When ‘free speech’ is a cover for racism

Not surprisingly, last week’s multiple posts about the racists who attend games at Boston’s Fenway Park brought out the commenters who view these sorts of things as assaults on free speech.

They’re probably racist too, a study released last week from the University of Kansas says.

“When people make appeals to democratic principles — like ‘freedom of speech’ — they don’t always represent a genuine interest in that principle,” Mark H. White, a graduate student in psychology, and co-author of the study said in a news release. “We think of principles as ideas we use to guide behavior in our everyday lives. Our data show something different — that we tend to make up our mind on something based on our attitudes — in this case, racial attitudes — and then decide that the principle is relevant or irrelevant. People do whatever best fits their pre-existing attitudes.”

In other words, if you’re racist, you do what you can to justify your racism without acknowledging your racism.

We look at people who defend another’s racist speech — for example, defending someone who got fired for going into a racist rant at work — with a ‘free speech’ argument,” said co-author Christian Crandall, professor of psychology at KU. “What do we know about people making this argument? The correlation between using the free speech defense and people’s own racial prejudice is pretty high. It’s racists defending racists.”

“You might think that, ‘Maybe people who defend this racist speech are just big fans of free speech, that they’re principled supporters of freedom,’” Crandall said. “Well, no. We give them a ‘news’ article with the same speech aimed at police — and prejudice scores are completely uncorrelated with defending speech aimed at police — and also uncorrelated with snarky speech aimed at customers at a coffee shop, but with no racial content.”

In their experiments, the pair tested several scenarios with their subjects and found that how they felt about the principle of free speech depended less on an embrace of the Constitution, and more about how they felt about the subject of the speech.

“It isn’t so much that these controversies make prejudiced people feel bad about themselves; instead, it seems to be driven partially by prejudiced people feeling like they are not free to live how they want to live and say what they want to say — they feel as if their freedom is under attack,” he said.

The freedom to be a racist, for example.