It’s difficult to determine when discussions of controversial topics became known as hate speech on college campuses across the country. But the metamorphosis has taken place all around us, and the costs are undeniable. Open debate has morphed into self-censorship and terrified silence; what used to be celebrated as an environment of fearless questioning has become a stultifying world of repression.
Intolerance of meaningful debate comes from both sides of the political spectrum. Talk of “black lives matter” constitutes hate speech for some, while “blue lives matter” fits the bill for others. Depending on the political leanings of their particular campus, professors, staff members and students are strongly discouraged from entertaining certain topics even privately, much less discussing them publicly on campus, because these discussions make some people uncomfortable. The risks and penalties are tangible and significant, from shaming and ostracizing, to fear of loss of tenure and jobs for professors and expulsion and dismissal for anyone else.
We considered these issues in a new article in Perspectives on Psychological Science on the controversies surrounding recent cancellations of campus talks. We drew mainly on psychological, legal and philosophical analyses to explain the polarization of positions, focusing on phenomena known as blind-spot bias, selective perception, motivated skepticism, my-side bias, groupthink and naïve realism, which help explain why dueling sides overestimate support for their own position and downgrade opponents’ views. In the campus disturbances, opponents did not simply interpret the same situation differently, they actually saw different things.
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