Keith Whittington: The kids are alright

SpeakIt has rapidly become a common trope that the current crop of college students belong to a generation of “snowflakes.” Unusually sensitive, unusually intolerant, the kids these days are seen by some as a worrying threat to the future of America’s liberal democracy. High-profile incidents on college campuses like the shouting down of Charles Murray at Middlebury College and the rioting in the streets of Berkeley during an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos give vivid support for the meme. Some surveys of the attitudes of millennials about tolerance and free speech lend some further credence to the snowflake characterization. When the Knight Foundation and Gallup asked college students whether diversity or free speech was more important, a slim majority chose diversity. When a Brookings Institution fellow asked college students whether it was acceptable to use force to silence a speaker making “hurtful” statements, a surprisingly large number said yes.

Should we be worried about the children? Perhaps not. Context matters, and some of the current hand-wringing over events on college campuses has tended to ignore the broader context. In particular, when told that the current generation of students do not seem fully supportive of free speech and tolerance of disagreement, we are rarely told in comparison to what. Compared to a perfect ideal of American values, the current generation of students might fall somewhat short—but so do the generations that preceded them. We aspire to realize our beliefs in tolerance and liberty, but we muddle through without a perfect commitment to our civil libertarian aspirations.

It would be a mistake to be overly complacent about American public support for civil liberties, including free speech, but we should also be cautious about rushing into excessive pessimism about the current generation of college students. It has been a routine finding in the public opinion literature going back decades that Americans express high levels of support for the freedom of speech in the abstract, but when asked about particular forms of controversial speech that support begins to melt away. In the middle of the twentieth century, for example, one study found that more than three-quarters of a sample of lawyers thought that university students should have the freedom to invite controversial speakers to campus, but less than half of the general public agreed. When asked if the government should be allowed to suppress speech that might incite an audience to violence, less than a fifth of the leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union said yes, but more than a third of the members of the ACLU were ok with it. In the 1950s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of Communists should be restricted. In the 1970s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of racists should be restricted. In the 2000s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of Muslims and atheists should be restricted.

Current American college students say that speakers with whom they strongly disagree should be allowed to speak on campus. But a majority of liberal college students changed their mind when they are told that such a speaker might be racist, and more than a third of conservative college students changed their mind when they are told that such a speaker might be “anti-American.” Fortunately, the evidence suggests that only a tiny minority of college students favor activists taking steps to disrupt speaking events on campus. Those numbers are not ideal, but it is important to bear in mind that the college-educated tend to be more tolerant to disagreeable speakers and ideas than is the general public, and that is pretty much as true now as it has been in the past. Public support for the freedom of speech has not always stood firm, and campus debates over the scope of free speech are likely to have large consequences for how Americans think about these issues in the future.

We should draw some lessons from recent events and surveys, but the lesson should not be that current students are delicate snowflakes. First, we should recognize that the current generation of college students is not unique. They have their own distinctive concerns, interests, and experiences, but they are not dramatically less tolerant than those who came before them. Second, we should appreciate that tolerance of disagreement is something we as a country have to constantly strive for and not something that we can simply take for granted. It is easy to support freedom for others in the abstract, but it is often much more difficult to do so in the midst of particular controversies. The current group of college-age Americans struggle with that tension just as other Americans do and have before. Third, we should note that there is a vocal minority on and off college campuses who do in fact question liberal values of tolerance and free speech. They do so not because they are snowflakes but because they hold ideological commitment at odds with values that are deeply rooted in the American creed. Rather than magnifying their importance by making them the avatar of this generation, those who care about our democratic constitutional commitments should work to isolate them and show why theirs is not the best path forward and why diversity, tolerance, and free speech are compatible and mutually reinforcing values and not contrasting alternatives. It is an ongoing project we hold in common to understand and reaffirm the principles of free speech that underlie our political system. Today’s college students are not the only ones who could benefit from that lesson.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech

Paula S. Fass: How will young Americans vote?

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By Paula S. Fass

As the primary process comes to an end, and the unexpected youth magnet Bernie Sanders now finds himself with practically zero chance to win the Democratic nomination, it will be interesting to see where America’s youth turn their attention. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump are youngsters – both are in their late 60s. Since neither explicitly articulates (at least not so far) the economic needs of millennials or Generation Xers, it might be worth thinking about what kinds of cultural issues could affect younger Americans and bring them to the polls. Three factors seem especially important – race, sex and sexuality, and media savvy. These are pulse points for young Americans and the candidates posture (more even than their positions) and the vibes they emit may provide young Americans with a reason to vote.

A reality TV star with the “in your face” attitude that young people have come to expect and to admire on television (even from liberal figures like Ellen DeGeneres and Jon Stewart), Trump’s ability to control the 24-hour news cycle and his short attention span on issues is both a product of a life lived in the media and one that attracts it. Trump uses the same biting and nasty attacks as reality stars whose insults are at once demeaning and funny. Hillary Clinton’s much more deliberate, thoughtful and well prepared approach to issues may be persuasive to people her age (like me) but can seem uncool and inhibited to young people. I don’t think Hillary should or could change this and no number of changes in hair styles and makeup can compensate for this lack of media friendly self-presentation (indeed it may have the opposite effect), but it may hurt her in turning out young Americans.

Donald Trump prides himself on exploiting the latent racial antagonism in America that some intellectuals and pundits believed had been largely quelled by the Obama election. Deep-lying historical patterns are not so easily overcome and some reaction might have been expected. Hillary manifestly reaches out to ethnic and racial minorities and this may mean that young Latinos as aspirants to full American cultural importance, especially, and African Americans will come out in large numbers where it matters most in states like Florida and Michigan. At the same time, Hillary does not have Bill Clinton’s natural appeal to African Americans (despite his recent missteps on his sentencing legislation) and for various reasons Hillary may be reluctant to bring Bill into the campaign in a maximal way (see below). Young African Americans, men especially, may find Hillary’s style uninviting and unless she begins to offer some real remedies for the problems experienced by black youth in the economy she may find that their appearance at the polls is not a sure thing.

On sex and sexuality (rather than gender), the picture is very fuzzy. Clearly Hillary’s strong pro-choice posture should appeal to young women whose ability to act as full sexual beings (something most of them take for granted today but was not true in the past) is made possible by the contraceptive and abortion revolution of the last half century. At the same time, young women today are haunted by rape and sexual harassment. Since Hillary trails Bill Clinton’s misdeeds (and her own complicit acceptance of his behavior) behind her, the sexual issue is by no means a certain win for Hillary. Trump has just begun his overt references to these matters. There is more to come. Even if Bill never raped anyone as Trump contends, Trump will make the most of how the first Clinton’s presidency was soiled by a man who could not control his sexual appetites and preyed on a young intern. This was a very public scandal, and unlike Trump’s escapades, it took place while Bill Clinton held the highest office in the land and in the White House. Trump, of course, has been married three times and in each case to someone who is or who resembles a model. That can be viewed even by young people as one of the prerogatives of great wealth. The president of the United States, however, is not like the king of France in the ancient régime, someone to whom all women in court were available.

Trump talks about women as bimbos or as disgusting and this is hardly the language of a potential president. This frat boy attitude may wear very thin as the campaign progresses and be viewed less as an expression of Trump’s anti-political correctness temperament than as a real threat to the safety of women. Rape is a real problem and the increasing attention given to it in the media and the growing publicity about sexual harassment in college sports (as well as among professional athletes) suggests that Trump may find that young women will go to the polls in droves to express their fears and signal their anger at being made to feel unsafe and under attack.

What their brothers will do is less clear. While sexism seems to have declined as young women and men become colleagues and share group experiences in adolescence, the growing sexual threats to women (even by friends and colleagues) indicate that something besides a new equality is being signaled. Perhaps it is the result of the latent hostility that has resulted from the real competition women offer as they assume the same jobs and roles as men. This competition and its economic consequences may well make Trump a far more attractive candidate to young men than we expect.

All elections are unpredictable; this one more than most. With Hillary still fighting off Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gaining in the polls against her, observers should keep a keen eye on the inclinations of young Americans. Their votes may make all the difference.

FassPaula S. Fass is professor of Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of of Kidnapped and Children of a New World and editor of The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. Fass currently resides in Berkeley, California. Her latest book is The End of American Childhood: A History of of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child.