Campus Culture: Why Can’t We All Get Along?

[Content Warning: social justice]

I’ve been reflecting about political correctness, content warnings, safe spaces, and free academic discourse recently. These are topics that tend to be difficult to analyze statistically, making them particularly difficult for me to have what I consider an informed opinion. However, I feel like I do have something to contribute. I should note that what I say is simply my impression; individuals experience may vary, and I could be far off (in which case, you should correct me). I’ll cite some statistics about Carleton College (where I attend), but I expect broadly similar trends at similar colleges and universities.

I apologize in advanced for the large number of tangents.

Social Pressure and Political Discussion

First, I feel like I should cite some data from a survey of at least 1100 Carleton students and 400 Carleton faculty/staff. Both groups were asked whether they agreed Carleton was welcoming to students based on a variety of demographic characteristics (I put the data in a convenient excel document if you’re interested).

I gave each characteristic a score by averaging everyone’s answers (+2 for strongly agree down to -2 for strongly disagree). On this measure, scores ranged from +0.09 to +1.26 for students and from +0.35 to +0.94 for faculty/staff. In both cases, political beliefs scored the lowest, indicating that of all the characteristics surveyed people felt we were least welcoming to those of unpopular political beliefs.

That being said, the idea that conservative students are uncomfortable sharing their ideas is itself a narrative that eschews individual variation. A survey of college students U.S. college students found that 21% of Republicans were not comfortable sharing their political opinions at college for “fear of censorship or negative repercussions”, compared to 50% who were comfortable. The numbers for Democrats were 8% and 56%, respectively.


Why is there a difference?

Imagine, you say something in a discussion like “I think X.” Someone replies that they think you’re wrong because of Y. After you respond, someone else says they think you’re wrong because of Z. By the time the third person disagrees, you’d be forgiven for feeling like you’re all alone and everyone else disagrees with you, even if everyone was perfectly cogent and polite.

Consider the following facts

  1. Carleton is quite liberal (5% conservative and 75% liberal)
  2. 61% of college professors at liberal arts college identify as liberal, while only 4% identify as conservative [116] (24% of the general public identify as liberal, compared to 37% who identify as conservative).

Now, I don’t know why this is true, nor am I not saying either of these issues are good or bad; they’re simply facts.

Imagine you’re a conservative student at Carleton. 61% of your professors are liberal, a percentage that is probably far higher in subjects where politics actually comes up [116]. Your class needs at least 14 other students, before you have an above 50% chance of not being the lone conservative student in the room.

Now, consider our scenario. A political issue comes up, and you’re a conservative. You say you think “X”. There may be another conservative in your class, but on average, you’re outnumbered 15:1 by liberals. How many disagreeing comments do you think you’re hear before you’ll hear someone who actually defends what you believe? Again, this isn’t to say liberals are doing something wrong; this is an emergent behavior.

In reality, only 24% of liberals have ended a personal friendship because of politics (40% ended a Facebook friendship). This is compared to 16% (31%) for conservatives and 10% for those of mixed political views. Of course, the ending of a friendship could have as much to do with the extent to which someone (obnoxiously) pushes their views, but that is (presumably) controlled for by those of mixed political views, so if we subtract off that 10%, , we can (tentatively) conclude that about 14% of liberals have ended a personal friendship because of that person’s actual political views – as opposed to the sheer quantity of political content.

Again, I’m not saying it’s necessarily wrong to end a friendship due to political beliefs (see tangent), but this is an excellent example of a social force that contributes to echo chambers and worries by people with political beliefs that put them in the local minority.

Consider, then, a typical class of 20 students at Carleton. It contains 1 conservative and 15 liberals. 2 of those liberals have (at some point in their lives) ended a personal friendship because of someone’s political views. If they’re discussing politics, the professor is almost certainly liberal.

So, I feel like this issue is largely fixable on an individual basis. We just have to (1) reduce the use of unnecessary rhetoric and (2) avoid piling on in discussions, both online and off. However, I’d also like to point out that silence can probably be as harmful as active opposition, so I think that it’d also be helpful if people were more willing to voice agreement with minority positions when they agreed – something I know I need to work on, as I’m far more quick to point out what I perceive as flaws than what I perceive as strengths.

Content warnings and Safe Spaces

I think the above points are important to understand, not only because sympathy with others is generally good, but because I think it also explains conservatives’ lack of enthusiasm for content warnings and safe spaces.

First, let me start with an analogy. Do you think the US has too many or too few regulations? Well, 49% of Americans said too many, 22% said too few, and 27% said the right amount. My own view is that such a question is kind of ridiculous. There is a huge variety in regulations, and there’s no way you’re going to have any inkling over whether politicians should generally focus more on making new ones or removing old ones (unless you’re a lawyer or politicians who specializes in regulations). Instead, your view is almost certainly based on particular examples of either (1) the most ridiculous regulations or (2) the most ridiculous business abuses.

Many conservatives feel that there is a sense, on college campuses, of everyone (liberals) being against them. Imagine, then how they feel when they learn that liberals are putting forth two policies nominally related to free discourse: content warnings and safe spaces. Then they learn that some college administrations are supporting these policies. In the context of unintended social pressure, I think you can forgive conservatives for feeling ganged up on.

More importantly though, conservatives, like 99% of people, have this idea of a free-speech continuum, much like a too-much-regulation continuum. So, when they perceive that free-speech is too restrictive, they’re against further restrictions in general, just as conservatives and liberals can (somehow) be for or against regulations in general.

This is the point where I start making lots of assumptions. I *think* that most conservatives would actually be okay with these liberal ideas, if they were considered in isolation

  • content warnings (1) harm no one, (2) helps some people, and (3) are regularly used by major media outlets (e.g. “some viewers might find this content disturbing”).
  • safe spaces (1) harm no one, (2) help some people.

I think the reason, they *feel* like these are bad policies, is that they see these as restrictions of free speech in general, which they feel as unacceptable, for the reasons I raised in the first section.

Indeed, if you read what conservatives say online, I think you’ll find that most of the arguments conservatives give against content warnings and safe spaces, are really appeals against a more general shift in culture, rather than arguments about why those particular policies are bad ideas. You’ll see things like “we need to fight the cooling effect on open discourse”; you’ll rarely see people saying that people triggered by sexual violence, should just be left to fend for themselves.

Now, I’m sure some conservatives genuinely do view content warnings and safe spaces as bad policies, just as I’m sure some liberals do want to shut down discussion. However, I think that if we could somehow solve the issue of conservatives feeling unvalued and disliked, we’d go a long way to making content warnings and safe spaces uncontroversial. As in all social issues, a little sympathy can go a long way.

Now, there definitely are some legitimate differences in opinions regarding campus culture that can’t be solved simply with a little sympathy. The relevance and definition of microaggressions, for instance, is something that leads to genuine disagreement, as far as I can tell.