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Does conformity explain women's support for censorship?
My post ‘Did women in academia cause wokeness?’ argued that women's entry into academia contributed to its leftward shift and to the rise of woke activism in particular. The post was largely well-received – it’s my most-read Substack article by far. But I did get some critical feedback from Anatoly Karlin and Richard Hanania.
Following Cory Clark, I’d argued that women are less supportive of free speech/more supportive of censorship due to their greater aversion to harm and conflict.
Since they evolved to take care of children, women tend to be more caring, more empathetic and more concerned about protecting “vulnerable” groups from harm. Men, on the other hand, evolved to compete with one another for reproductive access to females. So they tend to be more interested in debating contentious ideas, even if doing so provokes “conflict”.
However, Karlin was unsatisfied with this explanation. He suggested the more important sex difference is in conformity. Women are more conformist, so “they’ll tend to enforce whatever’s the reigning orthodoxy”, as Karlin put it. And since today’s reigning orthodoxy is wokeness, you find more women among woke activists than men.
Richard Hanania has also emphasised women’s conformist tendencies, writing “conformity is the most important trait tied to sex that matters for politics”. And he did “disagree on some things” in my article, though I’m not sure he explicitly contradicted the explanation I borrowed from Clark.
Another commentator who’s invoked the sex difference in conformity is Ed Dutton. In his book Witches, Feminism and the Fall of the West, he writes that “popular and academically high-achieving, though conformist, females” have “fundamentally changed the culture of academia”. (Dutton also writes that women are “higher in empathizing, potentially suppressing truth in favor of social harmony”, so he evidently believes both conformity and aversion to harm/conflict make a difference.)
In this post, I want to argue that Clark’s original explanation is correct. Women are less supportive of free speech primarily because they’re more averse to harm/conflict, with their conformist tendencies playing a minor role at best.
First things first: what does the psychological literature say about the relevant sex differences? According to Richard Lippa’s book Gender, Nature and Nurture, two meta-analyses have been done on sex-differences in conformity, yielding effect sizes of d = 0.32 and d = 0.28, respectively. (Both were published in the 80s.) This means that women score about 30% of a standard deviation higher than men on measures of conformity – a small-to-moderate sex difference.
In 1994, there was a meta-analysis of studies using Asch’s line judgment task in which percentage of female participants served as a moderator. The authors found that studies with larger percentages of female participants reported larger effect sizes, which constitutes further evidence that women are more conformist. On the other hand, the 1981 meta-analysis of sex differences in conformity found that studies published later reported smaller effect sizes.
As far as I’m aware, there are no large cross-cultural studies on sex differences in conformity. So while it’s plausible that the difference is innate, we should remain somewhat sceptical until we have more data. After all, sex differences sometimes disappear or reverse when you look at non-WEIRD societies.
What about aversion to harm? This construct is slightly harder to pin down. In a 2019 review paper, John Archer gives the following summary values for sex differences: d = –0.28 for care orientation; d = 0.43 for social dominance orientation; and d = –0.91 for empathy. So the sex differences in caring is about as large as the sex difference in conformity, whereas the sex difference in empathy is much larger, and the sex difference in social dominance is intermediate.
Sex differences in caring and empathy have also been observed in cross-cultural studies. A 1992 paper which analysed data from the US, China, South Korea and Thailand, found that in all four nations women’s preference for a caring morality was stronger. A 2010 paper which analysed data from a cross-national survey found that women’s empathising scores were consistently higher than men’s (though it did not report the country averages). And a 2020 paper which analysed data from another cross-national survey found that in 67 out of 67 countries women scored higher on the care foundation.
What about aversion to conflict? There’s a lot of evidence that women are more averse to conflict/competition than men, though according to Archer no meta-analyses or cross-cultural studies have been done on the topic.
Overall then, there’s robust evidence for sex differences in conformity and aversion to harm, and considerable (though somewhat less robust) evidence for a sex difference in aversion to conflict. Of these three, only the sex difference in aversion to harm – which appears to be the largest – has been documented in cross-cultural studies.
I should mention that even if the sex differences in conformity and aversion to conflict aren’t universal (which I find difficult to believe), it doesn’t particularly matter. We’re trying to explain why women in the West are less supportive of free speech, and it’s clear that those sex differences do exist here. Perhaps there’s something about the West that makes women more conformist and averse to conflict? It’s possible.
The obvious way to test the two competing explanations of women’s greater support for censorship would be as follows. Recruit a large sample of Westerners. Ask them if they support free speech. Administer measures of conformity and aversion to harm/conflict. Then using regression or mediation analysis, see which is better at explaining the sex difference in support for free speech.
To date, nobody has done this. Yet there are other ways of testing the two explanations. If women are less supportive of free speech because they conform more to the dominant culture, which today insists that free speech is bad, then they ought to have been more supportive of free speech back when the dominant culture said that free speech was good.
Now, it’s debatable whether the dominant culture ever really said that free speech was good. But I think we can agree it was a lot more favourable to free speech in the past. I’m not sure exactly how the dominant culture’s attitude to speech has changed over time, other than to say it became substantially more negative in the early 2010s. And if you go all the way back to the 50s and early 60s, you find a dominant conservative culture that was hostile to free speech (McCarthyism, the trial of Lady Chatterly, etc.).
Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that from the late 60s to the early 2000s, the dominant culture in the Anglosphere (if not the West in general) was reasonably favourable to free speech. As late as 1999, Jared Taylor could talk openly on C-SPAN about race differences in criminality.
Having said that, the ground was probably starting to shift against free speech by the late 90s – as younger, woker cohorts replaced older, more classically liberal cohorts. Indeed, the dominant culture within academia became hostile to free speech much earlier (Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was published in 1987). Hence the strongest test of the conformity hypothesis would be to gauge women’s attitudes in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Toward this end, I analysed data from the General Social Survey – a large cross-sectional survey carried out in the US every couple of years.
Among the items related to free speech are five that have been included in almost every wave since the 70s. Each one takes the form, “Consider someone who believes X. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community, should he be allowed to speak, or not?” The five items refer to an anti-religionist, a racist, a communist, a militarist, and a homosexual, respectively. (See here for exact question wording.)
For each item, I calculated the sex difference in each wave as the proportion of men saying the relevant person should be allowed to speak minus the proportion of women saying he should be allowed to speak. Hence a positive value indicates that men are more supportive of free speech, whereas a negative values indicates the reverse. Results are shown below.
The three lines at the top – corresponding to anti-religionist, racist and communist – show approximately the same pattern: men have been consistently more supportive of free speech, with the size of the sex difference fluctuating over time. While the three lines trace different courses during the 70s, 80s and 90s, they all trend downward in the 2000s and then upward in the 2010s.
The two lines at the bottom – corresponding to militarist and homosexual – show different patterns. The former starts below the zero-line and finishes above it, which doesn’t lend itself to obvious explanation (perhaps because “militarist” hasn’t been a salient category since the draft was abolished in 1973). The latter fluctuates around the zero line, indicating there’s little or no sex difference in support for free speech for homosexuals.
The lines at the top are more interesting and more germane. After all, homosexuality is a sexual orientation not a belief system, and as mentioned, “militarist” isn’t a salient category anymore. The key test of the conformity hypothesis is the line for racist, since racism is the belief for which change in the dominant culture’s attitude to free speech has been most pronounced.
Yet the course it traces is inconsistent with that hypothesis. The sex difference in support for free speech for racists was just as large in the late 80s as it was in the late 2010s. In other words: back when the dominant culture said that free speech for racists was good (or at least permissible), women were no more likely to support it. Which suggests that their conformist tendencies do not explain why they’re less supportive of free speech today.
Is this result down to a quirk of the GSS data? No. I tracked down several studies based on other data from the 90s or earlier, and they all confirmed that men were more supportive of free speech.
A 1994 study found that women scored significantly higher on the Attitudes Toward Censorship Questionnaire. A 1973 study found that women scored significantly lower on a measure of support for civil liberties. And a 1970 study found that in six out of seven polls women were less supportive of free speech (though in the other they were more supportive, possibly because that poll referred to the “national interest”, which is a masculine ideal).
Women have been more supportive of censorship since at least the 70s, and there’s no secular trend in the sex difference over time. Back when the dominant culture said that free speech was good – when the high-status position was to be in favour of free speech – women were still less supportive of it than men. I take this as evidence that their greater aversion to harm and conflict is what matters.
One could try to reconcile the data with the conformity hypothesis by arguing that, even though the dominant culture was more tolerant of free speech for racists in the past, it still disapproved of racism itself. So by opposing free speech for racists, women were simply conforming to the dominant culture’s view that racism is bad.
While this line of argument might work for racism, it arguably doesn’t work for anti-religionism or communism. The dominant culture in the US is hardly “pro-religious” or “anti-communist” anymore (it hasn’t been distinctly so since 1990 when coincidentally, communism fell and secularisation began). Yet women are still less supportive of free speech for both anti-religionists and communists.
They’re less supportive of free speech for other left-wing viewpoints too. In 2017, the Cato Institute asked Americans with college experience whether various individuals should be allowed to speak on campus. Unsurprisingly, women were less likely to say Holocaust deniers and conversion therapy advocates should be allowed to speak. However, they were also less likely to say that someone who criticises the police, or says all white people are racist, should be allowed to speak.
Here’s how I’d interpret the evidence. Women’s aversion to conflict makes them wary of allowing dissidents to speak in general, and their aversion to harm makes them particularly wary of dissidents whose speech might offend groups that society deems “vulnerable” (immigrants, racial and sexual minorities, etc.).
Returning to Karlin, he claims that “like most novel ideas” wokeness is “overwhelmingly male-created”, and women support it purely because it’s the “reigning orthodoxy”.
Karlin’s surely right that most novel ideas are created by men. But I would suggest this actually isn’t true of wokeness. At the very least, I’d submit that women are more represented among the creators of wokeness than among the creators of almost every other political movement. How many of the creators of fascism, or socialism, or libertarianism or (to take a more recent movement) the alt-right, were women? Practically none.
But among the creators of wokeness, we find a relatively large number of women – even if they’re still less than half. Sociologist Musa al-Gharbi has traced the origin of various woke concepts emanating from academia. In many cases, they were either invented or popularised by female academics.
The key text for popularising “patriarchy” was written by a woman. The key paper for popularising “microaggression” had five female authors. The article that coined “allyhood” had one female author. The terms “intersectionality” and “matrix of oppression” were coined by women. The notion of “words as violence” was popularised by a woman. The terms “white privilege” and “male privilege” were coined by a woman. And the contemporary use of “white supremacy” owes largely to two women.
Rather than wokeness being “overwhelmingly male-created”, women are well represented among its creators; they may even by over-represented, depending on how you define “creator”. Indeed, wokeness is the only major political movement aside from feminism (an obvious forerunner) in whose creation women played an outsize role. It’s therefore no surprise that it embodies their psychological tendencies.
If I may borrow a provocative quote from Amy Wax, women have brought “the values of the nursery and the kindergarten, of making everybody feel good and included” into the academy, thereby displacing the “traditionally masculines values” of truth-seeking and argumentation.
While women are more conformist than men, they’re also more averse to harm and conflict, with the latter differences almost certainly being larger. Contrary to the conformity hypothesis, women have always been more supportive of censorship – even when the dominant culture said that free speech is good. And far from passively following men’s lead, they had a major hand in the creation of wokeness.
Image: Benjamin Couprie, Participants of the first Solvay conference, 1911
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