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A couple of studies have found that conservative students are more likely than liberal students to say that they’ve self-censored on campus – although both liberal and conservative students say that they’ve self-censored.
What does this mean? It’s hard to say. For one thing, not all self-censorship is bad; everyone self-censors at one time or another. If I decide not to bring up a political argument in a statistics class because it would be off-topic when we’re talking about Bernoulli distributions, that’s self-censorship, but it might be the right choice.
An environment where no one ever self-censors would be like Twitter. That’s not ideal.
But – even if some self-censorship is appropriate – what about the finding that conservative students are more likely to self-censor than liberal students?
Some of that is probably reality-based, in that students are more likely to be left- than right-wing, and so people are more likely to push back on conservative than on liberal opinions. I’m sure that this does deter some conservative students from speaking their opinions freely. (I know liberals who have worked or lived in highly conservative environments, and they also are choosey about when they share their opinions.)
Furthermore, let’s face it – some student lefties are dogmatic and harsh when dealing with disagreement, and that could deter speech also. (This isn’t at all unique to student lefties – dogmatics and harsh people are found in any political group.)
But although that’s real, it’s also vastly exaggerated. The vast majority of students, both left and right, aren’t evil or malicious or looking to attack other students.
And much of the fear simply isn’t based in reality at all.
As Jeffrey Sachs points out, conservative students are far more likely to worry that their professors will give them lower grades due to their political opinions – but the fear is baseless.
…fully 21 percent of students who say they’ve self-censored in the classroom report doing so because they fear receiving a lower grade from their professor. And, again, conservatives are much more likely than liberals to report this fear….
This fear is clearly real. It does not, however, have any basis in reality. According to all the available evidence, faculty do not give conservatives lower grades than liberals for equivalent work.
Researchers have tackled this issue from a couple of angles. In one experiment, students were asked to compose two essays, one on the Democratic Party (its values, goals, etc.) and the other on the Republican Party. These were then given to a mix of Democratic and Republican teaching assistants for grading. The students were told that the essays were voluntary and their identities would be kept secret, giving them no reason to self-censor. The result? Neither the partisan affiliations of the students nor of the teaching assistants made any difference in how the essays were graded.
So if it’s not based on reality, then where are conservative students learning that leftist professors are ready to punish them for being conservatives?
I think a lot of it is that conservatives (and their anti-woke “centrist” allies) have been working overtime to create a moral panic about free speech on campus. For example, Charlie Kirk – a conservative with 1.7 million Twitter followers – tweeted:
I get countless of messages from students who say professors are lowering their grades & penalizing them for being conservative
Leftists dominating higher education represent a grave threat to our country & culture.
Conservative students shouldn’t be targeted for disagreeing.
Kirk is the founder of Turning Point USA, a right-wing organization that specializes in reaching out to conservative students. And he’s far from the only major right-winger who has been telling conservative students that they should be afraid. For example, then-President Trump said:
Under the guise of speech codes and safe spaces and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shutdown the voices of great young Americans.
Frankly, it would be weird if the enormous right-wing media panic about intolerance of conservative students didn’t make conservative students afraid. (Just as watching violence on TV makes people more afraid of violent crime.) But this is an aspect of conservative student fear I almost never see discussed.
On an impulse, when I was drawing this one, I decided to go for a deliberately cruder and (even) less realistic character design than my usual. I would like to say that there was some deep thematic reason for making that choice, but really, I just thought it might be fun to draw ridiculously huge eyeballs.
TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON
This cartoon has four panels. All the panels show the same thing: A man in an orange button-up shirt, seated at a table. There’s a laptop, a cell phone, and a coffee mug on the table. He’s wearing big headphones, and a professional-looking microphone suspended on a metal arm is pointed towards his mouth. In other words, he’s a podcaster.
In all four panels, the man appears to be yelling loudly, and is drawn with huge, popping eyes.
MAN: These radical “woke” professors running colleges hate conservatives! That’s why conservative students are bullied and cancelled!
MAN: You know it’s true because Newsmax and Fox and OAN and radio hosts and magazine columnists and podcasters have told you so! Again and again!
Although the other panels all show the man in medium shot, this panel is such an extreme close-up that his entire head doesn’t even fit in panel; he’s cut off mid-mouth.
MAN: We’ve all told you — the woke at college are inhuman totalitarian monsters who will destroy your life if they ever find out your real views!
The man has picked up his cell phone and is looking at its screen as he speaks.
MAN: And look at this! A new survey says conservative students are afraid to say what they think!