Preston Stovall is a Postdoctoral Researcher for a project on Inferentialism and Collective Intentionality at the University of Hradec Králové.
In the Berkeley protests against Milo Yiannopolis in February of 2017, the so-called ‘black bloc’ showed up to a vocal, but mostly peaceful, protest. They caused enough physical damage to buildings on campus that the University police backed off – giving the attackers free reign to destroy property, and ultimately leading to the cancelation of Yiannopolis’ talk. Since then, talks from Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter have cost Berkeley nearly one million dollars to ensure the safety of the speakers and their audiences.
At a talk given by Charles Murray at Middlebury College in March of 2017, student protests sufficient to drown out the invited speaker turned violent as Murray and other faculty were assaulted when leaving the building.
At a political rally in Berkeley in April of 2017, a masked figure swung from behind a protestor talking with a Trump supporter to strike the Trump supporter with a bike lock – with such force that it doubled him over and left a deep laceration on his head.
At Evergreen State College, a series of confrontations in 2017 led to barricaded rooms, the cancellation of classes across the entire university, roving bands of armed students, and a physical assault against defenders of Bret Weinstein who were using a “free speech zone”.
Are these incidents of political violence and harassment outliers or part of a growing trend of hostility towards free expression on campus?
One popular way to explore this question has been through surveys gauging attitudes about free speech among contemporary youth. Heterodox Academy’s Jon Haidt & Sean Stevens, FIRE’s Nico Perrino, and Rutgers Psychology professor Lee Jussim and others have argued that major nationally-representative polls of students do suggest that a change may be underway, specifically among the generation of youth that San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge has dubbed “iGen.”
However, by relying so heavily on polling to answer this question, both those who believe a major shift is underway and their detractors risk committing what sociologists Jerolmack & Khan dubbed the “attitudinal fallacy”: What people say on polls may not accurately reflect or predict how they will behave “in the world”. For instance, many who staunchly support free speech in the abstract may stand idly by in the face of attempts at suppressing controversial views on campus – or may even join in themselves.
To the extent that we are concerned about illiberal behaviors rather than attitudes, we should attempt to observe and catalog how people act over what they profess to believe.
Contemporary American college students live in an environment of 24/7 social media, mass-media, public displays of political allegiance, and the ability to record the world around them almost any time they wish.
These “open sources” can empower social scientists to develop and test hypotheses in ways that go beyond the polling of opinions – and ultimately develop fairly objective assessments on the relative propensity toward political violence and harassment among various factions, at least as recorded and disseminated by the students themselves.
Researchers could begin by focusing on events that:
- occur either on college campuses, or at events sponsored by student organizations
- involve the use of either physical violence or collective agency directed at keeping people from speaking (e.g. by shouting together to drown out a conversation)
- are driven by participants who have clearly aligned themselves with the political left or the political right
Sources of data for tracking these putative trends include video recordings, police records of arrests and convictions, news reports from multiple reliable sources, etc.
By building up a database of episodes which meet these conditions, we can develop a more accurate picture of the prevalence of political violence and political harassment on college campuses today – and make more fine-grained predictions about tendencies among those on the left and the right.
If this author were to hypothesize on what would be found through an empirical study of this nature, in order of diminishing credence I would estimate:
- Evidence since 2015 will show that most contemporary incidents of harassment or intimidation at campus events originate with the left (using data from F.I.R.E., this trend was noted in an essay by Stevens and Haidt).
- Outside campus settings, we will see a tendency for organized events to draw both supporters and protestors who come prepared for physical confrontation (think Antifa and the Proud Boys). In these settings it will be harder to determine whether violence tends to be due more to those on the left or on the right, though I suspect overall both sides will share close to the same responsibility.
- Campus incidents will be disproportionately clustered around small liberal arts colleges, and at universities in large urban centers in historically “blue” counties.
In terms of the trend going forward (again in order of diminishing credence):
- By fostering dialogue among various factions, and thereby promoting mutual understanding, we shall help cause the frequency and intensity of these incidents to decline.
- In 30 years it will be possible to look back on the contemporary college scene concerning freedom of expression in much the way we look at the turbulence on American college campuses in the 1960s and 70s – viz., a mostly productive response to genuine problems, interspersed with a bit of idealistic fanaticism rightly subject to criticism.
In conversation over an earlier draft of this essay Rutgers psychologist Lee Jussim offered me the following predictions (in no particular order):
- Conservatives in the social sciences and humanities are currently on the Endangered Species List – and will probably go extinct, at least at liberal arts and coastal colleges and universities over the next 20 years. Nonleftists (libertarians, moderates, etc.) are currently Vulnerable, and will probably move to Endangered. One need not wait 20 years to test; pre-registered prediction: % of each will continue to decline.
- Academics will far more frequently and forcefully denounce academics who write conservative essays/editorials than those who write liberal ones. This would probably best be scaled against the overall # of left/right individuals or articles.
- Conservative students will feel more uncomfortable speaking up on campus than do liberals. This trend will continue and worsen.
- Scholarship will focus almost exclusively on questions that academics on the left want answered. If some field is 98% left, this becomes true almost by definition.
- An important limitation, I think, is that it will take years to do this sort of research. If so, doing it won’t help cope with our current situation, regardless of whether or not we view it as a crisis (outlets on the left insist it isn’t, outlets on the right insist it is).
- Faster solution than waiting years for the research? Survey moderates, independents, and libertarians. Treat them as, if not quite unbiased, at least less biased, actors. Pre-registered prediction: large majorities of such groups will say “yes, there is a serious problem.”