Jonathan Chait—one of the most prominent left-of-center critics of the campus PC movement—points out on Twitter that, in the wake of the latest free speech meltdowns on college campuses, people who previously denied the existence of PC are now resorting to “whataboutism”—that is, arguing that even if left-wing intolerance of opposing viewpoints does exist here and there, other parties are guilty of free speech violations, or other rights violations, of their own.
Obviously, all threats to our open and democratic society need to be taken seriously, racism and intolerance very much included. But a new Pew survey underscores the reason why it is not unreasonable to be particularly concerned about college students’ apparent hostility to America’s traditional understanding of free expression:
American Millennials are far more likely than older generations to say the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups, according to a new analysis of Pew Research Center survey data on free speech and media across the globe. […]
Even though a larger share of Millennials favor allowing offensive speech against minorities, the 40% who oppose it is striking given that only around a quarter of Gen Xers (27%) and Boomers (24%) and roughly one-in-ten Silents (12%) say the government should be able to prevent such speech.
Meanwhile, Pew’s massive 2010 report on Millennials found that America’s young people are likely more tolerant of racial and sexual minorities than any generation in American history. Millennials were substantially more supportive of interracial marriages, immigration, gay rights, and feminist causes than any of the other age cohorts surveyed.
So when conservatives (and moderates, and, occasionally, liberals, like Chait) denounce the attacks on freedom of speech taking place on campus, it is not necessarily because they think that persistent problems of racism, sexism, and intolerance are unimportant, or even that they are being overstated. Rather, it is that while America’s next generation of leaders is making clear (if uneven) progress in fighting identity-based intolerance, it is turning its back on other, equally important, liberal values. If current opinion trends continue, American free speech norms will look much different—much more like what we are seeing on college campuses—a generation from now. The fight against racism is being won in the realm of popular opinion, while the fight for free speech is being lost.