When the New York Times editorialized that “America Has a Free Speech Problem,” I knew they were right.
I see it all around me — friends confide in me that they feel like voicing their true opinions in this very newspaper could dash their dreams of admission to medical school. Others feel punished and ostracized for expressing their actual views. In one recent thread on the anonymous social media app Sidechat, students puzzled over which student government leaders are conservative, with one student inquiring “like who?,” as if conservative beliefs are worthy of shame. Another student wrote “when they believe that I shouldn’t have control over my own body, I don’t care to learn about their other beliefs,” implying that a student’s pro-life stance rendered them unworthy of discourse.
Beyond Harvard too, an icy atmosphere has descended across the nation, one where political discourse is inhibited. According to a New York Times and Siena College Research Institute poll, a majority of Americans say they have previously held their tongue for a fear of retaliation; only 34 percent of respondents believed Americans have complete freedom of speech. The pattern continues at colleges: Over 80 percent of college students report self-censoring some of the time, while 21 percent do so often. Pew has also documented that a growing number of Americans are acquainted with cancel culture — the term used to describe the practice of calling out individuals whose views are deemed offensive — and are becoming increasingly wary about its use.
There is less polling regarding discourse on Harvard’s campus specifically, but it likely faces the same problems that Americans and college students face nationally. College Pulse, a firm that conducts research about college campuses, ranks Harvard in 130th place out of 154 colleges for its freedom of speech. Although Harvard officially endorses free speech, the makeup of this institution, with fewer than 2 percent of our faculty and only nine percent of the class of 2025 identifying as conservative, suggests that any type of open dialogue is unbalanced at best. Although how much prominence conservative views should enjoy on campus — whether campus opinion should be representative of the country, the College’s applicant pool, or some other population — is debatable, conservative students should not be such a rare minority, nor should they be shunned for their beliefs.
When speech is policed, echo chambers arise, and the pursuit of truth becomes more difficult. In a free marketplace of ideas, where any belief can be heard, debated openly on its merits, and assessed rigorously, individuals can filter out truth from fiction and evaluate the strengths and shortcomings of various ideas. However, in echo chambers, individuals hear one set of ideas continually without dissenting viewpoints, and discovering the weaknesses of one’s own beliefs becomes much more challenging. Without having to defend their own ideologies, people become complacent with holes in their thinking and are not motivated to reconsider their principles. While a fine line exists between hateful rhetoric — which is never constructive — and controversial speech, erring on the side of tolerating discourse is wise because the dangers of ideological conformity are so great.
This lack of political discourse is not an issue unique to the left, but a facet of a larger American problem: People on both sides of the political spectrum have ceased talking to each other. While cancel culture buttresses echo chambers in progressive circles, echo chambers have simultaneously cropped up on the political right. Misinformation swirling in online chatrooms has convinced a whopping 75 percent of former President Donald J. Trump’s supporters that Trump won the 2020 election, despite a dearth of evidence to substantiate their claim. Many Republican politicians who have pushed back against this narrative are losing influence in their party, including Rep. Liz Cheney, who lost her primary challenge after co-leading the congressional investigation into the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The effect of both rightwing and leftwing echo chambers is the same: Viewpoints that deviate from the norm are silenced.
Echo chambers differ significantly on the right and left, but their mutual existence ensures that individuals are unlikely to interact with people of opposing viewpoints. Marriages between Democrats and Republicans are becoming less frequent and most Democrats and Republicans report having a core social network comprised exclusively of members of the same party. No wonder Americans rank political polarization as a top problem facing the country.
Yet polarization is far from the only hazard of today’s echo chambers — they also impede truth finding. Throughout history, echo chambers have successfully stifled progress: The Church censored Galileo’s findings, delaying societal acceptance of a heliocentric conception of our solar system. More recently, the USSR censored books critical of their regime, masking the dystopian nature of their government. In each society, countervailing viewpoints were suppressed, allowing status quo orthodoxies to flourish unquestioned.
While today’s echo chambers are not enforced by a central power like the Church or Soviet government, they are still maintained by each of us. Although the Internet provides individuals access to almost any idea conceivable, rarely do people seek out new perspectives.
Dismantling today’s echo chambers is no easy task. They are enforced by people’s aversion to new ideas and by social media platforms, many of which use algorithms that promote ideological homogeneity. Yet here at Harvard, in our own progressive milieu, there are small steps we can each take towards breaking our liberal echo chamber.
Listen to your conservative peers, don’t just shut them down. Take classes with professors that challenge your beliefs. Read widely.
This won’t solve the larger national problem, but it is a step in the right direction. Next time you walk through Dexter Gate, take its inscription to heart: “Enter to Grow in Wisdom.”
Jacob M. Miller ’25 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Lowell House. His column “Diary from an Echo Chamber” appears on alternate Thursdays.