Partisans Versus Contrarians: The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, and the Orwellian Distortion of the Free Speech Debate on College Campuses

Because I love a good dichotomy, I tell my students that the world is divided into two types of people: partisans and contrarians.  Partisans feel greater certainty about their own views; they enjoy congregating around others who share those views; and they don’t scrutinize the views or tactics of their partisan cohort the way they scrutinize those who disagree with them.  Contrarians, by contrast, rebel against views that have achieved some measure of prominence; they enjoy picking apart the dominant paradigm; and they fear congregations sharing an orthodoxy of opinion.

The partisans, unfortunately, have gained ascendance in academia – and with that has come a redefinition of the nature of free speech and intellectual engagement.


Because I am a contrarian, when I read an article in the Harvard Business Review discussing a study on why mediocre, “incompetent men,” become leaders, I bristled.  My first thought was that the counterintuitive framing was interesting.  Instead of focusing on why qualified women don’t get promoted, the article considered why unqualified men do get promoted.  However, my next, contrarian reaction was to consider the number of incompetent women I’ve seen promoted – women who can be more difficult to fire because of antidiscrimination protections.  Those who research these phenomena, such as gender discrimination in the workplace, often have political aims or particular worldviews that may skew their studies in particular directions or distort the narrative.  The study was interesting and helpful, but I wondered about its limitations, especially in a somewhat ideologically uniform academia.

Most Americans, I find, are partisans.  That is why a trend to cancel subscriptions to The New York Times arose after what seemed to me a fairly innocuous (and ironically on point) column by Bret Stephens.  The column, “Climate of Certainty,” does not dispute the science on climate change.  The column simply notes that predictive models are fallible and that environmental advocates overstate what we know about the data.  Certainty in any one direction has lead, throughout history, to scientific orthodoxies that stifle progress and lead humanity astray.  I wonder how many of the people who cancelled their subscriptions have actually read a single study.  When any community is certain about something, contrarians like Bret Stephens wish to challenge it, if just to expose some limitations.  Partisans, by contrast, retreat to their partisan outrage.  They wish to shield themselves from contrary views.

Partisans may be a necessary evil in politics, but they are taking over college campuses. This is most starkly evident in the Orwellian ways in which students and faculty have begun to reframe the debate about free speech.  Today, The New York Times podcast, The Daily, had a feature discussing free speech on college campuses.  The podcast noted the measures that student (and sometimes faculty) activists have taken to shut down speech – including shouting over speakers, assaulting people, and pulling fire alarms to ensure that speakers cannot communicate their messages.  One of the student activists interviewed asserted that shouting down a speaker isn’t stifling free speech; it is simply exercising the free speech rights of the protesters.

This is not only descriptively wrong, as a matter of First Amendment law, but it is a dangerously Orwellian view.  Silencing is speech.  Sure, peacefully protesting outside of a speech event is a valid exercise of First Amendment rights.  But shouting down the speech of a planned speaker in a dedicated forum is not protected speech.  The intellectual move made by the resistance to current notions of free speech is that the university should not give hateful speakers (some of whom are academics themselves) a platform.  However, public universities cannot allow some student groups to invite speakers while forbidding other students groups to do so.  Public universities cannot discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.  Denying student groups the ability to invite speakers with particular views is illegal viewpoint discrimination.  By ensuring equal access by student groups, a university is not endorsing the views of some speakers; it is simply refusing to censor student groups based on viewpoint.

Almost worse than claiming that coordinated, often violent efforts to silence a speaker are exercises of free speech, is the view that debates over censorship on college campuses aren’t even about free speech.   Today, The Atlantic has a provocative, high quality piece about what is really behind debates about free speech on college campuses.  The key insight of this piece is that the free speech debate isn’t really about free speech.  These debates, according to the author, are really about power, allocation of resources, and the nature of intellectual engagement itself.  The academic community must establish communities of shared values in addition to spreading knowledge, according to the author.  Of course, the obvious rebuttal is that trying to claim power and resources by shutting down the views of others is the paradigmatic reason we have free speech protections.  And a new intellectualism based around shared values sounds awfully anti-intellectual to this contrarian, unless these values involve norms of rigorous scrutiny, the scientific method, and open, informed dialog.

The solution, in my view, is more intellectual diversity in academia, a place that increasingly sees itself fighting for “justice” instead of nonpartisan knowledge.  Racial, gender, and religious diversity are necessary at universities, in part, to facilitate to dissemination of facts, ideas, and perspectives that may be excluded from debates.  The same argument holds for diversity of opinion and politics.  We are now caught up in a vicious cycle where ideological perspectives are being excluded by selection efforts and teaching tactics of partisan academics and administrators.   Students are being exposed to only a particular set of views, facts, and values.  This ideological orthodoxy leads to increased partisanship and an increased desire to stifle contrarian views or facts as wrong or immoral, diminishing students’ ability to rebut distasteful ideas with argument and fact and increasing partisanship.  And, unfortunately, as The Daily noted today, it may have contributed to the rise of political polarization and to Trumpism.  The Resistance may be contributing to its own need to exist.

9 thoughts on “Partisans Versus Contrarians: The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, and the Orwellian Distortion of the Free Speech Debate on College Campuses”

    1. This is a tough question, LarryK. High school students’ speech is less protected than, say, college students (who are adults), but speech that occurs off campus is generally considered more protected than speech on campus. Courts are somewhat divided as to how much leeway schools have to restrict speech on the Internet- if it may disrupt the functioning of the school. (Courts use a substantial disruption standard under Tinker v. Des Moins.) I think the First Amendment does and should protect this speech, but it’s not an easy question. Luckily, the suspension was cancelled.


  1. Do we only need more intellectual diversity in academia, or also in high schools? That is, is it really so surprising that college kids want safe spaces at Yale after they spent the last four years in a private high school with uniforms to make sure no one wore a MAGA hat or NRA shirt near them?

    That is, doesn’t it make sense that any idea that was too dangerous for them to be exposed to in high school is too dangerous to be tolerated in college?


    1. Interesting point, although college is really a transition time into adulthood. College students, as adults, are more mature and receive greater First Amendment protections.


      1. Up here in the Pacific Northwest, they used to teach Orwell in high school, but they moved it to college cause 1984 was making kids paranoid. Cause you know, college-age students definitely never get paranoid . . .


      2. If a 16yo woman in high school is allowed to go to class even though she’s having sex after school, but is stopped from going to class when she’s wearing an NRA shirt, surely no matter how immature she is, she’s going to get the message that its OK to silence gun-owners like Milo and Ben Shapiro, right? Who are the exact sort of people being silenced at college?


  2. “the rise of political polarization and to Trumpism”

    Would you say that political polarization began with the 5-4 decision upholding Social Security (1937) or that Americans were fairly united until the 5-4 Everson decision (1947) that lead to the South mistakenly thinking there was a war on Christianity?


    1. The parties have always had “competing” platforms”, but they didn’t have “opposing” platforms until 1972, when the republicans ran on local schools, and democrats ran on forced busing. Suddenly democrats who wanted their kids to go the schools in their own neighborhoods found themselves voting republican.


    2. I think there are a few flash points of political polarization. FDR’s Court packing and welfare legislation is one. Roe v. Wade is another. Citizens United is another (although I believe this case has been irresponsibly portrayed by politicians and the media). The Garland nomination and Trump’s election is another. There are not enough moderate voices, and there isn’t enough genuine intellectual interchange among people who disagree about priors or outcomes, in my way,


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