Gallup has released the results of polling on the issue of free speech on campus.
That free speech has been under considerable pressure on campus is, in my mind, without doubt. The issue remains as to how deep the censorious impulse goes. It could be that the current round of zealotry runs deep among college students and the young. Or it could be that the debate is dominated by the self-important, and that the rank and file may not always share the sentiments of the loud. Something like this happened in the Sixties, an era which was seemingly all about hippies and radicals though it was also a period of apathy and Young Americans for Freedom.
The results of the poll are in my mind mostly positive, meaning they tend to suggest strong support for free speech among both adults and students.
Now, some of this could be a matter of ambiguity of interpretation. Hypocrisy is, as they say, the compliment vice pays to virtue. And it could well be that even free speech opponents will voice support for the concept. Indeed, they may not even know that there may exist a gap between what they take to be free speech and what I do. “Free speech? Sure. But shut your trap about x.”
There’s also the matter of ambiguity of the question. The first question out of the box asked whether respondents felt free speech was secure. Is there a problem?
Stalin said “a person, a problem; no person, no problem.” No free speech; no problem with free speech.
But a close reading of the poll does seem to suggest that there remains a core attachment to the concept. And that this extends–with expected tensions and stresses–when you examine the results by age, gender and race. Yes, minorities are somewhat more negative about the core concept. And yes, respondents get skittish when asked specifically about comments intended to be hurtful, or costumes designed to stereotype. These areas get into highly subjective territory, with reasonable people disagreeing what constitutes offensive speech or costumes.
But when framed in terms of the benefits of robust debate on political matters, there seems to be a lot of support for speech. So my generally hopeful conclusion is that free speech does command a fair amount of social capital.
Supporters of free speech should be mindful of that. At the least it seems like it would be tactically wise to look for allies lurking in the background rather than conclude the young have just gone AWOL, or represent the enemy.
Under this reading of things, the loud may have a lot less support than it seems. We see something of this now in the Trump chalking episodes popping up on campuses everywhere. People may not yet feel they have the full voice to stand up to PC mandates, but things may be moving in that direction.
None of this is to suggest things are rosy. In a sense today’s campus loudmouths are elites-in-training, trying out in junior league the habits of mind and action that have proven effective for their elders, like the college administrators and federal bureaucrats that actually do enforce orthodoxy, for real. Make no mistake: debate can be hijacked–or more effective yet– suppressed altogether. As Mark Steyn has remarked we live in a new era for argument.
Today, people no longer want to win the debate. They want to prevent the debate. The only antidote is speaking, and encouraging others to do the same.