Sunday, July 12, 2020

Tolerance, part 3

About a month ago, I had a post about trends in tolerance.  That was inspired by the controversy over Tom Cotton's op-ed piece.  Since then, there have been a number of related controversies, including the appearance of an open letter saying that "the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted," which provoked indignant responses including a counter open letter  .  There was also a letter signed by a distressingly large number of Princeton University professors calling for, among other things, "a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty."  

Historically, the left has been associated with support for relatively free expression, while the right has favored more restrictions.  As I mentioned in my last post, some people argue that this is changing, or has changed.  A number of ideas about why this might be happening have been proposed.  The simplest and most plausible one is that it reflects a change in the distribution of power.  Most people would prefer to suppress views that they find objectionable, but the left has favored the interests of marginalized groups--that is, groups that don't have the power to suppress other views--so it turned to support for the general principle of tolerance as a second-best alternative.   However, now the left has a dominant position in some major social institutions (particularly academia and the media), so it has the power to repress and is starting to like it.  On the other side, the right is weak in those institutions, so it's now calling for tolerance.  This process is not necessarily as cynical as it sounds:  any particular case has special features, so someone might say (and believe) that they support the principle of free speech, but we need to make an exception here, or this isn't really a free speech issue, or some other justification.  On the other side, the main argument is there is some basic psychological affinity between the left/right views and attitudes towards authority--the left tends to be suspicious of authority, while the right tends to be pro-authority (and sometimes authoritarian).  This suggests that the traditional relationship will endure. 

Since the 1970s, the GSS has had a series of questions prefaced by "There are always some people whose ideas are considered bad or dangerous by other people.  For instance..."  Then it asks whether different kinds of people should  be allowed to do various things, including teaching in a college or university.  The types of people regularly asked about are an Communist, an opponent of religion, a gay man, someone who supports doing away with elections and having the military run the government, and someone who believes that blacks are genetically inferior.  I computed the associations between opinions about teaching in a college or university in "early" (1972-89) and "late" (2008-18) periods for people with and without college degrees.*  All of them were positive--if you favored allowing one kind of person to teach, you were more likely to favor allowing any of the others to teach.  The averages in the two periods:

                                   Early             Recent
College                       2.50                  2.08
Non-college                1.99                  1.75

That is, the tendency to be uniformly tolerant or intolerant became weaker.  This is unusual--for most issues, "attitude constraint" (the ability to predict opinions on one from opinions on the other) has increased in recent years.  You could argue that the example of a gay man should no longer be included, since most people today would not regard him as "bad or dangerous,"  but omitting that example doesn't change the pattern.  I wondered if there would be a growing opposition between "left" and "right" pairs--Communist/anti-religion vs. militarist/racist--but there was no sign of this.

This does not directly address the possibility of a change in the association between tolerance and ideology, but it shows that there is some kind of change.  I'll consider ideology in a future post.

*Since the variables are binary, I used the log of the odds ratios to measure the association.

PS:  My last post noted that there seemed to be a general trend towards greater tolerance.  I said I expected it to continue, and that I'd give my reasons in a future post, so here they are. First, growing educational levels:  more educated people feel more comfortable with evaluating information and making choices, so they tend to favor letting everyone have their say.  Even if the ideas are totally without merit, you should let people express them so you can know those people for who they are (a number of NY Times readers' comments on the Tom Cotton controversy defended the decision to run his op-ed on these grounds).  Second, the growth of a consumer society, where people are constantly offered choices and come to think of making choices as a basic part of life. 

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