A Reponse to John K. Wilson on The Kids Aren't Intolerant

By April Kelly-Woessner

I would like to thank John K. Wilson for sending me his comments about my HeterodoxAcademy blog and inviting me to respond. There are a lot of points to cover.

First, John K. Wilson disputes my finding that young people today are less tolerant than their parents. He claims “young people only seem modestly intolerant by comparison because older Americans have grown more tolerant to a degree unimaginable in human history.”

In our private email exchange, Wilson defended this argument by pointing to increased tolerance toward homosexuals. Indeed, people are more accepting of alternative lifestyles, minorities, women’s rights, etc. than at any time in the past. But political tolerance is a measure of how we handle disagreement. Tolerant people allow those they consider dangerous to society to speak and participate in the democratic process. Allowing one’s friends and political allies to speak is not a sign of tolerance. Young people may like more people, but they are especially intolerant of disagreement.

In this way, intolerance is not a static measure. If it were, we would still be measuring it based on freedom granted to communists, as Stouffer did in 1955. In fact, some studies in the 1970s did just that, declaring that Americans had become more tolerant as their hostility towards communists declined. But Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus (1979) pointed out that these increases in tolerance were “illusory,” in that communists were simply no longer the most disliked group. Intolerance had shifted to other groups. The same is true today. While attitudes towards communists and homosexuals have changed over time, the majority of Americans still deny rights to their political enemies. According to the 2012 GSS, 77 percent of the population will deny rights to at least one of the groups mentioned, with Muslims being the most frequently oppressed group.

The overall levels of tolerance in society do fluctuate. People are more willing to restrict political rights to their foes during times of war or international threat. Yet, while the baseline for tolerance fluctuates over time, it has always been the case, until recently, that younger people were the most tolerant. This relationship between age and tolerance is what led Stouffer and others to conclude that our society would grow more tolerant over time. The fact that this trend has now reversed has significant implications. If it continues, we will grow less and less tolerant over time.

Second, Wilson rejects the idea that this new intolerance reflects the influence of the New Left. He argues that “almost nobody has heard of” Marcuse or his theories. Yet, young people echo many ideas today that have roots in philosophies and documents that they cannot identify. Indeed, many do not know that their ideas on liberty were influenced by Locke, or that their ideas on market economics were influenced by Adam Smith.   My late colleague, Stanley Rothman, makes a compelling and thorough case for the lasting impact of the New Left on American values in his last book, The End of the Experiment. (http://www.amazon.com/End-Experiment-Cultural-Decline-Americas/dp/1412862485/ref=sr_1_13?ie=UTF8&qid=1444150868&sr=8-13&keywords=stanley+rothman). Marcuse is widely regarded by political theorists as the most influential philosopher of the Frankfurt School. Would Wilson argue that the New Left and the politics of the 1960s had no lasting impact on our collective values, or that these values do not include perspectives on speech and expression? It’s absurd.

But one doesn’t have to read Rothman’s book to understand that young people are now articulating a New Left philosophy about free speech and academic freedom. Students repeatedly ban speakers who offend their sensibilities while framing their objections in Marcuse’s terms. For example, in an op-ed in the Harvard Crimson last year, a student argues for “academic justice” to replace academic freedom. In this view, universities have a social responsibility to be intolerant towards those who would promote racism, sexism and homophobia. She writes,

“If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”? Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.” (http://www.thecrimson.com/column/the-red-line/article/2014/2/18/academic-freedom-justice/)

Yet, Wilson argues that the New Left would not produce intolerance towards such a wide range of groups. He asks, “Marcuse and the New Left have made young people less tolerant of communists and Muslims? What kind of sense does that make?”   It actually makes perfect sense, if one understands the research on political tolerance. As I explain in my book chapter, it is not simply the case that conservatives are intolerant towards leftist groups and leftists are intolerant towards conservative groups. Rather, intolerance towards one group is positively correlated with intolerance towards all the other groups. Intolerant people simply deny expression to anyone who might offend others. In fact, people who are intolerant of others even impose limitations on their own political expression. James Gibson (1992), arguably the leading scholar on tolerance, concludes that intolerance creates a culture of conformity that makes all people more hesitant to exercise political liberties (http://pages.wustl.edu/files/pages/imce/jlgibson/apsr1992.pdf). So this is the irony of speech codes. When we teach students to silence racists, they also silence Muslims, atheists, and anyone who makes other people uncomfortable. Intolerance creates a general prohibition on controversial expression.

My research finds that the younger generation perceives a tension between social justice and free speech that previous generations did not. Wilson tries to dismiss this correlation between social justice orientation and intolerance but his argument is misguided for two reasons. First, he claims that it is simply natural for those who support rights for blacks to also limit the speech of racists. Yet, he fails to explain why this relationship is not significant for those over 40. Why is it not natural for everyone? Second, I explain in the book chapter that I anticipated this objection. Thus, I ran the model again, removing racists from the measure of intolerance. The relationship still holds. In other words, those under 40 who have a social justice orientation are generally more intolerant than those who do not. Again, this relationship is not present for those over 40. Those over 40 tend to articulate classical liberal philosophies, which emphasize the right to expression, even for our political foes. Ludwig von Mises argued that liberalism “demands toleration for doctrines and opinions that it deems detrimental and ruinous to society” since “only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace.”

Wilson argues that there is some other explanation for the decrease in tolerance among America’s youth, perhaps their socialization into a post 9/11 world. Yet, the evidence is that this shift has been gradual and that it started well before 9/11. Take, for example, willingness to allow racists to speak in public. The figure below shows the percent of people in each age group that would allow a racist to speak. Older people have become more tolerant over time, as Wilson suggests. But younger people have declined in tolerance, contrary to Stouffer’s predictions and contrary to Wilson’s argument.

Perhaps there are other forces that explain these generational gaps in attitudes towards free expression. What is clear, however, is that older generation behave as if they are influenced by classical liberalism and younger generations behave as if they were influenced by the New Left.

Yes, the kids are intolerant. That is, they are intolerant if we define tolerance as researchers have for the past six decades, as a measure of willingness to extend basic democratic rights to those one finds most objectionable. The kids are much more tolerant if you redefine the concept, such that tolerance is measured by support for non-traditional, leftist groups.

In Marcusian fashion, Wilson suggests that certain types of intolerance might be more acceptable than others, “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.” Perhaps silencing racists and homophobes isn’t so bad.  Intolerance is okay, so long as it oppresses the Right people (pun intended). Yet, for the past sixty years, researchers have documented the harmful effects of political intolerance on public discourse. If Wilson and others want to argue that intolerance in the name of social justice does not produce the same negative effects as intolerance in the name of security or prejudice, they have some obligation to produce the evidence. Otherwise, it’s hard to take this new perspective on intolerance as anything other than ideological defensiveness.

2 thoughts on “A Reponse to John K. Wilson on The Kids Aren't Intolerant

  1. To argue that administrative censorship is purely (or even mostly) a result of Marcuse and left-wing theories is what strikes me as the key flaw in this argument. Kelly-Woessner argues, “intolerance towards one group is positively correlated with intolerance towards all the other groups.” That is a rejection of Marcuse’s theories. The whole point of Marcuse was to be inconsistent and hypocritical, to favor censorship of your enemies and not your allies. General intolerance suggests a different origin of the problem.

    Kelly-Woessner claims, “Students repeatedly ban speakers who offend their sensibilities while framing their objections in Marcuse’s terms.” Actually, students almost never ban speakers. Administrators ban speakers, sometimes at the behest of students, but usually because of their own concerns or fears about influential people being offended. And you can’t show a nationwide trend is caused by structural changes in universities motivated by Marcuse’s theories, based on one Harvard student’s op-ed that uses some similar language.

    Kelly-Woessner writes, “the evidence is that this shift has been gradual and that it started well before 9/11.” Does this fit with Kelly-Woessner’s thesis that speech codes and New Left theories caused the shift? In fact, her graph shows a dramatic decline in tolerance of racists by those under 40 from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. This was a period when young people were growing dramatically more conservative and pro-Reagan (but I don’t know if the GSS data shows this was the reason). Then the graph indicates stabilization and slight increases in tolerance among young people from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, the period when speech codes were said to have been established. Then the graph shows a dramatic drop in tolerance of racists by young people since 2002 (and a smaller decline at all ages), a period when no substantial changes in speech policies on campus have been identified. I can’t see how either Marcuse or speech codes can explain these changes. 9-11 might not either, but it seems much more plausible.

    Kelly-Woessner accuses me of endorsing Marcuse’s hypocritical approach to free speech. I think we can recognize differences between kinds of intolerance while still supporting free speech for everyone. That is, there is a difference between opposing all speakers who are Muslim and opposing a Muslim speaker who preaches violence and hatred. The former indicates a higher level of intolerance in society than the latter. I believe that Americans under 40 are more tolerant than in the past because the indices political scientists such as Kelly-Woessner use to measure intolerance are flawed in this way. However, it doesn’t change the fact that young people are less tolerant than they ought to be, and colleges have a responsibility to help educate students about the importance of free expression, and too often administrations only offer lessons in censorship.

  2. Mr. Wilson, your arguments against the ‘source’ of this intolerance are
    interesting. Ms. Kelly-Woessner’s analysis may indeed be off, perhaps the
    result of organic or larger social changes that aren’t directly tied to a
    single thinker. I tend to agree with her, however, that the op-ed she quoted
    is no isolated incident. Regardless of cause, this troublesome
    thought-stream shares the same ideological spring that birthed Marcuse’s New
    Left. The comments from Harvard Crimson are only one example in a vast river
    of literally hundreds of conversations I’ve had and articles I’ve read that
    indicate to me a general trend in Western academic dialogue: the idea that
    being intolerant of people who “deserve it” is not only acceptable, but a
    social good.

    You could also be right that banning speakers and defending oppressive
    speech codes is primarily the activity of conservative, risk-averse
    administrations rather than students… but that doesn’t seem to be how
    recent world events have played out. See: Kate Smurthwaite, Germaine Greer,
    Oxford Students for Life, Tim Wolfe, Nicholas and Erika Christakis.
    Students, entitled, empowered, and intolerant, appear to be driving the
    agenda in the western world in defense of the ‘oppressed.’

    Whether a speaker “deserves” suppression is incredibly fluid and depends on
    the (over)sensitivity of the listener. If a blogger states that a man
    accused of rape is entitled to due process, is that blogger a ‘rape
    apologist?’ If a researcher administers IQ tests to a representative sample
    of thousands of people and determines that the bell curves for different
    races are not the same, is that researcher a ‘eugenicist?’ I’ve seen these
    ad hominem attacks play out in real time wielded with rabid intensity by
    sensitive, ‘vulnerable’ students the world over.

    Cognitive biases lead the mentally lazy (ie: most people) to skip the nuance
    in discussion and to apply a halo or horn effect to the speaker. True
    Believers of all kinds aren’t engaging in debate but waiting for the dog
    whistle phrase that signals to them that the speaker isn’t “one of us.”
    Because of this, it is unfair to simply stop at the statement: “hating black
    and hating racists is not the same thing.” This idea taken to its New Left
    conclusion, that oppressing the speech of blacks is not the same as
    oppressing the speech of racists, leads to a dangerous precedent. As the
    cultural wheel spins, the only thing that protects those crushed at the
    bottom, whether they are honestly reprehensible or misunderstood, is liberal
    freedom like that espoused by Evelyn Hall: “I disapprove of what you say,
    but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    Mr. Wilson, you seem to make the case that tolerance is growing by using the
    common definition: “acknowledging as acceptable a wider range of people and
    behaviors.” We may, as a generation, be more ‘tolerant’ than our
    predecessors of other races, the ‘lesser sex,’ and different sexual
    identities/orientations/behaviors/arrangements, but that kind of tolerance
    is irrelevant if ‘political tolerance’ and liberalism are not the foundation
    of our national dialogue.

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