In recent years a debate over free expression, open inquiry and academic freedom has been ongoing, particularly in the United States. At least two arguments are frequently made, often in opposition to each other. One contends that it is important to expose people to dissenting — even offensive — points of view to ensure the healthy debate considered necessary for a democracy. The other argues that allowing offensive, hateful speech marginalizes those targeted by the speech and helps objectionable political views gain respect among the public.
Unfortunately, much of this debate has become mired in a myopic focus on free speech and the First Amendment. While it is true that one of the primary ways certain viewpoints are silenced is by governmental action, it also has long been argued that understanding the direct effect of public or social intolerance on an individual’s decision to engage in self-censorship is of greater importance.
Some scholars contend that the tyranny of opinion (see Blackford 2018) can create a spiral of silence (e.g., Gibson 1992; Noelle-Neumann 1974) which produces a “creeping conformity.” This conformity dampens minority opinion and distorts perceptions of public opinion, because the less a viewpoint or opinion is expressed, the less popular it appears to be. One key feature of a spiral silence is that it does not only silence offensive, odious, extreme or hateful views — it can also silence other minority opinions that may be closer to (or within) the mainstream of public opinion. This likely has adverse consequences for a democracy (see e.g., McClosky 1964; Prothro & Grigg 1960; Sullivan, Piereson & Marcus 1982).
A spiral of silence is a characteristic of an intolerant political culture, where public disapproval and social shaming are used to discourage the expression of dissenting views. Tolerant political cultures, in contrast, allow people to openly express and debate a wide variety of viewpoints. Political tolerance has primarily been investigated at the individual, or micro, level. In nearly all of the societies investigated research indicates that many people support limiting the rights and liberties of certain groups they dislike (see e.g., Marquart-Pyatt & Paxton 2007; Peffley & Rohrschneider 2003; Sullivan et al. 1982)
Yet, spiral of silence theory suggests that the perception of a culture of intolerance by those with dissenting and/or minority views determines whether these views are expressed. Whether a culture of intolerance exists is thus a macro-level variable. The little research that has investigated the impact of a culture of intolerance indicates that those who do not feel free to express themselves are more likely to be intolerant of others, have more homogenous peer groups, and live in less tolerant communities (Gibson 1995). Recent research by Christopher Claassen and James Gibson (2019) attempts to extend this prior research by creating a measure of macro-tolerance in a community and assessing rate of protest.
Claassen and Gibson hypothesized that “the level of political intolerance of a geographic area should be negatively related to the rate at which citizens living in the area engage in political protest” (p. 168). They assessed whether there is a link between the level of political tolerance in a community and the frequency of dissent. Results indicate a link between cultures of intolerance and frequency of dissent: moving from a community with below-average macro-tolerance to one with above-average macro-tolerance was associated with a 77% increase in rate of protest.
Survey data was obtained from the Freedom and Tolerance Surveys (FATS), which ran every year from 2007 to 2011. Claassen and Gibson did not expect macro-tolerance to vary much between each year, so responses were aggregated across all five years.
To determine if an individual resided in a culture of intolerance, Claassen and Gibson focused on metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) as the unit of analysis. This decision was made because a culture of intolerance is likely to have a wider influence than a single neighborhood but is unlikely to exist on a state level (Claassen & Gibson, 2019, p. 168). Multilevel regression poststratification (MRP) was used to measure the opinion expression climate within MSAs (for more information on MRP, see Gelman & Little 1997; see also here). Respondents from a total of 317 MSAs were identified. Respondents in the Washington D.C. – Arlington – Alexandria MSA were removed from the sample because of a considerably high rate of protest made the area an outlier (as the nation’s capital, this metropolitan region is often a target of protesters from around the country). This left a total of 3,133 respondents for analysis.
Tolerance was measured among respondents on the micro-level considering responses to survey items that utilized the least-liked groups method and survey items that assessed support for civil liberties. Based on these responses and an ordinal confirmatory factor analysis, a general political tolerance factor was computed and then used to model macro-level tolerance. Frequency of dissent was measured by the number of recorded protests in the Global Database on Language and Tone (GDELT).
Results and Discussion
A positive, moderate correlation between macro-tolerance and rate of protest (r = .35) was found, indicating that the rate of protest is higher in MSAs that are characterized by a tolerant political culture. Several control variables that “push” or “pull” people into protest were then included in a series of models testing the robustness of the association between macro-tolerance and rate of protest. When controlling for these variables the link between macro-tolerance and rate of protest remained robust: “a two-standard deviation increase in macro-tolerance is associated with a 77% increase in metropolitan rate of protest” (Claassen & Gibson 2019, p. 179). Five other covariates emerged as predictors of rate of protest. Ethnic fractionalization, the share of the electorate that voted for Barack Obama in 2012, and the number of charitable organizations per capita were all positively associated with rate of protest. The number of children under the age of 18 and voter turnout in 2012 were negatively associated with rate of protest.
Claassen and Gibson (2019, p. 181) caution against drawing a causal link macro-tolerance and protest. Gibson (1989) previously found that heightened incidents of protest, particularly one’s that are aggressive or violent, can produce a backlash effect where tolerance for future protests is dampened. This could result in administrative efforts and campaigns by local interest groups to further curb free expression and protest. Other research however, suggests that participation in protest can increase support for civil liberties and political tolerance (Duch & Gibson 1992; Peffley & Rohrschneider 2003). More research on cultures of intolerance is clearly needed to understand the complex processes at play and how they impact the expression of dissenting and/or minority views.
What These Findings Mean
Macro-tolerance in MSAs are positively correlated with rate of protest, meaning that MSAs that are more politically tolerant have higher rates of protest. These findings have relevance for the debate over free speech, open inquiry and academic freedom that is occurring in the United States. Concern about the impact of dangerous and hateful speech has been used to support arguments that certain kinds of speech and expression should be limited or even made illegal and banned.
Although, as Claassen and Gibson acknowledge, the present results cannot attest to where exactly such limitations should lie, their evidence does suggest that putting up with a variety of potentially unwanted speech is warranted, particularly if one’s goal is to facilitate the expression of dissenting opinions, protest, or social change. As they succinctly put it (p. 182):
“Indeed, one reason that one might want to put up with unpopular speech is the link our findings imply between tolerance and the vitality of democracy. While the level of protest expressed in a polity may not correspond in a linear fashion with the health of its democracy, protest is undoubtedly a necessary condition for democratic vitality. Citizens’ ability to freely gather, march, and express their opinions outside of routinized (and often controlled) political channels is what separates democracy from the various authoritarian facsimiles in circulation today. By dampening protest, cultures of intolerance undermine the health of democracy.”
More research investigating how macro-level forces interact with micro-level, individual factors to influence political tolerance, the expression of dissenting and/or minority views, and protest is needed. The present research establishes a link between macro-level political tolerance and a higher rate of protest, yet how such a dynamic may play out over longer periods of time remains unknown. Some evidence (Gibson 1989) suggests that heightened rates of protest may produce a backlash and stimulate the passage of legislation that represses protest and the expression of dissenting and/or minority views.
Furthermore, many protests take place in smaller, more localized communities, like a college campus. The dynamics at play in each of these smaller communities may be very different and difficult to generalize writ large. As recently noted by PEN America, a number of states have pursued, or are pursuing, legislation that targets the opinion expression climate on college campuses. Such legislation seems flawed, because each individual campus community is likely better equipped to determine how the opinion expression climate should be regulated, if at all.
Reference: Claassen, C. & Gibson, J.L. (2019). “Does Intolerance Dampen Dissent? Macro-Tolerance and Protest in American Metropolitan Areas.” Political Behavior 41: 165-185.
Sean Stevens is Heterodox Academy’s Research Director. He has a PhD in social psychology from Rutgers University.