The Kids Aren't Intolerant

April Kelly-Woessner argued last week at Heterodox Academy that “young people are less politically tolerant than their parents’ generation.”

Titled, “How Marcuse made today’s students less tolerant than their parents,” Kelly-Woessner blames intolerance by young people on 1960s New Left theories of “repressive tolerance.”

While she raises some important concerns about intolerance, Kelly-Woessner misses the target by blaming left-wing theorists.

According to Kelly-Woessner, the least tolerated group is “Muslim clergymen who preach hatred against the United States,” and she adds, “Young people are also less tolerant than the middle aged groups toward militarists, communists, and racists.” That’s an odd mix of groups to blame on the New Left. Really, Marcuse and the New Left have made young people less tolerant of communists and Muslims? What kind of sense does that make?

Instead, I think sometimes we underestimate the psychological impact of 9-11 and growing up during the War on Terror, and how that has affected the under-40 generation who experienced this as children or young adults. It’s not surprising that young people who grew up under a government that restricted civil liberties in the name of fighting terror would be slightly more likely to support repression, especially of extremists. Although all Americans experienced the trauma of 9-11, it seems quite possible that because it happened to the under-40 generations during their formative years, it had a more powerful impact.

At least that’s a much more plausible theory than blaming intolerance on left-wing theories that almost nobody has heard of or advocates nowadays.

Kelly-Woessner argues, “Americans have not, in fact, become more tolerant. Rather, they have shifted their dislike to new groups.”

This is definitely not true. Americans, according the GSS statistics cited by Kelly-Woessner, have become dramatically more tolerant in recent decades. But in the past, younger generations were more tolerant than older people, and the increase in tolerance was largely a result of older generations dying off. Now, growing tolerance spreads across all generations. And although younger people are very slightly more intolerant of certain viewpoints (such as opposing the hiring of professors who believe that black people are genetically inferior), overall tolerance is growing.

Hating blacks and hating racists is not the same thing. There is a fundamental difference between saying that a group of people should be oppressed because of their identity and saying that people who engage in hate should be oppressed. Not all intolerances are equal. And it is accurate to say that Americans have become more tolerant (even in the case of racists, who are now much more unpopular than in the past but more tolerated than decades ago).

Still, these are worrisome numbers, even if Woessner’s analysis of the causes is off the mark. People who perceive their ideas as being in the minority tend to support free speech for disliked groups, while those who think they’re in the majority tend to be more critical of free speech. So the shift in intolerance to younger, more liberal people may have a lot to do with the growing popularity of liberal ideas. This also helps explain the apparent outlier of communists. Communism is a left-wing stand, but it’s not popular among young people, and therefore intolerance is greater toward it among young people.

According to Kelly-Woessner, “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.” It’s hardly surprising that people who want to help blacks get ahead are opposed to hiring racist professors. In fact, the intolerance of racists is lower than we might expect considering the dislike of racism by young people.

Those of us who were in college during the late 1980s and early 1990s can remember when cries of despair over political correctness and speech codes were all the rage, and pundits predicted that our generation would become the new totalitarians. So what happened to us? According to Woessner, “people in their 40s are the most tolerant.”

Today’s young people only seem modestly intolerant by comparison because older Americans have grown more tolerant to a degree unimaginable in human history.

But we must do a better job of teaching tolerance: we need colleges that promote freedom of speech in addition to prohibiting restrictions on it. Today’s youth are not an intolerant generation, but they are too often ignorant of the importance of free speech.

6 thoughts on “The Kids Aren't Intolerant

  1. Trigger warnings. “Microaggressions.” Louisiana prof fired for profanity. Whites banned from British student meeting on racism. “Check your privilege.”

    The Kids are highly tolerant of liberals and most groups liberals want to protect. Anyone else, not so much. Of course The Kids are not monolithic themselves. Many, even many who are personally left, find all this speech suppression offensive. More power to them.

    Libsplaining: When liberals explain to nonliberals why the academy does not discriminate against them.

  2. Pingback: A Response to John K. Wilson |

  3. Pingback: A Reponse to John K. Wilson | The Academe Blog

  4. Pingback: Intolerant tolerans? | Alexandras allehanda

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.