The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Three Core Beliefs that Define the Boundaries of Free Inquiry and Discourse on Many Campuses

These beliefs shouldn’t be considered the only legitimate way to see the world.


This is the second in a series of five posts we are publishing this week as the co-authors of a new book from Oxford University Press titled "Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education." The first post from this series can be found here.

One of the key arguments we make in the book is that there is a set of three beliefs that shape much of the contemporary campus environment. We explain these beliefs as follows.

Belief #1: Anything That Aims to Undermine Traditional Frameworks is Automatically Deemed Good

The first belief is that any action to undermine or replace traditional frameworks or power structures is by definition a good thing. This belief is grounded in the view—that we share—that many of society's problems and inequalities can be attributed to historical power structures that have favored members of the white, cisgender, heteronormative patriarchy. But that does not mean that all proposals to address historical inequities constitute good solutions.

We emphasize that our goal is not to defend traditional power structures. To state the obvious, there is nothing redeeming about historical (or present-day) discrimination, including sexism, racism, intolerance toward members of the LGBTQ community, and so on. One can rightly condemn those ills while at the same time recognizing that not all initiatives undertaken with the goals of combating them will be effective. Some will be, and some won't be.

The fact that an initiative aims to counteract historical wrongs doesn't mean that, on that basis alone, it should be exempt from an objective evaluation of its merits and drawbacks. A similar observation was articulated by Conor Friedersdorf, who wrote in the Atlantic that "[t]o object to a means of achieving x is not to be anti-x." In other words, as Friedersdorf suggests, there is a distinction to be made between criticizing a proposed means to achieve an end and criticizing the goal of achieving that end.

The campus culture of providing unquestioning endorsement of anything presented as a mechanism to undermine, remake, or remove society's real or perceived hierarchies (including the corporate and/or governmental entities and structures that are viewed as enablers of those hierarchies) has broad reach, creating considerable collateral damage. For instance, because this belief is applied to any societal feature perceived (whether correctly or not) as having its provenance in historically dominant cultural frameworks, it can lead to absurd consequences, such as assertions that math and logic are inherently racist.

Belief #2: Discrimination is the Cause of All Unequal Group Outcomes

The second belief is that, absent the hand of discriminatory actors, all group-level outcomes would be equal. However, this belief precludes fully considering the role of potential differences in preferences, priorities, and culture that might also contribute to unequal outcomes. It also doesn't fully recognize the complex ways in which different factors (including but not limited to discrimination) might interact in shaping group outcomes, and the challenges of distinguishing correlation from causation.

To take one example, consider a culture in which music plays a particularly large and central role. Such a culture might be expected to produce a disproportionately large number of people who become accomplished musicians. Now, it might also be true that the members of this culture experience discrimination. One can then ask whether they have notably high levels of musical achievement as a consequence (among others) of discrimination. Or is this outcome independent of discrimination? Or, perhaps the role of music in this culture can be tied in part to cultural factors independent of discrimination and in part to discrimination.

Under the second belief, the unequal group outcome—in this case, a higher level of musical achievement among members of this culture—must be due to discrimination. But as the foregoing example illustrates, this assumption forecloses a more expansive inquiry that is more open to recognizing culturally driven differences without necessarily tying them to narratives of oppression.

Another factor sometimes raised in relation to group differences is biology. This is a particularly fraught topic, and understandably so given the frequency with which spurious biological explanations for group differences have been used for nefarious purposes in the past. And to be clear, we are not suggesting that there is any validity to flawed assertions regarding, for example, purported racial or gender differences in intelligence.

But the fact that claims regarding purported group differences have often been driven by some combination of racism, sexism, and bad science doesn't mean that all attempts to explore group differences are attributable to such bias. It seems reasonable to posit, for example, that the dramatic statistical overrepresentation of men among violent criminals has at least some basis in biology.

A similar assertion regarding an underlying biological role could also be made regarding the fact—reflected in car insurance rates—that young male drivers tend to get in more accidents than do young female drivers. Yet under the second belief, these suggestions are deemed improper. Instead, it is only permissible to seek explanations based on socialization and gender norms.

Belief #3: The Primacy of Identity

The third belief is in the primacy of identity, which is commonly invoked through race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. In articulating this belief we are in no way suggesting that identity isn't important. Rather, we are asserting that although it is completely reasonable—and in some cases absolutely necessary—to see things through the lens of identity, that does not mean that an identity-centered view is the only legitimate way of examining all issues. While adherence to the third belief has the very positive consequence of ensuring that identity-centered perspectives have a seat at the table, it is often invoked in a way that excludes non-identity-centered perspectives from discourse—despite the value that those perspectives can often add.

Today's identity politics are an understandable reaction to historical (and continuing) patterns of discrimination through which oppressed groups have often been marginalized in the past precisely because those in power placed primacy on these axes of identity and used it in despicable ways (e.g., slavery). Part of the movement to reclaim historically marginalized identities includes elevating them. Yet, as a result of this belief, it has become increasingly unacceptable to make statements suggesting that identity should not always have primacy….

In an academic culture in which identity is given primacy, it stands to reason that efforts to advance a particular group's interests should take priority, with less attention given to ways in which those efforts may themselves be exclusionary. And, this comes at the price of deemphasizing the opportunities for engagement among members of different identity groups, which in theory is one of most important benefits of a university education. Another consequence of the on-campus focus on identity is that racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are often the only causal mechanisms advanced for a complex set of problems, not all of which are ascribable solely to discrimination.