Violent protests prevented far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos from stepping foot on University of California, Berkeley, for a scheduled appearance in February. Months later, mainstream conservative Ben Shapiro also got the boot at Berkeley.
Was freedom of speech compromised? Chancellor Carol Christ thought so. In August, she released a statement explaining that both Shapiro and Yiannopoulos were invited to speak at the school again in September. “Berkeley, as you know, is the home of the Free Speech Movement, where students on the right and students on the left united to fight for the right to advocate political views on campus. Particularly now, it is critical that the Berkeley community come together once again to protect this right,” she wrote.
Berkeley isn’t exclusive to this type of conflict. Libertarian conservative scholar Charles Murray’s speech at Vermont’s Middlebury College in March was also met with aggressive demonstration. Conservatives are calling it liberal intolerance. Liberals are saying offensive views shouldn’t have a platform. And the digital era is fueling the fire. The division between the two groups on campuses around the country may only get worse.
This is not to say that universities are on a mission to preach liberal ideals exclusively. Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University, said that alternative opinions do get a voice. (Proctor doesn’t consider himself a liberal or a conservative.)
“We have tremendous open debates from all sides of issues. We do this with students and faculty. There’s a lot of mythology about what’s going on in universities,” said the author of Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.
But the student body paints a different picture. A 2015 Harvard study found that 21 percent of Republican students nationwide said they didn’t feel comfortable sharing their political opinion “without fear of censorship or negative repercussions” on campus. Only eight percent of Democrat students felt the same way.
This fear sometimes conflicts with class assignments. “There are students who I’ve heard from who said they are worried about representing their own ideas [on papers] because they feel they’ll be downgraded if they disagree with the political philosophy or political leadings of their professors,” said Eryk Dobrushkin, the vice president of campaigns and activism of the Harvard Republican Club.
Dobrushkin said some professors are very vocal about their political views even in classes that aren’t based on politics. He recalled his history professor last semester criticizing President Trump and his policies. “I didn’t necessarily agree or disagree with what he was saying, but it was a class completely unrelated to modern politics and he always felt the need to bring it up. It always made me uncomfortable,” he said.
The majority of professors in higher education are in fact liberals. Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence, used research from the Higher Education Research Institute to determine that 60 percent of professors identified as liberals in 2014. In his 2016 New York Times editorial, he added that moderate professors trailed behind at 30 percent and conservatives at 10 percent. Compare this to 1989 when 40 percent of professors were liberal, 40 percent moderate and 20 percent conservative. In New England, especially, liberal professors outpace conservative ones at a rate of 28 to 1.
Abrams, a Riverhead resident who considers himself a centrist, vouched that liberalism on college campuses is indeed a problem. “Let’s say you don’t believe in raising the minimum wage in a classroom full of liberals, you could be ostracized,” he said. “It silences other students and intimidates them. It makes them fearful for their futures, their safety, their reputation.”
Dobrushkin feels the conflict has gotten worse since the 2016 election. He said students were once more open to debate and less likely to react aggressively. “Now that Trump is the banner man of the Republican Party it’s really easy for people to vilify Republicans on campus,” he said. “They look past any nuance in political opinion to paint all Republicans and their positions as racist and xenophobic.” Dobrushkin also pointed out that the Harvard Republican Club publicly announced they did not support Trump after he was nominated.
Generally, negative feelings are coming from both sides. A 2016 Pew study found that big percentages of Democrats and Republicans consider their opposing party to be “close-minded,” “immoral,” “dishonest” and “unintelligent.”
CNN host Fareed Zakaria noted this study during a segment where he commented on liberal intolerance on campuses. He said, “Freedom of speech and thought is not just for warm fuzzy ideas that we find comfortable. It’s for ideas that we find offensive.”
But psychology tells us it’s not so easy to accept opposing views. Confirmation bias says that people tend to value information that aligns with their views and ignore information that doesn’t. A 1979 Stanford University study proved the existence of confirmation bias when researchers presented two fictional studies to 24 subjects in favor of capital punishment and 24 against. One study used information to support capital punishment while the other did the opposite. By the end, opinions remained unchanged. Those in support of capital punishment thought the study that aligned with their views was “more convincing” and vice versa.
In the decades since, the digital world has made it even easier for individuals to disregard the other side and become more passionate about their own opinions.
“In the olden days everybody was confronted with a certain amount of the same information,” said Richard Hornik, a professor of journalism at Stony Brook University. “Today we can customize the news we get and so we find ourselves simply reinforcing our own beliefs rather than challenging them.”
Ten years ago the dean of Stony Brook’s School of Journalism, Howard Schneider, introduced a News Literacy course to teach students the difference between quality and faulty journalism. The course, which is now being taught in over a dozen other universities around the country and 10 overseas, piqued more interest in the midst of the 2016 elections where “fake news” became commonplace.
“The bottom line of the course is that in the digital era there’s much more information to choose from which is a great thing. But at the same time it presents challenges to consumers of information that didn’t exist or were not quite as obvious in the previous era,” said Hornik, who is also the director of overseas partnership programs for the Center for News Literacy.
Liberals can optimize their newsfeed to only get news from MSNBC while conservatives can stick to Fox News. YouTube even queues up videos based on a user’s recent searches. “If you keep watching them, you keep getting more and more extreme views and this is both on the left and the right,” said Hornik. Today, consumers need to consciously seek out opposing news outlets to get diverse viewpoints.
The filter bubbles along with social media have also increased ignorance, said Robert Proctor. Proctor started agnotology (the study of culturally-induced ignorance) decades ago while researching the tobacco industry’s mission to conceal the real facts about the dangers of smoking. Today we see this type of ignorance, he said, with the current administration’s attitudes toward climate change. “There are more avenues for ignorance. Ignorance is more highly financed. It’s more of a deliberate campaign,” he said.
The issues with social media go even deeper. Susanne Cooperman, a neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst at NYU Langone Huntington Medical Group, said a scroll through social media can heighten anxiety with the graphic and terrifying footage on constant display. And today’s political climate is raising people’s anxiety. She said politics have entered her therapy room much more than ever before. The American Psychological Association’s annual “Stress in America: Coping with Change” survey also found that 57 percent of Americans were stressed over today’s political issues. Additionally, 42 percent of constant checkers of social media admitted to becoming stressed over the “political and cultural discussions” they saw.
“One of the reasons that people are becoming more and more extremists is anxiety driven,” Cooperman said. “When people are anxious, they are much less able to show what psychologist refer to as cognitive flexibility. They become very rigid in their thinking…When you have adrenaline coursing through your veins, it’s much harder to take a deep breath, look at both sides and make an educated comment.”
Professors like Samuel Abrams are trying to combat this by giving students an equal opportunity to examine both sides. Each semester, he has his Sarah Lawrence students read books from both leftists and conservatives on any given subject. Those include Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed discussing how the 1996 welfare reform act impacted the working poor, and Charles Murray’s conservative approach to class struggles in Coming Apart. He also challenges their thinking by presenting students with the pros and cons of social issues like increasing the minimum wage.
“It’s dangerous to deny that we have our biases—we all do,” he said. “But you can also teach without it…[My] class is informed by data not dogma.”
Abrams admits it’s more difficult to engage students at bigger universities like NYU where he taught for a year. It’s easier at smaller universities like Sarah Lawrence where office hours are part of the curriculum and professors are able to get to know their students on a more personal level.
“I don’t care if [my students] are liberals or conservatives. What I demand is that they are open to thinking and open to seeing different points of views,” Abrams said. “What I say is everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.”
Yet not every classroom offers the same opportunity. The Harvard Republican Club is hoping to work with the school’s administration to bring more conservative professors on campus to help with what often feels like polarization in certain classes.
“There’s a general feeling among the conservative community here that they’d rather keep their political opinions to themselves because they fear it will either harm people’s opinions of them or harm friendships,” Dobrushkin said. “On the other side, people are loud and proud Democrats and that’s not something that they feel trepidation about sharing.”