On abortion and scores of other political issues, there are people who tend to focus on equilibriums, other people who tend to focus on limits, and still others who vary in their focus. A single question put to the public cannot reveal the majority position of the polity on such issues, because there are at least two different majority coalitions: One forms around the position that a majority holds on the best equilibrium; the other forms around the position a majority holds on the appropriate limit. The winning coalition turns in part on what frame is more prominent at any particular moment.
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Now imagine two individuals who appear to be on opposite sides of a different matter. One aligns herself with what she calls the #MeToo movement; the other declares herself a critic of #MeToo. Yet digging deeper into their views on sexual harassment, it turns out that they are identical. They both believe workplaces ought to adopt policies that more effectively protect women from sexual harassment, and that there should be robust due process protections to guard against false accusations. They even agree on the language of their optimal policies.
What might explain their different postures toward #MeToo?
The first is focused on equilibriums. She believes that the status quo in American workplaces doesn’t adequately protect female workers, and that #MeToo is likely to improve things by shifting the equilibrium, making it marginally more friendly to working women. In contrast, the second is focused on limits. She frets that #MeToo is ending careers without adequate due process and enabling big injustices at the extremes. She worries that, left unchecked by opposition, it will spiral out of control.
Some Americans would feel less polarized and alienated from their fellow citizens if they recognized that some of the people fighting on “the other side” of a polarizing issue actually hold values and beliefs that are strikingly similar to their own.
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Now think of campus politics.
The campus left wants the free-speech debate to be focused on limits. What if an invited speaker is a neo-Nazi or wants to say the N-word or deny the Holocaust? In contrast, the campus right fares better when the debate is focused around the equilibrium. Across partisan and racial divides, large majorities agree that colleges are not doing enough to teach young Americans about the value of free speech and not doing enough to ensure students are exposed to a variety of viewpoints. In surveys, they express antagonism toward threats of violence and racial slurs even while insisting that, on the whole, campuses should be less politically correct.
So why don’t people who want to shift the equilibrium away from political correctness try to broaden their coalition by simultaneously agreeing to ban “hate speech”? In this case, as in others, the “equilibrium majority” is reluctant to make concessions to the “limit majority” because they are concerned about slippery slopes. A refusal to concede limits can be necessary if one means to defend the merits of an absolutist position (like “torture should always be illegal”) or when one believes that an absolutist position allows bad behavior, but that anything short of it guarantees a slide to an inferior outcome, like lots of speech being suppressed.