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onliberty At this point you have heard about the controversies at Yale and Missouri. If you haven’t, just Google it. Among liberals there has been some debate and soul searching about the value of free speech, and its diminishing status as inviolate among youth. Jon Chait has a pretty thorough take over at New York Magazine. You can follow links to the arguments of those who contextualize and apologize for the more Maoist of the protesters to “get the other side.”

Since I support free speech, offensive speech, and engage in a fair amount of offensive speech, obviously I have a reflex to side with Chait on principle. Additionally, I’m a conservative who finds intra-Left/liberal conflicts pretty interesting and delicious. Finally, I don’t think that America is horribly racist, nor do I think institutionalized racism is a huge problem on campus (and perhaps not so much outside of campus, at least insofar as policy can and should address it), and, I don’t think that much consideration should be given to “marginalized populations” in terms of being particularly sensitive or apologizing for them (there is a whole lexicon which has cropped upon the Left which has a lot of meaning within-group, but is useless when attempting to communicate out-group; I reject the legitimacy of the terms of the debate as it is presented by many on the Left and liberals).

711zuJb66HL In my more cynical moments I’ve stated that we need to stick a fork in John Stuart Mill, and the idea of a free exchange of ideas. The Left has started to go full Marcuse, to the point where even the language used by conservatives is deemed illegitimate. Yes, there are liberals who attempt to enforce the old rules of tolerance of vigorous dissent, but at the end of the day there’s not much broader policy daylight between the two campus, so will they stand up for unpopular views when push comes to shove? The best bet then would be to join in the animal-battle for the authoritarian state of yore as it comes back to life. Kill or be killed, while the libertarians keep shouting “can’t we just get along?!?!?!”

But my old standby is what do the data say? Back when “trigger warnings” were in the news I noticed that there was a question in the general social survey about the removal of library books. There is a variable LIBMSLM which asks about an “anti-American Muslim clergymen’s book”:

If some people in your community suggested that a book he wrote which preaches hatred of the United States should be taken out of your public library, would you favor removing this book, or not.

There are also similar questions about anti-religious books, militarist books, a book promoting homosexuality, and a book promoting racism. My question is simple: what demographic groups support the removal of these books? The detailed methods are at the end of this post (you should be able to replicate), but what I basically did is used a logistic regression to compare the effects of several variables at once in terms of predicting attitude toward book removal. The samples were limited to the year 2000 and later.

What did I find?

* Liberals support free speech more than conservatives. Even in cases, such as racist books, where ideologically you would suppose they would oppose it (and there is a modest trend if you look at the period between 1990 to 2014 for liberals to be more supportive of removing the racist book).

* The more educated and more intelligent support free speech more than the less educated and less intelligent (the effects hold independently of each other).

* Whites are more supportive of free speech than non-whites, except in the case of a book promoting homosexuality, where there is no difference.

* Atheists and agnostics are moderately more in favor of free speech than the very religious. They are not very differentiated when it comes to the anti-American Muslim clergymen, confirming secular discomfort with fundamentalist Islam.

If one follows Twitter of the elite media one might be surprised that liberals are more supportive of free speech than conservatives. A different set of similar variables support the same conclusion. So what’s going on here?

First, I do think that the hot-house of the campus environment results in distortion and extremism which has minimal support more broadly. My Twitter following is very diverse, and many liberals have been direct messaging me expressing worry and anger at the anti-free speech antics of the protesters. But please observe: the have been direct messaging, rather than putting up their objections in my public timeline. Though the majority of liberals still support free speech, the loudest and most organized element seem to be much more “nuanced” on the issue of freedom of thought.

Second, the modern Left is a coalition of very different groups. The majority of the non-white sample above was black, and it is clear that in regards to speech non-whites are less supportive of tolerance of taboo or unpopular ideas than whites. White liberals may be very strong supporters of free speech, but their political allies may not be. And, the reality is that in terms of intra-coalition dynamics white liberals have to be very careful in how they talk to non-whites, lest they be accused of racism (I’ve been told by my wife to curtail my trolling on Twitter, but pretending to be an SJW of color is pretty fun when engaging with white liberals, since they let you slice off their balls at will, and don’t even object when you’re totally incoherent in your argumentation). This probably explains some of the private expression of support for free speech, but the subdued public sentiments. Liberals who support free speech also still want to eliminate institutional racism and oppression toward marginalized groups, so they have to balance their values when they seem at tension, and don’t want to be supporting those who oppose their policies even if they support the right of those people to disagree.

Finally, the robust support for free speech by the intellectual and social elites is heartening, and suggests that the courts are going to consistently serve as a legal bulwark against attempts to curtail dangerous ideas and sentiments. But obviously that’s not going to always translate into social norms.

Ultimately the question comes down to will. The broad sentiment of liberals does remain in the corner of liberty of thought, right or wrong. But will they stand up for unpopular views, as they have in the past, because in this country you can? That’s an open question I guess.


The dependent variable names are below in the table.

The independent variables were: sex, age, realinc (income adjusted for inflation), god(r:1-2″atheist/agnostic”;6″very religious”), polviews(r:1-3″Liberal”;5-7″Conservative”), race(r:1″white”;2-*”non-white”), degree(r:0-2″No College”;3-4″College”), wordsum

Wordsum is a vocabulary test, with a 0.71 correlation with IQ.

Removing books was always coded as 1, and not removing as 2. Sex is 1 = male, 2 = female. For the god variable, 6 = those who “know god exists.” I did not look at moderates, but aggregated liberals and conservatives (extremely to slightly). For education I just divided between college and non-college.

To get an intuition for the direction of effect, for the anti-American preacher being a male, liberal, younger, more educated, more intelligent, and white, are statistically significantly contributing to greater odds of tolerating the book in the library.

B Exp(B) Probability B Exp(B) Probability B Exp(B) Probability
SEX -0.40 0.67 0.01 0.06 1.06 0.63 0.08 1.09 0.52
POLVIEWS(Recoded) -0.88 0.41 0.00 -0.50 0.61 0.00 -0.71 0.49 0.00
AGE -0.01 0.99 0.00 -0.03 0.97 0.00 -0.02 0.98 0.00
DEGREE(Recoded) 0.46 1.59 0.01 0.58 1.78 0.00 0.61 1.84 0.00
WORDSUM 0.32 1.37 0.00 0.18 1.20 0.00 0.20 1.23 0.00
REALINC 0.00 1.00 0.08 0.00 1.00 0.22 0.00 1.00 0.00
RACE(Recoded) -0.49 0.61 0.01 -0.77 0.46 0.00 -0.17 0.85 0.27
GOD(Recoded) -0.17 0.84 0.47 -0.57 0.57 0.01 -0.75 0.48 0.01
Constant 0.90 2.46 0.17 2.92 18.61 0.00 2.66 14.33 0.00
B Exp(B) Probability B Exp(B) Probability
SEX -0.21 0.81 0.09 -0.09 0.92 0.43
POLVIEWS(Recoded) -0.56 0.57 0.00 -0.29 0.75 0.02
AGE -0.02 0.98 0.00 -0.01 0.99 0.05
DEGREE(Recoded) 0.51 1.66 0.00 0.45 1.57 0.00
WORDSUM 0.22 1.25 0.00 0.15 1.17 0.00
REALINC 0.00 1.00 0.22 0.00 1.00 0.75
RACE(Recoded) -0.62 0.54 0.00 -0.55 0.58 0.00
GOD(Recoded) -0.75 0.47 0.00 -0.32 0.73 0.09
Constant 3.31 27.37 0.00 1.20 3.30 0.02
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Free Speech 
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At Reason, Watch Students Tell Yale to Fire a Staffer Who Upset Their Safe Space. The ‘staffer’ in question is Nicholas Christakis, a scientist whose work I’m mildly familiar with actually. The whole affair was kicked off by Christakis’ wife sending this email, where she said perhaps it was not the university’s job to patrol costume choices (for Halloween).

All this emerged in the context of the rumored white girls allowed only frat party at Yale. I say rumored because I don’t believe that it happened (which is pretty obvious from the link if you read it, despite trying to give accusations of racism the benefit of the doubt). The issue is that the sort of people who get accepted into Yale know exactly what to say in regards to issues relating to diversity to maintain appropriate optics. They would never be so crudely racist, even if the reality is that most men in that particular frat would prefer white girls attend their parties. As I noted on Twitter, all the of the men Taylor Swift dates are white (unless you count part-Native Americans Taylor Lautner and Joe Jonas as not), and that’s not a big deal. But if she said in public that she only dates white men, like her ex John Mayer admitted about women, she would become public enemy #1.

It strikes me that in our American culture right now what matters is less what you do, but what you say and signal. Erika Christakis dissented ever so slightly from the regnant norms in her elite university milieu, and now she’s paying for it. But the reality is that people like Erika Christakis live lives of cosseted privilege and insulation from the difficulties of the world, but that’s not worth comment. Rather, what matters is that she follow the appropriate norms and symbolic gesturing which we take for granted in our society.

This is not entirely unreasonable. Manners and decorum, even ritual that might not be heartfelt, tie societies together. By the public performance of words and actions, even if they are belied by revealed day to day preferences, we outline the moral fabric which we aspire to. But at some point it becomes a farce. By the end of the Communist period in the Soviet Union everyone was going through the motions, with no sincere belief. That explains partly why the system collapsed and reconfigured itself so rapidly; it was not robust, but brittle. Some level of hypocrisy is inevitable in any society which aspires to virtue, but when the chasm between words and deeds, between external signalling and internal sentiment, become too large then the system is ripe for overturning.

Though your guess is as good as mine about what might come next.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Free Speech, Yale 
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On-Liberty In the wake of the events in Garland a few days ago the above tweet by a reporter at The New York Times has garnered a fair amount of attention. It’s really hard for some (including me frankly) to not see this as “victim-blaming.” Free speech is a very special and distinctive liberty, in particular the liberty to speak in public without censure in a manner which assaults the basis of what is holy and sacred. In much of the world this particular absolutism, neigh, idolatry, of freedom of thought even unto the bounds of blasphemy and hatred that is adhered to in the United States thanks to our Bill of Rights is viewed as strange and offensive. The insights of classical liberal thinkers were strange and novel in their time, but they captured our imagination. We put freedom of conscience first and foremost not because that is how it has always been, but it is how we believe it should be. Conscience even for the devil himself!

To some extent there are aspects of incommensurability here. The right to blaspheme is relatively new in the history of the world, and especially in a multicultural world. Many Muslims who don’t understand how one could insult their religion often get confused when it’s pointed to them that their own religion is based in large part on invective against other faiths (e.g., ‘idolaters’). One person’s insult is another person’s fact. This rational critical position “outside” of society is abnormal in human psychology, which is embedded in all sorts of cultural and social presuppositions.

But in any case, with all that in mind, I was curious about attitudes toward speech in the GSS. There are a series of questions which exhibit the form:

If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community preaching hatred of the United States, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

In this case, a Muslim cleric who preaches hatred of the United States. Other questions refer to racists, atheists, militarists, homosexuals, and communists. Basically, these questions get at whether respondents would tolerate public expression of views which they might personally find objectionable. Look at the trend line over the years it is generally heartening:


The question about Muslim clerics only began to be asked in 2008, so I didn’t put it above. But, I was curious about how it related to a question about whether to let a racist speak in your community. Below are some demographic cross-tabs:

Demographic Allow Muslim cleric to speak Allow racist to speak
Extremely liberal 62 66
Liberal 52 64
Slightly liberal 49 58
Moderate 39 57
Slightly conservative 44 61
Conservative 40 61
Extremely conservative 34 60
Strong Democrat 42 57
Democrat 38 56
Lean Democrat 50 57
Independent 37 56
Lean Republican 46 66
Republican 41 62
Strong Republican 40 62
No HS diploma 18 41
HS diploma 37 56
Junior college 45 61
Bachelor 60 72
Graduate 65 74
Wordsum 0 11 31
Wordsum 1 20 43
Wordsum 2 19 37
Wordsum 3 23 49
Wordsum 4 28 56
Wordsum 5 31 54
Wordsum 6 39 54
Wordsum 7 48 62
Wordsum 8 60 70
Wordsum 9 68 81
Wordsum 10 85 88


Click to enlarge

In case you are curious the correlation between the two trends across these demographics is 0.95. To the left is a scatter plot which shows the pattern (click to enlarge). I was pretty shocked how nearly monotonic the tendency for the more intelligent (Wordsum is the score on a 0 to 10 vocab test which has a 0.71 correlation with general intelligence) to be more supportive of free speech is. Note that extreme liberals are more supportive of free speech even for racists than conservatives, though there isn’t much social difference at this point (I’m not surprised by the lack of partisan differences, which are much less segregated by social values than ideological identification).

Next I wanted to relate how the two attitudes toward speech related. Below you see the first two set of cross-tabs with marginals on the rows and columns. So the first set shows what percentage of those who would allow a Muslim cleric to speak would also allow a racist to speak. The second set shows what percentage of those who would allow a racist to speak would also allow a Muslim cleric to speak. In both cases the top left and bottom right are the “consistent” positions. Finally, I decided to look at attitudes by demographic again, this time broken down by both positions on speech with the marginals for the column. That means that every row shows the percentage of those who would allow a racist to speak who would also allow a Muslim cleric to speak, and those who wouldn’t allow a racist to speak who would also allow a Muslim cleric to speak.

Allow racist Don’t allow racist Total
Allow Muslim cleric 88 12 100
Don’t allow Muslim cleric 38 62 100
Allow racist Don’t allow racist
Allow Muslim cleric 63 13
Don’t allow Muslim cleric 37 87
Total 100 100
Allow racist Don’t allow racist
Allow Muslim cleric to speak Extremely liberal 81 27
Liberal 71 17
Slightly liberal 70 21
Moderate 60 12
Slightly conservative 63 15
Conservative 61 8
Extremely conservative 53 3
Wordsum 0-4 40 10
Wordsum 5 48 13
Wordsum 6 63 9
Wordsum 7 70 12
Wordsum 8 79 17
Wordsum 9 77 27
Wordsum 10 92 32


The consistent free speech position gets stronger as you get more liberal, and, as you get more intelligent. But it is interesting that the position where you won’t allow a racist to speak but you will allow a Muslim cleric to speak gets more frequent among liberals and the very intelligent. This, I believe, explains some of the rumblings and equivocation about free speech absolutism. These are a minority, but they are vocal. In contrast, though there are hardcore civil libertarians on the Right, it is almost certainly true that many conservatives who support the right to blaspheme Islam are less willing to stand up for the right to blaspheme the flag of the United States (e.g., allow someone to defecate on it, for example).

One major caveat that needs to placed here is that traditionally the elites of this country have been more defensive about free speech than the populace as a whole. That’s probably because the elites are worried more about power plays by their rivals. Ultimately politically oriented free speech is important for those with ambition and aspirations.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Free Speech 
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In my post “The naked years” I used this image to illustrate the transition from furry Australopithecus, to hairless H. erectus, to the sartorially elaborated H. sapiens sapiens:

Do you find the image offensive? I obviously didn’t, I’m not an artist and was trying to visually communicate a scientific concept, not “provoke.” My usual procedure when looking for images is to go to Wikipedia and find material in the public domain. For the last image I just entered “top hat,” and yanked out the first picture which had a fully body shot, and inserted it into the image montage. As I was crediting I noticed that the image was of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln of Turkey rolled into one. And so the post went up….

But that’s not the end of the story.

Someone posted the entry on friendfeed, which prompted this response:

Eivind, looks like Ali intended to tell about Turkish people’s commitment to the image of Ataturk. Initial reason for the Turkish censorship of Youtube was “insulting to Ataturk” From that point of view, putting an image of the man next to a chimpanzee is humiliating, even if it is out of the context.

First, the image isn’t a chimpanzee. Atatürk is next to another human, albeit an ancestral lineage. The commenters seem to have spoken more in jest, but Turks take insults to the founder of their nation seriously : “…the Turkish Parliament issued a law (5816) outlawing insults to his reminiscence (Turkish: Hatırası) or destruction of objects representing him.” As a larger proportion of Turks are Creationists than Americans, I can see where they’d find offense at this juxtaposition (though the Creationist ones might be less adulatory of Atatürk, who was a militant secularist, and privately an atheist).

I have not removed the image. Unless the editors ask, I will not I suspect, though I am always open to new arguments assuming I have the marginal time to consider them. I think the idea that this is an offensive image is silly. We’re all primates, equally descended from H. erectus. And the intent was to contrast the well dressed modern man with our naked ancestors. But, I can also agree that Turks are within rights to be offended. They aren’t me, and I’m not them, our experiences and values differ.

How about this image:


I don’t personally find it offensive, but I wouldn’t use it. Depicting George W. Bush in a simian fashion was so common on the political Left during his tenure that it wouldn’t serve the intentions of the post, which is to explore science, not political ridicule or satire. Conservatives would be offended, liberals would be amused, and the topic would probably be the image, and not the post.

How about this?


I wouldn’t put this image up either as an illustration. I don’t personally find it offensive in a visceral sense, Barack H. Obama is descended from ancient primates who we might term “apes.” But, I am sensitive to the long history in the United States of depicting people of African ancestry as apes or ape-like, and such an image might cause great offense and hurt others. At a minimum the image would be a distraction, just as the image with George W. Bush spliced in would be.

And that is why I can understand the Turkish perspective somewhat. The post-modern rejection of the pretense of concrete objectivity is valid in some circumstances, though that rejection is itself grounded in material, and the phenomenon which emerges from that material (brain and mind). But, that does not mean that I fly to total subjectivity here. To my knowledge Turks have not historically been depicted as apes. If I used “Orientalist” imagery to indicate the progression from barbaric Turk, to decadent Ottoman, to vigorous Turk, some analogy might be drawn between the first and last image of H. sapiens sapiens. So though I grant some Turks the right to be offended (even on the thread very few Turks seem offended at the use of the image), in this case I think there are objective grounds to also argue that the offense taken is not proportionate to the image because of the context.

But setting aside the issues of objectivity, why don’t I take the subjective aspect which I grant seriously enough to change the image (at least at this moment?). In this instance, no one is forcing Turks to view the image. But there is a more general problem: the non-uniformity of the sacred and the response of offense cross-culturally. Different cultures have radically different views of what is offensive, what is sacred, and often those views are simply at such opposition that a common understanding is not possible. Many Jews view the traditional Christian view of supersessionism as deeply offensive and objectionable. Many Hindus view the stance of many Muslims and Christians that they should convert “heathens”, “idolators” and “pagans” as deeply offensive. And yet for some Christians and Muslims to engage in the Great Commission or Dawah is a fundamental part of their religious faith. In the realm of practice, many conservative Muslims find the exposure of female arms and legs a provocation. Conversely, many women across the world feel that it is their right to dress how they wish to, and are offended at the idea that their very body is a provocation, such that it needs be cloaked.

I could go on. And, I have to add that the problem exists within societies. The same people can view the same images, or consider the same beliefs, and come to radically different conclusions as to their acceptability as judged by “common decency.” There’s no easy solution to this problem, but, we need to remember that other people don’t always share our implicit values, experiences and outlooks, and so we shouldn’t view their own actions and views as we would our own in those circumstances. I’m aware of this personally because my milieu is that of secular liberals, and I am a secular conservative. I don’t go into situations assuming people share my values, because they don’t, and I tread in a manner which pragmatically acknowledges that reality of my existence.

This is a weblog written by an American, predominantly for an American audience. Additionally, though it is a politically diverse weblog, the readership is overwhelmingly well educated and secular. That colors what I say, how I say it, and how I assume the audience will react (I doubt most of you recognized the image as of Atatürk. Even I did not think of it, and I take interest in things Turkish!). But many people find aspects of my posts deeply offensive. Generally they deal with human genetics and tread on some nationalistic shibboleth. I don’t often publish those comments or respond to those reactions because I don’t think there’s any fruit to be had there. If I changed what I wrote to satisfy all those who were offended I just wouldn’t write very much. The internet is international, but for purposes of practicality I have to constrain the circle of offense to the United States, and to a lesser extent the Western world. As I suggested above, many people are offended by contradictory things, so ultimately the set of things mentionable converges on the null set if you really try to satisfy everyone. A reasonable human life is bounded by a common set of values, understandings, and cultural moorings. I’m not a dogmatist of course. But I reject the idea that comparison of an individual to a chimpanzee is offensive in and of itself. Chimpanzees are intelligent and interesting animals, as are we. Those are my values, and in my space (or the space that the editors of Discover Magazine provide) they will reign supreme. I can not live under the worry that someone, somewhere, may be offended.

I wrote this post in part to clarify this particular issue, but also obliquely to address events in the wider world of cross-cultural offense. People are taking sides, and arguing in broad brushes. That’s fine for politicians and public figures, who live in a different world. Most of you who know me understand that I take a dim view of the median human cognitive capacity, so I have little hope that a subtle and nuanced discussion can be had out in the open in a broad-based fashion (that assertion, that the average human is not very intelligent, is very offensive to many people, but that is just how I feel, and I own it). But those of us who deal in the domain of the mind should push ourselves further, and try to acknowledge both that we’re active agents within a particular cultural system and hold to specific values, and, that we can use our higher cognitive faculties and enter into a state of Epochè, and view phenomena from the outside.

Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

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