The Power of Liberal Peer Condemnation on Conservatives

Now we know that the conquest of academia by political correctness is complete. A repressive system succeeds when the overlords of it no longer must exert any pressure. Instead, the group that is the target of the repression censors and harasses itself.

This is the finding of a study by two professors at UNC-Chapel Hill. The researchers began by issuing a questionnaire to the undergraduates at the school, 20,343 in total. They got back 1,087 completed responses. The survey asked the students how many times, in one selected class, they had kept their opinions quiet out of fear of some kind of reprisal.

As you may guess, liberal and conservative students diverged widely. More than three-quarters of liberals (77 percent) stated, “Never,” while less than one-third of conservatives (32 percent) did so. Nearly one-third of conservatives (30 percent) choked down their beliefs more than five times, while only two percent of liberals did so.

[‘Woke’ Journalists Undermine America’s Newsrooms]

Those rates tally with past studies of campus climate. The next stage of the project is where it gets interesting. When the researchers asked about the source of their self-censorship, conservatives didn’t fault their professors all that much. As the researchers put it in a summary of the project,

We asked students whether their course instructor ‘encouraged participation from liberals and conservatives alike.’ Only 2% of liberals and 11% of conservatives disagreed that the instructor did so.

If professors were ideologically intimidating, one would see higher numbers, as well as a much larger gap between liberal and conservative kids.

So, where does the censorship originate? It comes from other students. When the researchers asked respondents how their peers would react to them, the political gap returned. Fully 75 percent of conservative kids stated that their peers “would have a lower opinion of them if they expressed their sincere political views in class.” Liberal students polled at only 26 percent.

The discrepancy showed up outside the classroom as well. One question asked how frequently students hear “disrespectful, inappropriate, or offensive comments” about certain groups on campus. One of the 12 groups was “political conservatives,” which came up #1 by a wide margin–even among liberal students. Fully 57.1 percent of liberal respondents stated that they heard those comments about conservatives “several times per semester” or more. The next group chosen by liberals as targets of nasty remarks were “Women” as 32.4 percent. (“Men” came in a 24.6 percent, “whites” at 22 percent, and “blacks” as 19.8 percent.)

[Double Standards on Free Speech]

This is a disaster for conservative students and conservatism generally. When conservative students get hammered by a zealous leftist professor, it can inspire them to band together and strike back against a tyrannical authority. The age difference, too, can be a further inspiration.

But when the repression comes from their peers, that rebel angle is unavailable. We don’t have a power imbalance. We have, instead, a college version of peer pressure and cliquishness. It lets the profs and the administration off the hook, especially when they themselves are nervous about fractious students. The students most upset by political conservatism have gone well beyond the professors and administrators in their willingness to shut conservatism down. Many college personnel loathe figures such as Charles Murray and Heather Macdonald, but they weren’t leading the mobs that harassed and threatened them.

As anti-conservatism has drifted down the age ladder, it has grown more aggressive (which is, of course, to be expected). And conservative students understand the situation all too well. A professor who hates President Trump and spots one of his students in a MAGA cap while strolling through the mall isn’t going to track that student down on social media and gather a digital mob against him. But a 19-year-old who hates the president and all his supporters very well might.

The bigger story here is that many young Americans have failed to learn the basics of pluralism and the First Amendment. They don’t understand that higher education requires a suspension of political passions. They are too certain of their beliefs and ready to trash people who disagree. It isn’t just conservative students who are in jeopardy. Higher education itself is in trouble when the individuals it is trusted to educate are set against the freedom and forbearance that are necessary to higher learning.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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14 thoughts on “The Power of Liberal Peer Condemnation on Conservatives

  1. This is an important survey at UNC. It seems to show that “indocrination” by liberal and leftist professors may not be the problem that conservatives think or would like to think.

    It’s the peer pressure from fellow students. And here, I have to fault the conservative students for not having more spine and spunk. I’ve certainly seen or heard of the leftist radicals show plenty of it before they were running the show. Think Berkeley, Columbia, and the rest back in the days of Vietnam and the Black Panthers. The radicals didn’t care what the silent majority thought.

    It goes with conservatives in general being too timid, and often too disengaged and incompetent, to fight the culture wars.

    I know that peer pressure is tough, and nowadays it can lead to serious consequences (though rarely physical danger, unlike the days of the 60’s rads). But unless the conservatives are willing to put up a fight, I see them continuing to lose.

    1. “It’s the peer pressure from fellow students.”

      Who seek to please the leftist professors (and administrators). I compare it to being “patriotic” in the 1950’s — something one did so that one wouldn’t get into “trouble.”

      “I’ve certainly seen or heard of the leftist radicals show plenty of it before they were running the show. Think Berkeley, Columbia, and the rest back in the days of Vietnam and the Black Panthers.”

      1: The Vietnam protests started in 1950 — while brief, the Korean Conflict was a very unpopular war. The first “Freedom Ride” was in 1947, Truman integrated the Army in 1958, and James Meridith was admitted to “Olde Miss” in 1962.
      This didn’t all fall out of the sky circa 1967 — it had been quietly building for years.

      2: The leftist radicals were thugs — today’s conservatives are not – at least not yet. I can’t imagine conservative students showing up in a student union with loaded rifles — yet that’s exactly what happened at Cornell. See:

      3: Can we agree that the response would be slightly different today if conservative students were to show up with (presumably) loaded rifles & shotguns?

      It goes with conservatives in general being too timid, and often too disengaged and incompetent, to fight the culture wars.continuing to lose.

      The radicals had the explicit support of faculty and administrators. See, for example, who is confronting then-Governor Reagan — it isn’t students…

  2. The question I don’t understand is why opinions about political issues arise in the classroom? In what subjects can partisan opinions be relevant?

    Presumably students are studying or learning about subjects, acquiring knowledge previously uncovered by past scholars in order to master those subjects, be it history, literature, social science, physical science, a quantitative field, or a technical field (nursing, engineering, accounting, etc.).

    Or has college devolved into a four-year sabbatical from reality….

  3. I must vehemently disagree — the peers are not acting on their own initiative, nor on the courage of their own convictions.

    No, they are guided and licensed by the leftist (not “liberal”) faculty and administrators. The individual peer actions are independent of “the grownups”, Dr. Bauerlein is right on that, but the larger cult mentality is the direct result of those who were there before the students arrived and who will be there long after they graduate. (Also those who hold the police powers — do not forget that…)

    It’s like the Kristallnacht — the German authorities did not wreak the havoc, they merely looked on without intervening, thus licensing it. By looking on and not intervening, the faculty and administrators are encouraging the peers to suppress the conservatives. The authorities are licensing the behavior, leaving the students to engage in it.

    And it doesn’t take too many licensed acts of suppression to silence a group. Take lynching — the racist murders of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. One estimate is that there were 4,084 lynchings between 1877 and 1950, some 73 years, with a mean average of 56 per year. Horrific, yes, but out of a Black population of somewhere between 5,000,000 and 11,000,000 souls, not statistically significant*. My point is that something doesn’t have to be statistically significant to terrorize a group into silence.

    So two specific examples — at the University of Maine (Orono) this spring and at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) back in 2009, the campus Republican Club was literally shut down, purged of its membership and then reconstituted with new members under the auspices of campus administrators who worked through students to accomplish their ends.

    In Orono, the “problem” was that the club supported President Trump (who did win the Congressional District in which the university is located) and opposed the renaming of Columbus Day, mentioning the “cannibalism and barbarism” which Columbus encountered. In Amherst, the “problem” was that the club published a newspaper which documented the illegal funneling of university funds to a Black former student who was then on trial for attempted murder (with even more explosive follow-up stories to come in the next edition) and hosting a “rally for decency” which opposed what could politely be described as a penis montage publicly posted in the student union. (In covering the latter, both the local TV station felt it necessary to blur the images, it was that bad.)

    While it was a zealous leftist professor in Orono (ironically, the Chair of the Political Science Department) and an equally zealous leftist administrator in Amherst, the bottom line is that this was not student-initiated action — the UMaine student newspaper bluntly referred to what happened as “unprecedented.”

    What is an ambitious young person supposed to do upon witnessing something like this? And the larger thing to remember is that absolutely everything a student has or wishes to gain comes at the dispensation of faculty and administrators. Everything — from being allowed to remain on campus to graduating with honors, everything from dorm rooms to recommendations for grad school. That’s an incredible power that doesn’t have to be exercised often to keep the students parroting the preferred mantras.

    Professor Bauerlein is quite right that a 19 year old student likely will track down and seek to destroy a student seen wearing a MAGA hat — but I suggest that we need to go one step further and ask “why.” And I suggest that George Orwell, in 1984, had insight into this question:

    “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”

    That’s the power of the fascist state — and I suggest that the modern university is a fascist state. After all, if dissident students persist, it will send men with guns (i.e. police officers) to enforce its will — that literally happened at UMass Amherst…

    *NB: “Statistically significant” as defined by the field of quantitative statistics, which does not dismiss the significance of these murders.

    1. I appreciate Mark Bauerlein’s essay, but, as an academic, I agree with Ed. Yes there are problems with leftist students. But the real drivers are faculty and, especially, administrators. They may not engage in direct actions as much (though sometimes they do), but they use leftist students as proxies, giving them privileged status on campus in that they do not have to answer for any wrongdoing, and in that administrators always side with them against conservative students. Administrators and faculty set up the power imbalance among students.

      And, Professor Bauerlein ignores the realities of the professor-student relationship. Yes, few professors are stupid enough to blatantly discourage conservative students from expressing views, or to blatantly harass conservative students. (Though some instructors have done such things!) But how is the leftist professor going to grade that student? If, for example, he believes that Trump supporters are all intellectually and morally compromised, as many have explicitly stated, isn’t that going to impact his grading? How about when choosing students to participate in research, giving job/internship/grant tips, writing recommendation letters, etc.? Any rational conservative student is going to be hesitant to let a leftist professor know his views.

      If we had balanced and fair faculty and, especially, administrators, 90% of the problems coming from leftist students would go away.

  4. College is so expensive (thank you, administrators) that students go to college to be credentialed, and (to a degree that varies) to learn something; not to vindicate their First Amendment rights. Friends of liberty will do the latter if the cost is not too high. If it costs their careers, they will be ill-advised to do so; and before they are hired, they will be googled. All it takes is one social media idiot calling one a fascist.

  5. It’s quite likely conservatives have learned that idiot Liberal minds are closed and unlikely to learn anything from the interaction. Since the risk/benefit of the potential interaction is much higher then keeping quiet, why bother?

  6. Not just college campuses. In the professional organization in which I am involved. I am careful to let my true views out only to those I know will not chastise me. My closest friend in the group is diametrically opposed to what I believe as I him (and worse, he’s a Boston Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins fan) but we understand one another well enough not to let that get in the way.

  7. But then those repressed conservative students go on to elect a Donald Trump, without admitting that they did so. If you want to express your views and are afraid of retribution for doing so, you’ll find other ways to do it.

  8. I hate to bring up the greatly overused Hitler/Weimar analogies, which are mostly used against Trump by people who have no idea what they are talking about and don’t know much history. But I have to point out that two of the strongest sources of support in German society for extreme nationalist / proto-Nazi ideologies, including Jew-hatred (even BEFORE Hitler’s election) were:

    1) the German established professoriate, which had mostly been already radicalized to hate “decadent” democracy and “spiritually corrupting” liberal Western ideas ; and

    2) young people, especially educated young people. It was the most educated segment of the most educated society in the world who enthusiastically led the way in support of Hitler and who purged the German academy of Jews and liberal dissenters.

  9. They don’t know the basics of the First Amendment because they aren’t taught it in our worthless public school system and because our last terrible, horrible, no good, very bad president drilled it into their heads that “the personal is political.”

  10. “When conservative students get hammered by a zealous leftist professor, it can inspire them to band together and strike back against a tyrannical authority. The age difference, too, can be a further inspiration. But when the repression comes from their peers, that rebel angle is unavailable.”

    Unethical professors spot the mood of the class and subtly egg-on the leftist students. This has happened to me in classes with no political component whatsoever. I don’t wither in face of leftist pablum and have become adept at selecting my responses. Nine times out of ten the best response is to let it go but every once in a while it’s fun to shut down the childish professor’s political tribalism.

    1. … but every once in a while it’s fun to shut down the childish professor’s political tribalism.”

      I’m guessing this was back before your institution established its Behavioral Intervention Team — called a variety of names, almost every institution has one now.

      And were you to do that today, said childish professor would report you to the BIT and your future on that campus would become, at best, rather tenuous.

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