Both Left and Right are More Free in Conservative Environments

If you want to see both Left and Right perspectives expressed and debated, you need to find a right-wing culture.

David French has written an essay about his experience in life that I think many of us have also experienced: “In the Real World, Not Hollywood, the Left Is Close-Minded, and the Right Allows Dissent.”

I’ve split my professional life between two American cultures: half spent in the bluest-of-blue cities and the other half in the reddest-of-red rural South. I’ve split my jobs between universities and law firms that are almost uniformly Left and conservative nonprofits that are steadfastly Right. I attended a conservative, Christian college and then one of the nation’s most liberal law schools. My family has bounced between Cambridge, Massachusetts, Manhattan, rural Tennessee, small-town Kentucky, and Center City, Philadelphia (where we lived right at the edge of the so-called gayborhood). And after all those travels, I’ve come to at least two important conclusions: The sushi is better in Manhattan, and the freedom is better in Tennessee.

My conservative undergraduate institution — Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. — was far more open to dissent, including from angry atheist classmates (yes, I had a few) than was Harvard Law School. No one was jeered, shouted down, or threatened at Lipscomb. No one called future employers of atheist or liberal students to try to get job offers canceled. Professors didn’t scream at dissenting students, and activists didn’t plaster photo-shopped, pornographic pictures of liberals all over campus walls. At Harvard, all those things happened — to conservative students.

My relatively conservative Kentucky law firm employed people of every ideological stripe, and we engaged in robust (and almost always friendly) discussions of virtually every kind of cultural and political topic. The firm’s pro bono work veered both liberal and conservative, depending on the views of the individual lawyer. When an LGBT activist complained to the managing partner of the firm about my conservative advocacy, she was shut down by a simple statement: “I’m running a law firm here, not the speech police.”

My Manhattan law firm, by contrast, performed only one kind of pro bono service: liberal. Political debates were virtually nonexistent in the workplace, but political conversations happened all the time. The overwhelming liberal majority expressed themselves freely, while the very few conservatives remained silent. Dissent was decidedly not welcome.

How many of you have experiences that match French’s? I’ll bet many of you can tell the same kind of stories. And would a liberal speaker at a conservative college ever need security guards the way an individualist feminist needed security at a Liberal college? Or can you imagine a Liberal CEO being treated the way Brendan Eich was treated at Mozilla?

What have you seen as you study and work in conservative and liberal cultures?