What is Freedom? A Look into MSU Students' Beliefs and Behaviors
From Emily Schultz
Good afternoon. My name is Emily Schultz. I am a 3rd year student in the college of social sciences.
The purpose of my study is to understand how young adults are impacted by the highly politicized and polarized environment in which we are living now. The past few years have brought to light the extent of damage that polarization can do to our society and its citizens, so understanding how this divisiveness will influence the next generation is critically important.
My research question occurs under the umbrella of polarization in America. I hypothesized that, in a cyclical process, Youth form their own political beliefs based on their social interactions. Some youths then, based on these beliefs, may commit an unlawful act and justify their behaviors by framing their actions within their beliefs about freedom.
The main guiding insights for this research project were political socialization, neutralization/drift theory, and cognitive behavioral theory.
At this point, I would like to provide some background about polarization in America.
Increasingly hostile attitudes toward the ‘opposite party’ is an extremely concerning trend. Must we not like our neighbors simply because they identify with a different political party?
Almost every political issue is related to freedom. For example, Abortion, COVID-19, immigration, privacy, healthcare, and taxes.
With the intensification of political polarization in the past few years, arson, rioting, physical violence, gun violence, insurrection, and vandalism have all been committed in the name of freedom.
Debating our contrasting ideas of freedom is central to how we operate as a society. The problem, therefore, is not simply that people disagree, but that freedom has become an excuse to commit unlawful actions.
In this research project, I used 4 types of methods, both qualitative and quantitative.
I conducted two surveys of students in ISS215, a general integrative studies course. These surveys covered questions regarding beliefs about freedom and about covid, politics, social interactions, media exposure, and unlawful behaviors.
I also conducted observations and media analysis.
Lastly, I conducted individual and group interviews.
Being interdisciplinary in nature, this study utilized insights from psychology, political science, and criminal justice. I uncovered common themes across data sources and analyzed them using integrated disciplinary insights.
From this exploration, I discovered 3 major findings that I will focus on in this presentation
First, although students think their beliefs are similar to their peers, they simultaneously dislike students they believe to be in the ‘opposite party’
Second, students and the media view freedom as a false dichotomy: a battle between general welfare versus individual freedom
Lastly, I observed MSU students justifying rebellious behaviors through the excuse of freedom.
Students believed their peers have similar beliefs to their own while at the same time slandering students of the opposite party.
Affective polarization and in-group bias may explain students’ hatred for one another. I believe these terms can be represented as two sides of the same coin.
Each describes a discontent toward people that are not similar to oneself.
Perhaps this discontent toward out-group individuals is why many students wanted to believe that their peers think like them.
I believe that the psychological concept of the false consensus effect applies to this trend.
The majority of survey respondents believed that their peers’ beliefs about freedom were at least somewhat similar to their own. However, this idea is completely inaccurate. Just in looking at students’ responses to the survey questions about freedom, students’ beliefs were highly varied.
There was no ‘majority’ opinion, nor a clear division along partisan lines. Despite that left and right leaning student groups advertised different topics related to freedom, even partisan student groups did not have one central idea of freedom.
In the first survey, I asked students “how well (on a scale of 1-10) do the following reflect your definition of freedom?”. I then listed 10 statements such as “having many opportunities available to me” and “not being limited in the actions I can take”. Students’ responses were highly varied. Across all 10 statements, the average standard deviation was 2.16 on a 10-point scale.
As I detailed at the beginning of this presentation, many Americans have been using ‘freedom’ to justify unlawful behaviors. Among MSU students, a similar pattern emerged during the university covid-19 shut down in 2021.
During this shutdown, University media portrayed a definition of freedom that focused on societal wellbeing. However, many students not only disagreed with the university’s ‘definition of freedom’, but actively rebelled against it.
Messages propagated by the university used language such as “requirements”, “adhere”, “mandatory”, “prohibited”, “comply”. I believe this language was seen by MSU students as “freedom-restricting”.
Many students’ response to this language was “don’t tell me what to do”.
During the week of St. Patrick’s Day, Spring 2021, students openly ignored university and city mandates. At parties north of campus, virtually no one wore masks, nor socially distanced. Some people even shared drink cups.
Furthermore, MSU fraternities voted against a moratorium that would have suspended fraternity social events, open parties, and alumni events during the spring 2021 semester.
Lastly, over half of the students that I surveyed indicated that they are unlikely to socially distance around friends and peers. So too, about half of survey participants agreed that the university’s covid-19 guidelines have restricted their freedom, and the majority of participants indicated that they would prefer to be able to make their own decisions.
Clearly, student and university beliefs about freedom were at odds during the covid-19 pandemic, and this feud over freedom resulted in arguably dangerous responses from many party-going students.
The following sources will bring you to the news articles, emails, and media that I used in my observations.
Thank you for taking the time to view my research presentation.