[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), March 29, 2006 at 3:54pm] Trackbacks
The Real Harm of Campus Political Correctness

The issue of intolerance for conservative and libertarian viewpoints on campus, raised by David's post below, is often discussed in terms of the harm to the students who suffer for expressing their views. The more serious problem, however, is the impact on the quality of discourse on campus for students of all ideologies.

It is true that the vast bulk of the retaliation faced by students who express locally unpopular right-of-center views on intolerant campuses is relatively minor - social ostracism, petty harassment by the administration, and so forth. Most of the people involved will suffer little if any lasting damage. However, many will choose to keep quiet if the price of expressing their views is petty harassment or ostracism.

We can, if we want to, criticize these people and argue that they should be willing to take more risks. The practical reality, however, is that many (perhaps most) people care more about their social standing and about avoiding even minor harassment than they do about expressing their views on political issues. The predominantly leftist schools I attended were, on the whole, far more tolerant and open than 1980s Brandeis was, as David describes it. I usually said what I thought and didn't worry too much about the consequences (some of my classmates would say that I worried too little:)). Even so, I knew quite a few conservative (and even some moderate) students who kept their views to themselves for fear of hostile reaction.

The result may be a campus environment where debates about controversial issues such as abortion, race, or other matters will be one-sided because most of the adherents of the opposing view are keeping quiet. This reduces the quality of debate (and education) for all students, including those who adhere to the dominant view. The point applies to the expression of left-wing views at intolerant conservative institutions as much as the reverse. It just so happens that we have far more predominantly left of center schools than right of center ones. Thus, there is good reason to worry about political intolerance on campus even if we don't care much about the hurt feelings of conservative or libertarian students.

UPDATE: Some of those who claim that campus intolerance of conservatives and libertarians is not a significant problem argue that right of center students are themselves obnoxious, intolerant, and so forth. If there really is an overrepresentation of such people among outspoken campus right-wingers, this fact may itself be the result of PC intolerance. If speaking out in favor of un-PC viewpoints can lead to social ostracism, an obnoxious jerk is less likely to be deterred by this danger than a conservative who is generally nice and popular. After all, the jerk is probably already widely disliked, while his more popular counterpart has much more to lose from any PC backlash to his remarks.

DavidBernstein (mail):
I agree with Ilya entirely. Of course, the perspective students asking me are primarily interested in enjoying their own college years, not in how campus political culture affects their liberal counterparts.
3.29.2006 5:05pm
Cornellian (mail):
It's hard to tell the political views of students around here, since hardly any of them ever express any political views, conservative, liberal or otherwise. I don't think that's a function of fear of expressing unpopular views so much as apathy. I'd like to see a few social conservatives speak up so I could argue with them. Talking about nothing but sports is boring.
3.29.2006 5:06pm

I'm curious -- How does this apply to George Mason Law School, which has a reputation of being quite consistently conservative/libertarian?

3.29.2006 5:10pm
Ilya Somin:
Orin asks a good question. I think we are generally tolerant of opposing views, and the student body (in a rare role reversal) is considerably more liberal than the faculty, so the school is much less homogenous than many believe. I have had many students who worked for left-wing groups and/or Democratic members of Congress and presidential candidates.

However, the real measure of GMU's tolerance is not what I might think, but whether our left of center students and faculty themselves feel comfortable expressing their views.
3.29.2006 5:19pm
DavidBernstein (mail):

The politics of the student body at George Mason is quite mixed, conservative/libertarian for a law school, but probably somehwat more liberal on social issues and somewhat more conservative (but not much in either instance) on economics than the general politics of the state of Virginia, of which it is a state school, of course. That makes the students quite conservative for a law school, but it means that there is a rather wide range of views among the students. I wouldn't be surprised if we have a significantly more "diverse" student body in terms of politics than does GW, and certainly than Georgetown. And, from what I can tell they all get along quite well.
3.29.2006 5:26pm
Defending the Indefensible:
Ilya, part of the problem in discussing this, I think, is that many self-described conservatives are not actually tolerant themselves. I think you can expect that if someone is holding forth on the evils of some liberal bogeyman or other (gay rights for instance) there are going to be some people who are going to be offended and some may express their offense with anger and hostility. I'm not suggesting that this describes David Bernstein, but if you're going to survey people on what campuses are "safe for conservatives" you're probably going to get at least a certain number of responses from people who express such viewpoints.

This does raise a question, I think, regarding how tolerant we should be of perceived intolerance. Certainly people should be free to express politically unpopular views, but do you have an obligation to treat everyone with politeness and respect when they are propounding policies that threaten your own rights?
3.29.2006 5:26pm
Commenterlein (mail):
Few people would disagree with the sentiment that having a wide range of views represented in campus discussions is useful.

Having said that, the discussion here seems to conflate two very distinct issues: Discrimination by faculty or administrators on the one hand, and discrimination / ostracism by other students with different ideologies on the other hand. The former would be a problem if widespread, but the evidence for it seems to be weak, individual anecdotes notwithstanding.

The latter is much less of a problem - holding views that are different from most of your peers and potentially offensive to many of them is inevitable going to lower your social standing in any group of people, whether on campus or off. That is true independently of whether you promote conservatism, socialism, christianism, man-boy-love or whatever your chosen ideology happens to be. If you happen to hold a minority view, you either have to learn to defend it, or to keep quiet.
3.29.2006 5:29pm
Rigelian (mail) (www):
I guess one question is whether campus environments that are safe for "conservatives" would be safe for liberals. I mean I think that would be the question if I were truly concerned about the diversity of debate. I suspect, although not having attended a conservative campus in either undergraduate or law school, that conservative campuses have their own version of political correctness. I suspect that even today, at institutions like Bob Jones University, an interracial couple might be a little hesitant on speaking out about the value of interracial couplings on campus or as a debating point in class.

So let's see what happens at moderate institutions. If one can find a moderate institution. I suspect there that statements made at the extreme from either the right or the left might get one socially ostracized.

So isn't the real question centered on what type of educational environment the consumer wants? That is if we're worried bout social ostracism by fellow students.

If the question centers around bias by professors. That's a far different question, that is if bias winds up being used to punish a student in grading and educational opportunity. Yet even there, students might be able to make decisions on whether to attend a university that is likely to reward their way of thinking academically or punish it.

Now here's the thing...if I were a parent, and my real concern is making sure my child would attend a classroom that would expose him to diversity of thought...the more rational thing would be to send him to a school that was ideologically different from the one he or she has been traditionally exposed to.

3.29.2006 5:56pm
Houston Lawyer:
Call me unusual, but when I was in college, I took great pleasure in inciting the ire of the leftists. All kinds of people will come out of the woodwork and say that they agree with you, but would never publicly say so. That can be quite gratifying.

Having your friends relate back physical threats can also make life a little more interesting.
3.29.2006 6:01pm
plunge (mail):
I'm probably not going to be popular for saying it, but maybe one reason that College Republicans don't get a lot of respect on campus is that they do little to deserve it. While I don't deny that there's plenty of ignorant leftists running around viewpoint discriminating on campuses, no CR organization I've ever met is staffed by saints either. Put short, almost every CR I've ever met is a nasty jerk, while CDems tend to be a lot more low key (in part, I think, because the truly nasty leftists are too far left to be caught dead with those Nader-hating Democrats, while there is no such problem with extremes in the CRs). And if you think this is bias or chance, look at how vicious and nasty CR are to _each other_ whenever they get together elect their own leaders. For many people, being a loyal CR is a ticket to right wing think tank gravvy train.
3.29.2006 6:12pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
I'd generally agree, but I'd object slightly to pitting this as left vs. right. Certain ideas fly more than others, and perhaps the prevailing ideas tend to be more liberal than conservative (in a way, how could they not be? I'm not sure I can imagine a world in which young students are more conservative than the rest), but the main issue here, or at least the valid one, is one of political correctness, not of left being favored over right. I.e., I don't think it can be described as a problem of partisanship. The prevailing viewpoints just kind of are what they are.

Consider, on the other hand, if law schools were more like the general population. Would the general population be more accepting of unconventional ideas? I'm not so sure. I'm thinking of the things I'd say at Thanksgiving with all my conservative relatives, or the things I'm smarter to keep to myself. Like, "Hey Grandpa, I think 'under god' in the pledge of allegiance violates the separation of church and state."

I agree people everywhere should be less knee-jerk, but I don't really think it's something the left does more than the right.
3.29.2006 6:34pm
Call me unusual, but when I was in college, I took great pleasure in inciting the ire of the leftists. All kinds of people will come out of the woodwork and say that they agree with you, but would never publicly say so. That can be quite gratifying.

Heh heh heh, my experience also.
3.29.2006 8:21pm
R. Gould-Saltman (mail):
As an alum of Ohio State in the early 1970's (NOT a hot-bed of radical thought) and of the anti-war left in h.s. and undergraduate school, I read Bernstein's complaints regarding the perceived abuse of conservative/libertarian students, including his experience at Brandeis, and immediately thought of the much-debated-and-probably-scientifically-lousy "Rates of childhood whining, whinging, muling and puking as a predictor of adult political orientation in Berkeley CA" study discussed earlier hereabouts.

Complains Mr. B:

(1) receiving death threats because someone was offended by what you wrote for the school paper
Yep. Got those. I assume, by the way, he would include actual face-to-face threats of physical harm, whehter or not carried out; while I never personally got stomped by combined ROTC and frat forces, I knew folks who did.
(3) having the Administration refuse to abide by its own rules and regulations when conservative or libertarian students engage in activities they find offensive or merely annoying (e.g., throwing out the campus conservative magazine so students visiting campus on prospective students' weekend won't see them)

Well, my father taught (and still teaches) at Kent, and I was there for h.s. in 1970. All things considered, if college administrations and local governments had confined themselves, thenabouts, to throwing out newspapers, magazines and leaflets, antiwar leftists would have been thrilled. We simply printed more; paper and ink were cheap.


>(2) having someone come up to your girlfriend, while your standing right next to her, and asking, "are you his girlfriend?" and when she says, "yes," responding, "do you realize he's a Republican?"

If Bernstein got through four years as a conservative undergrad at Brandeis, and that is the worst thing anyone said about him, to his girlfriend, in his presence, then sophomores just aren't making sophomoric comments the way they used to, or they've become so poltically correct, and sensitive, at Brandeis that they've forgotten how to be really offensive.

I have some recollection of being called, among other things, a "dickless Commie faggot traitor" under similar circumstances. I don't remember if on that occasion, I responded with a reference to my interlocutor as a "sexless jack-booted neo-Nazi thug", or if, (if it was while I was still in high school was hanging with some anarchist Marxists) I went with the often used, but user-friendly "running dog lickspittle lackey of imperialism".

Ah, the marketplace of ideas!

r gould-saltman
3.29.2006 8:27pm
Bruce Wilder (www):
I could not quite identify what I found troubling in this post, until I went back and read the referenced post by David Bernstein. David lists as a first example of an unacceptable disrespect, death threats. Fair enough. But, example number two was:

having someone come up to your girlfriend, while your standing right next to her, and asking, "are you his girlfriend?" and when she says, "yes," responding, "do you realize he's a Republican?"

I laughed out loud.
3.29.2006 8:27pm
Mike Buckland (mail):
I think the part lost in this argument is that the vast majority of college kids couldn't tell you who their congressman is. Most couldn't care less which way a prof leans as long as he gives easy B's. Even the worse tirade by a political prof is ignored unless it's on the next test. And most would recite Mao's little red book if it meant 10 extra points.
3.29.2006 8:31pm
davidbernstein (mail):

It was a bit funny, but it would have been even funnier if the guy in question was actually joking. In fact, he just blurted this out, being shocked to see that an attractive woman would actually date a Republican.
3.29.2006 9:28pm
Justin (mail):
Well this thread certainly took a turn for the psychological.
3.29.2006 11:21pm
Cornellian (mail):
It was a bit funny, but it would have been even funnier if the guy in question was actually joking. In fact, he just blurted this out, being shocked to see that an attractive woman would actually date a Republican.

That's only because of the well known fact that virtually all the hottest college age women are left leaning. I could probably name a dozen guys off the top of my head who pretend to be more left wing than they are purely because of this.
3.29.2006 11:53pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):

That's funny. Maybe truer at an Ivy League than more rural schools, though. That pretending to be liberal is selectively beneficial, that is.

I've had conservatives sneer at me for writing atheist-advocacy pieces in our law school newspaper at GW. Being critical of faith is the taboo of the right. Never mind if the faith is openly hostile itself towards certain individuals or viewpoints. When it comes to religious faith, you can't say that!

At least, unless you want to piss a lot of people off.
3.30.2006 12:31am
Justin (mail):
I assume Cornellian has noticed the same thing I did and was having a little fun at someone else's expense.
3.30.2006 1:24am
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

I think the part lost in this argument is that the vast majority of college kids couldn't tell you who their congressman is. Most couldn't care less which way a prof leans as long as he gives easy B's. Even the worse tirade by a political prof is ignored unless it's on the next test. And most would recite Mao's little red book if it meant 10 extra points.
This is true, but not particularly relevant. The biggest problem isn't the 10-15% of intolerant leftist students; it is the (in my experience) 25-30% of intolerant leftist professors. (There must be intolerant rightist professors somewhere, but perhaps only in an alternate universe.)

Just to clarify: my experience is that 90% of faculty are on the left end of the spectrum (liberal through communist), with the remaining 10% sprinkled through apolitical, conservative, libertarian, and centrist. (The number of these non-left of center professors at universities I attended was so small that I am reluctant to guess distribution within that 10%.) Most professors seem to regard their job as education, not indoctrination, and when their left end politics came out, it was usually an off-hand remark, and did not usually influence grading or classroom behavior.

The out of control leftwing crazies, however, were partial to political indoctrination not just in addition to what they were supposed to be teaching, but in place of the subject. As an example, my wife took a Critical Thinking class to meet a GE requirement. The textbook was actually quite good, even though the examples were, to my way of thinking, a bit too heavily biased towards the left. I actually had one of the authors for another class, and he was a pretty doctrinaire but fair Marxist. (That is to say, mainstream at Sonoma State University.)

Unfortunately, the textbook was barely used for this class. The professor spent most of the class ranting and raving about George Bush and Gulf War I--usually with no connection to the supposed purpose of the class--teaching critical thinking.

What is also quite bizarre is how much of the intolerant leftism of the professors seemed like camoflauge to cover other issues. For example, one of my wife's professors for American literature blathered on with all the proper feminist critiques of literature--but he clearly held the women in the class in contempt, and my wife, who isn't prone to seeing this sort of thing, found this quite distressing. One might almost get the impression that his focus on feminist criticism was a way of covering over the fact that he held women in contempt--or perhaps he was being whipped vigorously by the lesbian members of the department.

One of my history professors, who was black, explained to me that in spite of the vigorous leftist rhetoric of the professors at Sonoma State, there was enormous racism as well. I asked if this wasn't a bit of a contradiction, and he responded to the effect, "Lots of people don't believe the things they did when they got their PhDs from Berkeley, but they won't admit it."
3.30.2006 12:27pm
R. Gould-Saltman (mail):
Cramer claims that the " biggest problem isn't the 10-15% of intolerant leftist students; it is the (in my experience) 25-30% of intolerant leftist professors".

Without bothering with my view of the way he generally structures arguments, he means one of several things here, e.g., his problem is with:

(a) 25-30% of all professors, whom he finds to be intolerant leftists who express their intolerance in problematic ways;

(b) the 25-30% of leftist professors, whom he finds are intolerant and express their intolerance etc. OR
(c) the 25 to 30% of intolerant leftist professors who express . . . etc. where that 25-30% is a much smaller percentage of the entire faculty.
. . .

I'm afraid, from the way he worded his post, that he means (a), and that's clearly a nonsensical claim. My alma mater shows, on their stats page, about 5000 faculty. 30% is 1500. Cramer's present employer, Boise State, says they have 2200 "faculty and staff", implying by context that they mean teaching staff (instructors and TA's I assume).

A substantial number of those folks teach classes in, e.g., organic chemistry, civil enginering, dairy science,coaching intermurual basketball, basoon performance, etc.

If 600 of the faculty at Boise, and more than a thousand of them at OSU, regularly launch into irrelevant tirades in front of their students about George W., Iraq, imperialism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, or whatever he regards as the subjects that mark someone as an "intolerant leftist" , then life at these august institutions of higher learning is just plain wierd.

Both my own perosnal knowledge, and the aborted attempt to pay UCLA students to "rat out" their evil leftist professors,lead me to think, however, that he's just plain making his statistics up.

r gould-saltman
3.30.2006 3:46pm
D Lacey (mail):
I went to Brandeis in the 2nd half of the 80s and there was quite a bit of "right"/conservative including a magazine specifically for right politics (there was also a much more annoying "left"/pro-Palestinian magazine - my years later memory is that the left one was called the Watch and the right one was called the Brandesian). There was also a "middle" newspaper that was pro-Israel and quite liberal about everything else.

There were many Orthodox Jews at Brandeis at the time who were in my recollection greatly respected. I ended up writing nothing but fiction and poetry, but I had friends and acquaintances in all the publications and they seemed to get along fine. The rightys and leftys alike complained they were marginalized, but they weren't particularly, people just overall didn't agree with them. I saw no cases of professors pushing their views aside, in fact most of the professors were happy to have someone willing to speak up and say something other than repeat back what the professor had said.

I'm sure someone who had grown up with a much more conservative viewpoint being the "middle" in their environment would be discomfitted to suddenly be in the minority (and I knew at least two such), but that doesn't constitute intolerance, just a different average viewpoint.
3.30.2006 11:48pm