudiced people but ethnic tolerance did.
Finally, in Study 4, UK citizens completed the same measures as the US citizens did in Study 3. Additionally, they also completed measures of social identification and moral conviction related to ethnic diversity. Ethnic tolerance related positively to liberalism, prejudice towards to intolerant, and moral conviction. Consistent with Study 3, multiple regression analyses revealed that liberalism did not predict prejudice towards those high in ethnocentrism but ethnic tolerance did. Lastly, mediational analyses revealed that social identification mediated these effects but moral conviction did not.