Young Americans are Too Sensitive About Speech

Jodi Shaw is both a graduate of Smith College and an administrator in its residential life office. She made national news when she publicly spoke truth about Smith’s diversity initiatives. Shaw— who is intimately familiarwith the school’s political culture —questioned the efficacy of many of Smith’s inclusion initiatives, critiqued the school’s overly sensitive culture, and exposed the hostility she faced when she dared to challenge and highlight the extreme political correctness that has overtaken the College. Shaw noted that Smith’s initiatives, like those at so many other institutions, have actually chilled speech and silenced many outside of those who they are intended to help.

In response to Shaw’s statement, many other Smith staff members blocked her on social media,and while the College correctly reaffirmed her right to express personal views, Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s president, stated that she believed Shaw’s claims mischaracterized “the college’s important, ongoing efforts to build a more equitable and inclusive living, learning and working environment.”

Shaw’s observations are not particularly new, although she does join a growing chorus of academics and observers of higher education that worry about the extreme sensitivity and coddling of our students. In fact, the blowback from sensitivity on campus is so high that many comedians— from Jerry Seinfeld to Pete Davidson—are now passing on invitationsto perform at our nation’s colleges and universities, claiming that they are “so PC.” Something is clearly wrong.

While woke diversity officers and school presidents would likely claim that the Jodi Shaw’s of the world are over-reacting, new data from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life suggests just the opposite. The data show that those in Gen Z — the youngest adult generation now in college — are appreciably more likely to be offended and overly sensitive to speech.

More specifically, a national sample of over 4,000 Americans was asked to select between two statements about speech: either people need to be more careful about the language they use to avoid offending those with different backgrounds OR too many people are easily offended these days over the language that others use.

The results show that the nation is fairly split on this issue, with 47% of respondents stating that people should be more careful with their language, compared to 52% holding that the country is too sensitive.

Unsurprisingly, some differences emerge in response to the speech choices between specific demographic groups. For example, blacks are the most worried about offensive language (71%), while whites and Latinos are far less concerned (40% and 51%, respectively). Regionally, there are minor differences regarding language use too.

But the real issue here is the significant difference in response between generations. Almost 60% of those in Gen Z are worried about offending others — 24% greater than the national average. This changes almost immediately as older generations are considered. Just 48% of Millennials and 44% of Gen Xers, by comparison, were as worried about offending people with different backgrounds. Both Boomers and Silents — the grandparents of Zers — were in the mid-forty percentile range as well.

When young Americans are conditioned to find harm in practically everything, and when identity politics and intersectionality dominate high school and higher education, students will find “discrimination” in every corner. This is problematic.

For instance, the AEI survey found that 58% of Americans think we as a country do not see discrimination when it really does exist. The youngest generation of Americans is leading the charge toward seeing discrimination everywhere. Almost two-thirds of Gen Z say they see discrimination, though that number declines to 59% for Millennials and Gen X and goes as low as 51% for the Silent Generation.

The data clearly show that Gen Zers are more sensitive to words and have a more encompassing definition of discrimination. They are also more likely than those in older generations to make assertions about the world and about truth despite having little background or expertise by which to put forward such claims.

When asked if they agree or disagree with the statement, “Even if I do not know much about a subject I feel it’s important to share my opinion,” 44% of Gen Zers agree, compared to just 33% of Gen Xers. The national average is a little over a third. While it is possible to attribute such levels of comfort in sharing uninformed opinions to Gen Z’s youth, the behavior is nonetheless dangerous and has real consequences. Some people will take positions not based in fact and simply cut off all debate. Others will accuse ideological opponents of some “-ism,” which quickly derails the possibility of debate and discourse for fear of reputational or professional consequences. This is the antithesis of healthy civil community, for truth and compromise cannot be realized when younger Americans are far more open and willing to opine out of ignorance and limited background.

Cancel culture has infected every area of American public life, both within and without academia. Students are now indoctrinated to be offended by everything, and being offended warrants cancellation and punishment of the offender. This is lethal for open discourse, the essential ingredient of social progress and a healthy demos.

Gen Z would do well to be less reactionary and offended and less prone to speaking without knowledge.  Rarely do academics intend real harm with their words or deeds. And chilling speech to “protect” students from the few who do is far too high a price to pay.


Image: Miguel Henriques, Public Domain

Samuel J. Abrams

Samuel J. Abrams

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

One thought on “Young Americans are Too Sensitive About Speech”

  1. Today’s cohort of college students express their objections to the speech of others for two reasons: (1) the college administrations treat their puerile complaints seriously, and (2) it endows them with a sense of power they have neither deserved nor earned. In short, it makes them feel important and relevant. It is not surprising this embrace of the cancel culture diminishes with age. As the old saying goes, what goes around comes around. They too will learn this.

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