Examples of institutional pushback pale in comparison to broader trends
Is the era of woke censorship coming to an end on campus? The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, among others, are heralding a new epoch in which university leaders stand up to snowflake students. While it’s encouraging that progressive legacy media outlets are nailing their free speech colours to the mast, these are counter-wavelets on the surface of a rising swell. Progressive illiberalism is not going anywhere because it is baked into the demography of tomorrow’s professors.
The Post cites a number of examples of institutional pushback, including Cornell’s refusal to implement a mandatory trigger warnings policy on academic freedom grounds. The paper and others note the encouraging defence of liberalism at Penn and Vanderbilt, along with Harvard’s new Steven Pinker-fronted Council on Academic Freedom, a group of over 50 faculty members who have robustly lined up against the culture of progressive conformity on campus.
The sceptic in me says it’s one thing to strike down a trigger warning for an innocuous book which doesn’t touch sacred progressive beliefs. Penn’s current trial of controversial law professor Amy Wax for legal speech will be a far more important barometer of the new administrative liberalism.
Still, the gradual emergence of a liberal centre willing to speak its name is cause for optimism. This came to broader attention with the Harper’s Letter in July 2020, continued with an Economist editorial in April 2021, and was followed by the first New York Times editorial in March 2022. Since then, the NYT has run a series of articles challenging campus conformity and has even been willing to court protests by running pieces sceptical of gender reassignment surgery. WaPo is late to the game, but confirms the trend.
Why the turnaround? Incentives explain a lot here. First, some of the energy in cancel culture has ebbed post-George Floyd, with the number of cancellation attempts dropping back to the (still high) levels of the mid-2010s (Figure 1). Second, the attacks on universities from the Right, encapsulated in Ron DeSantis’s campaigns against critical race theory and gender theory, permit liberals to use a “both sides” defence of liberalism. Conservative media attention also focuses centrist liberals on the need for internal reform rather than the prospect of further embarrassment. The Right has been a vital ingredient in the new liberalism.
But in the long run, liberalism is giving way to progressivism in elite spaces. The new cultural liberalism in the media reflects the views of senior staff members, and is opposed by affinity groups and young employees. That’s important, because surveys consistently find that “woke” values are twice as prevalent among younger Leftists than among older Leftists. Over 8 in 10 undergraduates at 150 leading US colleges say speakers who say BLM is a hate group or transgenderism is a mental disorder should not be permitted to speak on campus. What’s more, 7 in 10 think a professor who says something that students find offensive should be reported to their university. Young academics are twice as censorious as those over 50. These are the editorial teams and professoriate of tomorrow.
The steady erosion of free speech values is generational. Today’s young people are far more censorious than the young people of 1980 or even 2000, and they won’t grow out of it. While Zoomers are scared of being cancelled, figure 2 shows that they accept this risk as part of their political ideology.
Administrations’ occasional rebukes of student activists or adoption of high-minded academic freedom resolutions will make little difference to this speech climate. The situation in universities increasingly reflects a transformational current of illiberalism, guided by the generations who will one day form our elite.