Comment

‘Safe spaces’ exist because universities treat secular ideas as sacred

Oxford: a safe space

There have been a lot of stories recently about no-platforming at universities, with free speech and academic intolerance becoming much more of an issue. Last week journalist Julie Bindel was disinvited by Manchester’s Student Union because of something she wrote about a decade ago, since when she has been hounded continuously. Bindel has been disinvited to events so many times now her name could almost be a verb; to bindel someone.

Readers will recall that the Catholic Herald’s Tim Stanley was prevented from speaking at an Oxford debate on the subject “This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All”. Again, the argument was that it would somehow harm the students’ safety to listen to someone with a different point of view.

Tim, however, is something of an exception, for the interesting thing about no-platforming is that most of the people barred are women, and most of them are on the Left. The former is an interesting question but for another time, but the latter is most likely because conservatism is an irrelevancy. Trans activists forcing Bindel out of a debate is the equivalent of the Jacobins turning on the Girondins after the revolution has been won; as for today’s conservatives, they’re in a coffee shop in London hanging out with Le Comte de Frou Frou. No one no-platforms them – except when an ultra-personal issue like abortion is involved – because no one cares what we think.

It wasn’t always like this. As this interview with the great Roger Scruton recalls, “in 1985, the University of Glasgow’s Philosophy Department boycotted a paper that Scruton had been invited to present on campus. Scruton recalls how, that same day, academics elsewhere in the university were conferring an honorary degree on Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe.”

Have today’s students even read Scruton?

The main cause of this declining tolerance in academia was laid out recently by the ‘Heterodox Academy’, a new campaign by about 20 academics in the US aimed at increasing political diversity in universities (among those involved are Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt).

In one post April Kelly-Woessner of Elizabethtown College spells out how the monopoly of ideas by the liberal-Left has led to the rise of intolerance. She writes:

First, I make the case that young people are less politically tolerant than their parents’ generation and that this marks a clear reversal of the trends observed by social scientists for the past 60 years. Political tolerance is generally defined as the willingness to extend civil liberties and basic democratic rights to members of unpopular groups. That is, in order to be tolerant, one must recognize the rights of one’s political enemies to fully participate in the democratic process. Typically, this is measured by asking people whether they will allow members of unpopular groups, or groups they dislike, to exercise political rights, such as giving a public talk, teaching college, or having their books on loan in public libraries.

Americans have not, in fact, become more tolerant. Rather, they have shifted their dislike to new groups. For example, “Muslim clergymen who preach hatred against the United States” are now the least liked group included in the General Social Survey (GSS), followed by people who believe that “blacks are genetically inferior”. Most importantly, compared to those in their 40s, people in their 30s and 20s actually show lower tolerance towards these groups. According to the 2012 GSS, people in their 40s are the most tolerant of Muslim clergymen who preach anti-American hatred: 43% say a member of this group should not be allowed to give a public speech in their community. Among people in their 30s, the number who would prohibit this group from speaking climbs to 52%, and for those in their 20s it jumps to 60%.

Young people are also less tolerant than the middle aged groups toward militarists, communists, and racists. This is not true for tolerance towards homosexuals or atheists, because younger people simply like these groups more. (Political tolerance is not a measure of liking someone, but the willingness to extend political freedoms to those one dislikes).

If we look only at people under the age of 40, intolerance is correlated with a “social justice” orientation. That is, I find that people who believe that the government has a responsibility to help poor people and blacks get ahead are also less tolerant. Importantly, this is true even when we look at tolerance towards groups other than blacks. For people over 40, there is no relationship between social justice attitudes and tolerance. I argue that this difference reflects a shift from values of classical liberalism to the New Left. For older generations, support for social justice does not require a rejection of free speech. Thus, this tension between leftist social views and political tolerance is something new.

Third, I argue that intolerance itself is being reclassified as a social good. For six decades, social scientists have almost universally treated intolerance as a negative social disease. Yet, now that liberties are surrendered for equality rather than security, the Left seems less concerned about the harmful effects of intolerance. In fact, they have reframed the concept altogether. For example, political scientist Allison Harell (2010) uses the term “multicultural tolerance,” which she defines as the willingness to “support speech rights for objectionable groups” but not for “groups that promote hatred.”

In other words, multicultural tolerance allows individuals to limit the rights of political opponents, so long as they frame their intolerance in terms of protecting others from hate. This is what Marcuse refers to as “liberating tolerance.” In fact, the idea that one should be “intolerant of intolerance” has taken hold on many college campuses, as exemplified through speech codes, civility codes, and broad, sweeping policies on harassment and discrimination. Students now frequently lead protests and bans on campus speakers whom they believe promote hate.

While this may have the effect of creating seemingly more civil spaces, it has negative consequences. In fact, tolerance for all groups is positively correlated. It is not simply the fact that leftists oppose the expression of right-wing groups. Rather, those who are intolerant of one group tend to be intolerant of others and of political communication in general.

And this is the crucial point, here – that if you shelter people from opposing views, they soon become intolerant.

The willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints and exercise tolerance is predicted by one’s exposure to counter-attitudinal messages (Mutz, 2006). In other words, listening to viewpoints that contradict our own makes us more tolerant. In this way, the lack of ideological diversity in higher education contributes to intolerance, especially among leftist students. This is a point that President Obama made forcefully in a recent speech in Des Moines, Iowa.

This has a huge impact on academia, as Jonathan Haidt points out in another post:

The lack of diversity causes problems for the scientific process primarily in areas related to the political concerns of the Left – areas such as race, gender, stereotyping, environmentalism, power, and inequality – as well as in areas where conservatives themselves are studied, such as in moral and political psychology.

Before the 1990s, academic psychology only LEANED left. Liberals and Democrats outnumbered Conservatives and Republican by 4 to 1 or less. But as the “greatest generation” retired in the 1990s and was replaced by baby boomers, the ratio skyrocketed to something more like 12 to 1.

Many very decent people on the British Left are opposed to no-platforming, hate speech legislation or other forms of censorship, and I salute them for that. What they might not consider, though, is that it should be not just about letting conservatives have their time on the microphone, but about taking conservative ideas seriously. The most important point, I think, of Haidt’s findings is that non-liberal theories in the social sciences have been purposefully ignored for political reasons, and this produces skewed results or perceptions. Take the example of stereotype accuracy, for one.

Since the 1930s, social psychologists have been proclaiming the inaccuracy of social stereotypes, despite lacking evidence of such inaccuracy. Evidence has seemed unnecessary because stereotypes have been, in effect, stereotyped as inherently nasty and inaccurate (see Jussim, 2012a for a review).

Some group stereotypes are indeed hopelessly crude and untestable. But some may rest on valid empiricism—and represent subjective estimates of population characteristics (e.g. the proportion of people who drop out of high school, are victims of crime, or endorse policies that support women at work, see Jussim, 2012a, Ryan, 2002 for reviews). In this context, it is not surprising that the rigorous empirical study of the accuracy of factual stereotypes was initiated by one of the very few self-avowed conservatives in social psychology—Clark McCauley (McCauley & Stitt, 1978).

Since then, dozens of studies by independent researchers have yielded evidence that stereotype accuracy (of all sorts of stereotypes) is one of the most robust effects in all of social psychology (Jussim, 2012a). Here is a clear example of the value of political diversity: a conservative social psychologist asked a question nobody else thought (or dared) to ask, and found results that continue to make many social psychologists uncomfortable. McCauley’s willingness to put the assumption of stereotype inaccuracy to an empirical test led to the correction of one of social psychology’s most longstanding errors.

The most influential effect of this cultural and political imbalance is that academia has ignored the increasing evidence that human traits are heavily influenced by hereditary factors, most prominently in intelligence and sexual differences. This has a huge bearing on public policy, especially when so much of policy is involved in tackling inequality of various kinds. It would be like trying to reduce economic inequality while pretending that wealth cannot be inherited, because that’s offensive to people’s parents, and that all fortunes were the results of education, hard work or sheer luck.

At some point social democrats and those broadly on the Left are going to have to readjust their ideas about how to tackle injustice by taking into account the evidence here. I say this not because I want to help the liberal-Left, but because people on the Left are always going to dominate academia, the media and other opinion forming territories; simply because, as Haidt points out, those areas favour people open to experience and openness as a character trait correlates with liberalism. (Even openness is estimated to have a genetic influence in the region of 57 per cent.)

The irony of all this is that, while American universities began as religious institutions (Harvard as Congregationalist, Princeton Presbyterian etc), since their secularisation liberal-Left ideas have come to form a sort of institutional religion. No wonder sacred ideas cannot be challenged.