there has been no decrease in toleration of differences

The Harper’s Letter decries “A new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

If the Letter is reasonable at all, such claims must be testable. I think that someone who fully endorses the Letter should hypothesize that Americans have–for better or worse–grown less likely to tolerate hateful speech, such as explicit expressions of anti-Black racism.

Have they? Since 1976, the General Social Survey has asked Americans whether someone should be allowed to give an anti-Black racist speech in their community. There is no significant change in responses to this item. It is true that the lowest rate was measured in the most recent year: 2018. But the difference between 2018 and the average year was within the margin of error (+/- 2.6 points), and the line has long wobbled around the mean.

Maybe the left has forgotten about the First Amendment? Here is the trend for people who identify on the left end (1 or 2) of a 7-point ideology scale:

Liberals (as the survey names this group) have been a bit more likely than the population as a whole to think that a racist speech should be allowed (mean = 67.6% vs 61.3% for the whole sample). The only reason this second line wiggles more than the first is that the sample is smaller. The trend is again essentially flat.

Or perhaps it is “the young” who have forgotten the First Amendment?

Maybe, to a limited extent. The third graph shows the trend for people who were 18-29 at the time of each survey. There has not been much change since 1982, but the 2018 result is well below the 1976 number.

By the way, I am not sure that I believe a racist speech should be allowed in my community. The First Amendment applies–there should be no state censorship–but if my “community” is something like my school, religious congregation, university, or town council, I’m against a sanctioned, formal speech “claiming that Blacks are inferior” (which is how the GSS phrases the question).

The GSS has also asked about other forms of speech or speakers: a speaker who is gay, a speech advocating military dictatorship in the USA, a communist speaker, or a Muslim clergyman preaching hatred of the USA.

Generally, the trends are up. I find it troubling that ten percent still don’t want to permit a person who is gay to speak in their community. I also find the level of tolerance for the Muslim clergy-person worrying, although the question is worded in a particular way that’s arguably Islamaphobic itself. But overall, the trend is that more people would tolerate more differences.

Of course, another trend is taking place–albeit harder to quantify. Nowadays, an incident that reinforces the beliefs or concerns of a given group can easily “go viral.” Given our tendency to confirmation bias, we can select and share news items that confirm almost any belief. Incidents that are widely shared represent severe selection bias. I have read about true stories of problematic (or even scandalous) intolerance on the left. I see no evidence that these stories are common or becoming more so. Absent empirical evidence, can we avoid making sweeping empirical claims?

See also: the Harper’s letter is fatally vague; a civic approach to free speech; what sustains free speech?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.