Liberals and the intelligent stand by free speech

On-LibertyIn 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.

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