It’s another one of those things that people just know because they just know. Liberals are intolerant. Liberals control college campuses. Therefore, colleges suppress conservative expression and persecute conservatives. You’re constantly hearing this message fired in your direction like a nail gun, from right-wing talk shows, blogs, books, social media and other bullhorns. As a result, according to Gallup, 92 percent of Americans believe that “liberals” can express themselves freely on campus, while only 69 percent believe “conservatives” can. And in at least 30 states, legislatures controlled by the GOP (you know, the party of “less government”) have proposed measures ostensibly aimed at protecting free speech that could actually compromise First Amendment rights.
Our good old friends at fairandbalanced Fox “News” have even gone so far as to declare that colleges are “literally destroying the country” and fomenting a “real civil war”. It’s not surprising that a reactionary propaganda outlet like Fox should be so virulently anti-intellectual. But it’s especially chilling because the bubble-brained prattle of Fox exerts such a profound influence on the current bubble-brained regime in Washington. Anti-intellectualism, lest we forget, is a hallmark of fascism and totalitarianism in general. Anyone ever hear of burning books? Or shipping teachers and scientists off to prison?
Fox and company can relax, if they’re capable of doing so. As with many, many other things that people “just know” the canard about “liberal intolerance” on campus turns out to be not quite so true. In fact, it appears to be blatantly untrue, according to the evidence.
It’s a given among just about everyone that college campuses mostly tilt to the left. And among right-wingers, it’s an article of faith that those tilting left are more intolerant. But a 2016 study found that they were apparently the most tolerant at least among college freshmen: 86 percent of left-leaning students entering colleges and universities indicated they could tolerate people of opposing beliefs, compared to 82 percent of middle-of-the-roaders and only 68 percent of conservatives.
Ah, but maybe that will change after they’ve been in school for awhile. Well, yes, it does. They become more tolerant. According to recent research, after a year of college, only 31.3 percent of students develop a more negative attitude toward conservatives (and 30 percent develop a more negative attitude toward liberals) while 49.6 percent develop a more positive attitude toward conservatives (and 47.8 percent a more positive attitude toward liberals). Which is to say, no matter which side of the fence they’re on, they become more accepting of the other side after they’ve been on campus for a year. In other words, it appears that the college experience makes everyone more tolerant. If it also makes everyone more liberal, then it just doesn’t add up to conclude that liberalism correlates with intolerance — unless, of course, there is a marked discrepancy between words and actions.
So what about those actions? What exactly does the punditocracy mean by intolerance on campus? Well, the specific illustrations don’t exactly unfold the way the reactionaries consistently claim, according to a survey conducted by Georgetown University’s Free Speech Project.
First of all, the project found that in the past two years there have been about 60 incidents on college campuses of free speech (apparently) being threatened or compromised in some fashion — a rate of about 2.5 incidents per month. If that sounds like a lot to you, bear in mind that there are 4583 colleges and universities in the nation. That means that the chances of any particular institution being the scene of such an incident in any given year were roughly .65 percent — or less than one in 150. Clearly, campus “intolerance” is nowhere near the raging epidemic that the reactionary punditocracy would have you believe.
The second important point is that most of the incidents defining supposed “liberal intolerance” entailed trying to bar polarizing right-wing figures from making speeches on campus. Moreover, most of these involved the same handful of polarizing right-wing figures, a gaggle of demagogues who have made a lucrative and ego-boosting career of spouting bigotry and stupidity in an effort to draw attention to themselves and portray “liberals” as intolerant — which in turn will draw more attention to themselves and swell their purses even more. If the leftists are to be faulted for anything, perhaps it’s being gullible enough to play into their hands.
Finally, and perhaps most interesting, this study and others have shown that “liberals” aren’t the only perpetrators, and “conservatives” aren’t the only targets. There have also been many instances of individuals being targeted because they had made statements that were considered too left-wing; quite often, it was daring to criticize the 45th White House Occupant, an offense for which they had received death threats from tolerant “conservatives”. Just try to wrap your head around that: expressing displeasure with the most dishonest, corrupt, bigoted and hateful White House Occupant in history will get you branded as intolerant yourself.
And there is also what is probably a much better measure of First Amendment assault on college campuses than who is or is not allowed to be a guest speaker. What about those individuals who speak there every day? Shouldn’t we pay some attention to the fallout teachers receive for taking (what is perceived as) an ideological stance as some kind of barometer of “intolerance”?
Well, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, a Canadian political scientist (not to be confused with the American economist of the same name), has put together a database of cases in which college instructors in the U.S. were fired on such grounds. And the results are quite interesting:
As you can see at a glance, the number of “liberal” instructors who are being fired is, at present, roughly double the number of “conservatives”. And the number has spiked dramatically in recent months. How often has Fox “News” reported this?
Furthermore, whether you’re discussing dismissed instructors or disinvited guests, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. What about the reasons for the “intolerant” reactions? On the one side, who have “intolerance” toward ideologues who make racist, homophobic, and other hateful utterances, and deliberately try to stir up controversy. On the other side you have people being fired, harassed or threatened for criticizing one extremely corrupt and dishonest politician. When conservatives are intolerant toward liberals, they’re rejecting taxation of the rich, welfare, egalitarianism and regulation of the almighty firearm. When liberals are “intolerant” toward conservatives, they’re rejecting white nationalism, discrimination, religious tyranny, and warmongering. Right-wingers disinvite Michael Moore for digging up unpleasant facts about their favorite corrupt politicians. Left-wingers disinvite Ben Shapiro for saying things like “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage” and Native Americans contributed only “dreamcatchers, tomahawks and cannibalism” and taxes support a “militant homosexual agenda”. And on and on and on.
These two types of “intolerance” are not even remotely comparable. And yet the demagogues have convinced millions of people not only that they are comparable, but that rejection of intolerance is even more intolerant than intolerance. This is, in short, yet another example of right-wing fanatics drastically shifting the goalposts and redefining incivility to suit their purposes.
Are there actual instances of leftists being genuinely intolerant on campus? Probably. But a great many of such claimed incidents don’t hold up to scrutiny. And while the studies and figures are by no means exhaustive, they are sufficient to show at the least that liberals are far from being consistently or frequently intolerant on campus; and that they are far from being the only ones. Yet these perceptions are the overriding media narrative. The fact that so many people buy into it is yet another testimony to the power of right-wing cult media to dominate and manipulate public opinion. It’s almost like it was planned that way or something.