Mar 20 2018

Free Speech – Perception vs Reality

In general, which demographic is more supportive of free speech, a college student who identifies as an extreme liberal, or a non-college educated conservative? How has overall support for free speech, even “politically incorrect” speech, changed over the last few decades? The answers to these questions may seem obvious, and that’s the point, because the actual facts run contrary to common perception.

Researcher Justin Murphy recently published aggregated results of surveys regarding tolerance of different kinds of speech. There is also a good discussion of this data on Vox, but here is the quick overview:

  • Tolerance of speech or support for free speech has been overall rising over the last few decades
  • Self-identified extreme liberals are the most supportive ideological group of free speech
  • College/University education correlates with increased tolerance of speech.
  • The most intolerant group are non-college educated, and the type of speech about which they are most intolerant are anti-American Muslims.

Of course, there are always potential confounding factors in surveys. But the data here are pretty clear – overall support for free speech is high and rising, and is highest among the college-educated and liberals. The surveys looked at tolerance of various groups: antitheists, homosexuals, racists, communists, militarists, and anti-American Muslims. For every type of speech tolerance has been rising among every ideological group, except for tolerance of racist speech among moderate liberals (still increasing among extreme liberals), and tolerance of anti-American Muslim speech among conservatives. The decrease in tolerance for racist speech may be due to an increase in African Americans, who are less tolerant overall of racist speech, among that demographic.

What you will not find in this data is support for the common narrative that we have a free speech crisis on college campuses in America, driven by political correctness on the left. That narrative is essentially a myth. Like many popular beliefs, it does not survive confrontation with actual facts.

I have to say I never found the anti-political correctness narrative very compelling. I work on a university campus, and have many friends and colleagues who do also, and did not recognize the picture of the anti-free speech college liberal in any real person I know. My own experience, however, is anecdotal, and it is preferable to base judgments on hard data.

Of course, there are people who take political correctness too far. There are people who take every idea too far. There are extremists on both ends, but most people are somewhere in the middle.

The real question is – how did the narrative come to be so widely accepted when it is directly contradicted by reality? The answer should be obvious to any frequent reader of this blog or similar discussions of cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Overall this is a manifestation of confirmation bias. People tend to see the world through a filter forged from their existing beliefs and desires.

In this case (as is often the case in our modern times) the process is given a huge boost by the media, which essentially pre-biases the information we see. The process can work in multiple directions. For an individual, once they accept a narrative they will notice and remember examples that seem to support the narrative, while missing, ignoring, or downplaying any contradictory examples. So the story about students heckling a speaker with political opinions they dislike is taken as confirmation of the general trend. This also represents the logical fallacy of the hasty generalization – generalizing prematurely from a few non-representative examples.

There are also political actors at work. In some of these widely reported cases the speakers tried to get themselves booked at universities specifically to provoke protest, so that they could then point to the protest as evidence for extreme political correctness on campus.

There is also a general trend among the news media to give undue attention to outlier extreme events and people. They won’t bother to report every time a controversial speaker is allowed to speak on campus with only peaceful or perhaps no protest. That is a non-event. Further, when there is a protest of a speaker on campus whom do you think the reporters are going to speak with? They are going to show the most extreme students, the ones making the most noise. The media is guaranteed to focus on the outliers, because that is where the sensational story is.

These factors conspire to create and propagate a simplistic narrative. This is partly a deliberate fabrication for propaganda purposes, and partly reporters lazily following the most sensation story. Then, of course, social media echo chambers will magnify this effect.  This works nicely with a general bias toward simple answers and models.

The further problem with such narratives is that they tend to radicalize people, which then further drives the narrative. If you think there is a “crisis” in your society (in this case a crisis of free speech, especially on college campuses) then you might be motivated to take extreme measures to fix it. Those taking those extreme measures may then inspire radicalization among their ideological foes, and the cycle continues. Social media magnifies this also, as it only takes a few “trolls” to dominate the discussion on social media and greatly exaggerate the perception of radicalization.

This is just one tiny slice of the tsunami of politicized and sensationalized misinformation in which we are living.

The solution, as much as there is one, is to be more skeptical (I know, shocking). We need to develop the habit of taking a step back, taking a deep breath, and reserving judgement about a hot topic until we see some objective data. Don’t buy the offered narrative, especially if it resonates with your ideology. That is the toughest thing to do – to not immediately accept a narrative the feels right, that confirms your worldview, and is being spread by people you generally agree with.

It is also important to recognize that the real world is generally going to be more complex than it at first appears. As a first approximation of what is probably going on, there is likely a nuanced position somewhere in between the extremes. Both sides probably have a point, but are also probably taking a too simplistic view and are taking their positions too far. (To emphasize – this is a good starting point. Then you look at the facts and logic and let the chips fall where they may.)

Also – don’t accept one side’s characterization of the other. That is likely to be biased and hostile. Rather, let people define their own position, and adhere to the principle of charity.

In short, don’t let yourself be radicalized by a biased narrative fed to you through biased and sensationalized outlets, and sometimes deliberately manipulated by propaganda operators with an ideological agenda. Rather, look for information that is as objective and factual as possible. Doubt your own position. Be tolerant of uncertainty and complexity.

It does seem that education in general tends to foster these traits, and that likely explains the fact that increased tolerance correlates with increased education in these surveys. I do think that standard education needs to include much more explicit treatment of critical thinking skills, starting at the youngest ages. That would probably go a long way to mitigating the problem of false narratives.

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