Prejudiced People Invoke “Free Speech” to Mask Their Racism, Says Study

A new study questions why some people support "free speech".

A new study says that some people who claim to be for “free speech” when defending racist language do not really care about all speech, just the speech which agrees with their point of view. In fact, the researchers say that in such cases it often comes down to “racists defending racists”.


The study was carried out by the graduate student in psychology Mark H. White and psychology Professor Christian Grandall from the University of Kansas. They found “explicit racial prejudice” to be a pretty good predictor whether someone would use the “free speech defense” to defend racist attitudes.  

The study saw that those with high levels of prejudice were very concerned with freedom of expression. They were also less likely to defend “free speech” in principle when faced with non-racial scenarios, suggesting that “freedom of speech” was more of a convenient rhetorical point, utilized when it suited them. 

“When people make appeals to democratic principles — like ‘freedom of speech’ — they don’t always represent a genuine interest in that principle,” said White. “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.”

One way that people soften the appearance of their prejudices is by latching on to larger political causes like “free speech.” This allows people, the study found, to “buffer racial and hate speech from normative disapproval”. Basically, doing this can make it seem like your prejudice is ok and somewhat accepted by society. 

This conclusion is sure to be controversial for its implications. The balance between fighting prejudice and the necessity of free speech in a democracy has been increasingly tested in today’s America. A number of high-profile rightwing speakers have met violent opposition on college campuses, which resulted in some speeches like Ann Coulter’s being cancelled. Appearances by the white nationalist Richard Spencer have drawn much soul-searching and changed policies. Many in the conservative media (and even President Trump) defended such provocative personalities as Milo Yiannopoulos using the “free speech” position, after his appearance at Berkeley met with significant protests.

The study consisted of eight experiments with hundreds of participants, who were recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. They were made to respond to news of racist incidents or situations like someone getting fired for racist speech. The reactions were scored according to the standard Henry and Sears Symbolic Racism 2000 scale.  

The researchers observed a positive statistical correlation between racial prejudice and standing up for racist attitudes by arguing the need for “free speech”. Interestingly, those who scored low on prejudiced opinions actually avoided standing up for free speech in race-related situations.

The researchers point out that it would be “irresponsible” to paint everyone who makes “free speech” arguments as somehow prejudiced. 

“However, our data do show that racial prejudice is one of the many attitudes that go into people deciding to make this argument. We should not ignore the ‘free speech’ defense, but we shouldn’t assume that the motives are purely based on an abstract democratic principle, either,” said White

You can read the study “Freedom of Racist Speech: Ego and Expressive Threats” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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