‘Yes, the Kids Are Intolerant’

Excerpts from a blog on the new site, Heterodox Academy

The overall levels of tolerance in society do fluctuate. People are more willing to restrict political rights to their foes during times of war or international threat. Yet, while the baseline for tolerance fluctuates over time, it has always been the case, until recently, that younger people were the most tolerant. This relationship between age and tolerance is what led Stouffer and others to conclude that our society would grow more tolerant over time. The fact that this trend has now reversed has significant implications. If it continues, we will grow less and less tolerant over time.

My late colleague, Stanley Rothman, makes a compelling and thorough case for the lasting impact of the New Left on American values in his last book, The End of the Experiment. Marcuse is widely regarded by political theorists as the most influential philosopher of the Frankfurt School.

But one doesn’t have to read Rothman’s book to understand that young people are now articulating a New Left philosophy about free speech and academic freedom. Students repeatedly ban speakers who offend their sensibilities while framing their objections in Marcuse’s terms. For example, in an op-ed in the Harvard Crimson last year, a student argues for “academic justice” to replace academic freedom. In this view, universities have a social responsibility to be intolerant towards those who would promote racism, sexism and homophobia.

James Gibson (1992), arguably the leading scholar on tolerance, concludes that intolerance creates a culture of conformity that makes all people more hesitant to exercise political liberties. So this is the irony of speech codes. When we teach students to silence racists, they also silence Muslims, atheists, and anyone who makes other people uncomfortable. Intolerance creates a general prohibition on controversial expression.

My research finds that the younger generation perceives a tension between social justice and free speech that previous generations did not.

Those under 40 who have a social justice orientation are generally more intolerant than those who do not. Again, this relationship is not present for those over 40. Those over 40 tend to articulate classical liberal philosophies, which emphasize the right to expression, even for our political foes. Ludwig von Mises argued that liberalism “demands toleration for doctrines and opinions that it deems detrimental and ruinous to society” since “only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace.”

Perhaps there are other forces that explain these generational gaps in attitudes towards free expression. What is clear, however, is that older generation behaves as if they are influenced by classical liberalism and younger generations are behaving as if they were influenced by the New Left.

Yes, the kids are intolerant. That is, they are intolerant if we define tolerance as researchers have for the past six decades, as a measure of willingness to extend basic democratic rights to those one finds most objectionable.

3 thoughts on “‘Yes, the Kids Are Intolerant’”

  1. I’d like to read your friend Rothman’s “compelling and thorough case for the lasting impact of the New Left on American values”, The End of the Experiment. But even the Kindle edition is $55.53.

  2. I don’t know how this study could say that this relationship doesn’t exist for those over 40, since it’s generally from their teachers and professors that the younger generation is learning this concept of social justice and the intolerance of differing opinions that goes along with it.

  3. I would say that some of the kids are intolerant. They’re a fairly small percentage, but because they’re loud and intolerant, they drive schools to adopt authoritarian speech codes and harassment policies so they can attack anyone who dares to disagree with them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *