People who adamantly defend free speech likely aren’t principled. They’re racist, according to research conducted at the University of Kansas.
The research paper is online at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers Mark H. White, a KU graduate student in psychology, and Christian Crandall, a KU psychology professor, determined that highly-prejudice people endorse free speech more than low-prejudice people.
In other words, as White put it in a KU press release, people who defend free speech are often don’t have a “genuine interest in that principle.”
“We think of principles as ideas we use to guide behavior in our every day lives,” White said. “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.”
Crandall said often people defending free speech are “racists defending racists.”
Participants low in explicit racial prejudice avoided endorsing free speech in racialized conditions, the found.
Researchers recruited participants through an Amazon service. The service conducted interrelated studies where participants responded to news items and stories about someone being punished for racist speech. They used a scientific scale to gauge the racist attitudes of the participants.
“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.”
White and Crandall wondered what would incite someone to defend someone else’s misbehavior. Researchers theorized that perhaps prejudiced people rush to the defense of people fired for saying prejudiced things because watching someone punished for thoughts similar to their own made them feel like bad people. However, they found no evidence of that theory.
“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,” White said. “They feel as if their freedom is under attack.”
They concluded that the value of free speech is used by prejudiced people to suit their own needs.
“Values may be used as guiding principles to live by, but they are also strategically deployed to justify prejudices,” Crandall said.
Perhaps the same can be said of the researchers themselves.
They stopped short of saying freedom of speech should never be defended, but White said, “we should assume that the motives are purely based on an abstract democratic principle either.”