free speech for me but not for thee

Left Wing Intolerance on Campus Is Meeting Its Match

A far left bias on campus has led J. Haidt and others to argue for free speech.

Whatever media you look at, whatever Internet sites you frequent, whatever social media you are on, you cannot escape the fact that in the last decade or so, our country has become more and more polarized. The election of Donald Trump markedly accelerated this phenomenon, but it did not start with him.

Someone who noted this early on, and who has become one of the leading voices for the need for us to listen to points of view very different from our own is Jonathan Haidt, professor of social psychology at New York University. His 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is already a classic in moral psychology, and still sells well.

I first became aware of Haidt when I read of the address he had given to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in January 2011. The main point he made, which was rather radical at the time (and is still not widely accepted), was that there is a strong bias in social psychology – actually throughout the social sciences and humanities – favoring liberal positions.A concept Haidt focused on was the “tribal moral community.”

He tried to be optimistic. In fact, the title of his talk was “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology,” and he ended with these words: “Just imagine if we had a true diversity of perspectives in social psychology. Imagine if conservative students felt free enough to challenge our dominant ideas, and bold enough to pull us out of our deepest ideological ruts. That is my vision for our bright post-partisan future.”

But as we all know, optimism on this issue was premature. While Haidt’s presentation met a largely positive response from his fellow academics, there was resistance among them and others, and this grew as he and his work became better known. But like many brilliant people, he was ahead of his time. The free speech controversies (including disinvitations of conservative speakers) that would soon embroil campuses had barely begun in 2011, but were in full swing within a few years.

In late 2015 Haidt started the Heterodox Academy, a group of academics who were and are committed to the idea that colleges and universities should be open to a wide range of ideas. As I write this, I feel the irony. A major dynamic that attracted me to college teaching was the freedom of expression I saw as an undergraduate in the early 1960s. By the time I retired from my position as associate professor of psychology in 1995, I could already see controversies around this, and within the following two decades these would become explosive. (Haidt’s latest book, The Coddling of the American Mind, coauthored with Greg Lukianoff, is just out. Based on an important article he and Lukianoff wrote for The Atlantic in 2015, it focuses on colleges; and the authors suggest reasons for the stresses and frequent incivility found there. Lukianoff, an attorney and author, is the president of FIRE: the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.)

I joined the Heterodox Academy (HxA) in September 2016 because I was a strong proponent of freedom of speech on campus, and also because my own field of interest (passion is the more fitting word) – the issues faced by boys and men in the U.S. – was seen as conservative, and thus largely excluded from academia. When I joined HxA, the membership was in the hundreds; today it is around 1,800.

I see Jonathan Haidt and the Heterodox Academy as part of a growing movement both on campus and elsewhere toward more acceptance of dissent from orthodoxy, which, for the last decade at least, has meant, among other beliefs, a wholesale acceptance of feminist ideology and a strong belief in social conditioning to explain virtually any differences among groups. While Haidt is a clear leader in this movement, a rather disparate collection of names are also knocking on the door of political correctness (if not banging on it). Many of them – and I include myself – would call themselves liberal. But they actually are men and women without a political country because they are so often attacked by those on the left (and sometimes by those on the right, with whom they have a great deal of trouble identifying).

These include psychology professor and bestselling author Steven Pinker of Harvard (who is a member of HxA); Cornel West (also a bestselling author and Harvard professor); New York Times opinion writers Bari Weiss and Frank Bruni (Bruni has appeared on PBS with Haidt); boys’ and fathers’ rights advocate Warren Farrell; author and columnist Meghan Daum; Claire Lehmann (editor of the very open-minded online journal, Quillette, which started three years ago and has grown sharply in readership this year); Jordan Peterson, and Bill Maher – who has had both Peterson and Pinker on as guests on his HBO program, “Real Time.” (I suspect that Haidt will be a guest any day now.)

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 understandably intensified discontent and anger among those on the left, but intolerance for even centrist views on campuses and elsewhere was already strongly in place. Our tribalism has only increased, and my hope is that people like Jonathan Haidt, Cornel West, and Bari Weiss will continue as leaders of a movement which we ever more desperately need – especially when the most critical problem the world faces, namely global warming, doesn’t care one whit about racegender, or political affiliation.


This article first appeared here.

Photo credit: Pixabay

Mark Sherman, Ph.D.

View posts by Mark Sherman, Ph.D.
Mark Sherman is a professor emeritus of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. After receiving his Ph.D. in psychology, he taught for 25 years at SUNY New Paltz, soon specializing in gender issues. By the early 1990s, his principal interest was -- and remains -- the crises facing boys and men (especially young men). He is a member of the multi-partisan coalition for the establishment of a White House Council on Boys and Men, and writes regularly for Psychology Today, principally on issues facing males -- especially those under the age of 30. His strong interest in this comes not only from his academic background and his social concerns, but are quite personal as well: Sherman is the father of three sons and the grandfather of five grandsons.

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