As a professor who has worked with
undergraduate students for over a decade, I have watched the ability of my
students to speak their minds, to question ideas and alternative views, and to
hear a true diversity of competing viewpoints on campus shrink thanks to a
small number of extreme activists. And now I see a pervasive and potent cancel
culture migrating from campus into the rest of the country to shut down debate
Over the past week, however, two new surveys — one from the Cato Institute and the other from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA — have actually given me some optimism about speech and ideas in the midst of seemingly never ending negativity flooding social media and the political process. My hope rests with younger Americans, late Millennials and those in Gen Z, who are open to ideas and want to engage with a multitude of views and perspectives.
First, the Cato Institute just released some sobering data about the current political climate, finding that 62 percent of Americans are afraid to share ideas they believe for fear of offending others. The poll further found that a majority of steadfast progressives currently feel free to share their political views, but majorities of liberals, moderates, and conservatives now censor themselves. This finding confirms just how widespread and potent the cancel movement has become.
said, this finding should be more fully explained. The free speech situation at
present is not good, but may not be as bad as it appears to be in media and political
percent of Americans agree to some degree with the statement, “The political
climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe because others
might find them offensive.” However, only 29 percent strongly agree with that
statement compared to 33 percent who somewhat agree with the statement. This
difference in responses suggests that Americans recognize that there are some
times when speaking freely may be limited but that there are occasions when one
can speak more openly.
Importantly, these numbers vary significantly
by age cohort. Specifically, 55 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 report
self-censoring themselves to some degree. That figure climbs steadily to 65
percent among those between 55 and 64 years of age and to 67 percent of respondents
who are 65 and older.
Moreover, just 22 percent of Americans under the age of 30 report that they strongly agree with the statement, compared to 37 percent of Americans 65 years and older. In contrast, a quarter of younger Americans strongly disagree with the statement and appear to not be worried about offending others with their speech and ideas at all. Younger Americans are not nearly as worried about limiting their expression and ideas out of a fear of being cancelled or offending others — something I’ve seen in my own teaching. Today’s Gen Z students are bold compared to older generations and want to hear competing ideas.
Second, HERI just released its latest round of polling on first year college students, which includes quite a bit of evidence that younger Americans value an openness for ideas and being able to work with others who have competing views.
In my recent piece, I argue that the data illustrate that our nation’s Gen Z college students are not only “…overwhelmingly centrist, open, tolerant of a wide diversity of views” but that the data also shows that students like free speech and “…crave viewpoint diversity and thrive in environments with varied understandings of the world.” 67 percent of the first-year students stated in the survey that being open to having their views challenged was an asset of theirs, and 78 percent of first-years also note that it is a strength of theirs to see the world from someone else’s perspective, for example.
While university campuses are the places
where the use of call-out culture to silence speech started, these behaviors represent
the antithesis of open inquiry, honest discourse, and the ability to challenge
others — the goals of higher education. Fortunately, the HERI survey shows that
most students do not value restricted expression on campus, even if a small
minority of students, administrators, and faculty have hijacked the agenda on
our nation’s campuses.
In short, while questions about free speech and cancel culture have become front-line issues, the headlines may be overstating reality a bit. While the fact that so many are worried about speaking openly is real and appropriately gives me and many others pause, these two new surveys show that younger Americans — who are not extremist or ideologically monolithic — are open to varied viewpoints, and they are far less worried about being criticized and silenced for expressing their views. There is more hope for open discourse than many believe.