Tuesday, April 23, 2013

BC more politically diverse than students think, study suggests

Dustin Boehlke scrunched his eyebrows and paused for a moment before filling in the blank pie charts in front of him. He had just completed a survey on student political views at Bellevue College and was now filling in his guesses as to what the results of the study would be. “Tolerance is probably a little bit bigger,” he said as he etched in the pie-chart on BC student value priorities, given a choice between tolerance, freedom and traditional morality. He filled in about 65 percent as being for tolerance.

In reality, of the 85 students polled for the survey, only 19 percent claimed tolerance trumped the other two options. Boehlke had wrongly guessed that most students at BC were “progressive liberals,” when in actuality, the outcome of the polling data seems to suggest that student political sympathies tend to be more libertarian and conservative than liberal. He wasn’t alone in his misperception however; 85 percent of the students polled felt that most people at BC are liberal.

The survey questionnaire posed four multiple-choice questions to students that focused on their views of human nature, equality, values and government. The fifth question asked students what group, between liberals, conservatives and libertarians, they thought was most prevalent on campus. Though the overwhelming majority guessed liberal, most BC students appear to be libertarians, with conservatives just slightly outnumbering liberals.

After being showed the results, students tended to offer two different explanations for the results. Many felt that the methodology was lacking in many regards. “That’s not a big enough sample-size” said Erin Hoffman, the news editor for “The Watchdog.” Hoffman added that many of the questions forced students into choosing between false dichotomies, and that some of the answers contained hidden biases. Giulia Balzola was particularly concerned about the second question, which asked students to decide whether people are capable of achieving ideal solutions to problems or are fundamentally flawed and resistant to change. Designed to emulate Thomas Sowell’s “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions of human nature that form the basic differences between liberals and conservatives, Giulia felt that the answers didn’t frame the different perspectives properly. “The first answer is addressing social and external problems the people could be able to solve. The second answer is saying the people have problems themselves. I think this answer does not exclude the first one.”

Balzola didn’t say the study was completely wrong though. “Most people on this campus aren’t actually liberal. They’re faking it. I’m a real liberal and I know what it means to be liberal.” She added that perhaps students felt that they had to say they were liberal, even if they weren’t. Other students expressed similar sentiments, and added that this was partially due to the dominance of a progressive-liberal culture that punishes people who step out of line. “I don’t even talk to [minority students] on campus anymore,” said one conservative student who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t have anything against them, I just don’t want to get in trouble if I say something that gets interpreted the wrong way.” Other students and staff members echoed the feelings of isolation, including Joan LeBeau, the president of BC’s College Republicans. “You feel like an island sometimes,” she said.

The term to describe this fear of retaliation which leads to isolation is “pluralistic ignorance.” Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker explained the concept in an interview with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, saying that “if dissenters are punished and can anticipate they’re going to be punished, then you might have a situation where no one actually believes something, but everyone believes that everyone else believes it, therefore no one is willing to be the little boy that says ‘the emperor is naked.’” According to Pinker, BC wouldn’t be alone if the pluralistic ignorance hypothesis proves to be true. “It’s the University[s] that imposes more stringent restraints on speech than society at large…and this pluralistic ignorance, as it’s sometimes called, is easily implemented when you have the punishing or censoring of unpopular views.”

Boehlke has good reason to fear punishment: he was threatened with sanctions from the school administration earlier in the quarter after making a Harlem Shake video that was deemed to be offensive, and was then accused of intimidating others when he tried to apologize to the offended student. “Is this people around BC? Because it seems like…that’s not what I see in people.” For Boehlke and for many others, the discovery that tolerance and progressive-liberal culture isn’t as nearly as prevalent as most students imagine could have profound implications. “Definitely publish this. It would be interesting to see what people think about it.”

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