Hiding Behind Free Speech Several weeks ago, white supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, in a demonstration that left many Americans asking a lot of questions. Who are we as a nation? What do we stand for, and what do we tolerate? The United States goes further than many other countries to protect speech — even hate-filled speech like that used in Charlottesville. In this episode, we look at how people use free speech arguments, and why the motivations behind these arguments may not be apparent — even to the people making them.

Hiding Behind Free Speech

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Before we start today, this episode is about race and free speech. It includes sounds from the violence in Charlottesville, as well as a racial epithet. If you have small kids with you, please save this one for later. This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. A few weeks ago, the words Charlottesville and Tiki torches weren't national symbols you'd associate with white supremacy. Today, those words convey a very specific scene.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) White lives matter. White lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We begin with the deadly chaos on the streets of Charlottesville, Va.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Yesterday's dueling rallies turned deadly when a car plowed into a group of those who oppose the alt-right.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: It was a weekend of street battles and stark displays of racism.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Jews will not replace us.

VEDANTAM: Photos of enraged white men using the Nazi salute and marching with torches shocked many Americans. And since then, many of us have been doing a lot of soul searching. Who are we? What do we stand for? And as a nation, what do we tolerate? Today, we want to zoom in on a specific issue that grows out of the events in Charlottesville.

The Constitution upholds the rights of Americans to say almost anything, no matter how distasteful, without censure from legislatures, the police or the courts. Our protections for speech, even hate-filled, vitriolic speech, go further than most nations. In recent weeks, many people have made free speech arguments to defend the white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Is hate speech protected under the Constitution? In a word, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Free speech may give them the right to do this, but also...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Are they not familiar with the First Amendment?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: There is a fine line between free speech and hate speech.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: But hold up, we can't have that conversation or any conversation until we both agree that we have the right to say what we believe, and that we're not going to be punished for doing that.

VEDANTAM: Are these arguments motivated by principle, or something less heroic? New psychological research suggests that people's motivations might not be what they seem. And that's true no matter where you fall on the political spectrum.

CHRIS CRANDALL: People pull out free speech as a defense when they're defending racist speech, but not when they're defending simply aggressive or negative speech.

VEDANTAM: Today on HIDDEN BRAIN, what we're really saying when we say we defend free speech and how the words we use and the things we say shape the culture in which we live.


VEDANTAM: Chris Crandall is a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. He studies prejudice and has looked at how we use free speech claims. We spoke before the violence in Charlottesville, but we started by talking about an incident that echoes what happened there. In 2015, members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma were caught on video singing a racist song.


UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) There will never be a nigger in SAE. There will never be a nigger in SAE.

CRANDALL: They were singing, there will never be a N-word in SAE. And they were singing happily and clapping along about the exclusion of African-Americans from the fraternity. The video of the song was put on Facebook. And it spread around the campus. And the two song leaders of the fraternity, who were captured on video, were expelled from the university. And the fraternity itself was shut down on the campus of the University of Oklahoma. And there was really a media firestorm about their singing the song.

VEDANTAM: In the aftermath of the incident, one of your graduate students noticed something unusual about the responses to the incident. What did he notice?

CRANDALL: Yeah, Mark White was following this on the Internet. And he looked at the tenor of the comments. And people were saying, well, this is simply free speech. These people have a right to say these things because Americans have the right to free speech. But underneath the surface, in the background or sometimes right at the forefront, it really looked like what people were doing was justifying the content of what was said, not the fact that they have the right to say something freely, but rather that they seem to be justifying the racist speech itself by giving an account - hey, free speech - that allowed them to do that without punishment.

VEDANTAM: Now, it's worth pointing out, of course, that the First Amendment protects people against government intrusions on free speech. It doesn't actually prevent private companies or universities from deciding what is or isn't acceptable speech in the workplace or on a college campus.

But setting aside that distinction, you conducted an experiment where you had volunteers listen to racially charged commentary, and you evaluated whether they would reach for free speech arguments to defend it. You evaluated whether people who endorse free speech arguments do so consistently or would they do so selectively. Walk me through the experiment.

CRANDALL: Yeah. So in one version of the experiment - we did several of these. In one version of the experiment, people read about somebody who wrote something on Facebook that was deeply racist. For example, a barista wrote on Facebook that the black customers were problematic, that they were noisy and rude and other racially stereotypic actions. And the people in the study read that the person had been fired for posting this racist speech. In the other condition, people read about a guy complaining about customers, but no racial information was given.

So the same boisterous, aggressive, loud, cutting-in-line behavior was described, but the racial element was eradicated. And so the question was, do racial attitudes of our participants determine how much they're going to defend the speaker? In the racialized condition, the more you had negative attitudes towards African-Americans, the stronger you endorsed free speech as a justification for why the person should have been able to say that without being fired.

So that suggests that racial attitudes might be behind free speech defense. But you might say quite easily, that's simply a correlation, I'm not impressed. Maybe people who have negative racial attitudes are also libertarians, and they believe that free speech is super important, and they're just simply expressing that. The problem with that argument is, when you remove the racial content from the story - so in the condition where the guy complains about customers, but there's no racial element - racial attitudes correlate zero with free-speech defense. It seems that people pull them out and deploy them when they're appropriate. So people pull out free speech as a defense when they're defending racist speech but not when they're defending simply aggressive or negative speech.

VEDANTAM: I understand that one of the ways in which you measured racial attitudes was simply to ask people, what are your attitudes toward people from different races?

CRANDALL: Yeah. People are a little careful in how they speak about racial attitudes, but our participants were willing to say that they thought that blacks were pushing too hard for their equal rights and that blacks were getting more than they deserved. And in some cases, we simply them rate African-Americans on a zero-to-100 scale. And the lower the number you gave, the more you use the free-speech defense in defense of racist speech.

VEDANTAM: One of the elements of the study that you conducted asked people about their attitudes about police officers. If I understand correctly, you were measuring controversial speech as it was directed towards a minority group versus controversial speech directed against police officers.

CRANDALL: Yeah, in the police version, we were interested in not only attitudes towards African-Americans - so somebody said something racist - but we also thought that police might be the exact opposite. That is, people who might be very anti-African-American might be particularly pro-police. And certainly in the history of the Midwest, here in St. Louis and in Missouri, just across the border, there have been a lot of police-African-American interactions that have not been very happy.

So we thought if we used the police, maybe you'd get the opposite effect. And we did. It wasn't as strong, but we did find that the more a person had negative attitudes towards African-Americans, the less they defended anti-police speech. Although, in the other condition, the more they defended the free speech of racist commenters.

VEDANTAM: So in other words, if the speech is basically anti-black, someone with high racial animus might say, that speech is permissible under First Amendment free speech grounds. But if the speech is anti-police, the person might say, I don't really agree with this person expressing these kinds of views. So the person is inconsistent in their defense of free speech.

CRANDALL: That's right. This is what we find, is that people are really inconsistent.

VEDANTAM: You also found in the experiment, Chris, that it wasn't just people with racial biases who were sometimes hypocritical when it came to free-speech issues. You also found that people who were low in racial bias were also hypocritical, just in the opposite direction.

CRANDALL: Yes, people who were low in racial prejudice were just as inconsistent in applying the First Amendment as a defense than people who were high in racial prejudice. When they were asked to use the First Amendment to defend racist speech, they actually reduced their willingness to do it. They would defend the free speech of somebody who was complaining about their customers or police at an average level. But when it became racialized, the low racist people actually walked away from the First Amendment defense. They went substantially lower.

This suggests that when people are using the free-speech defense, they know what they're doing - because the high racists use it in defense of racist speech, and the low racists drop like a hot potato and say, no, no, no, no, no, we're not defending this speech with First Amendment. But they would defend a barista who's complaining about his or her customers or the police.

VEDANTAM: When you found people defending the racist speech on First Amendment grounds, on freedom of expression grounds, is this because people may have, at some level, felt bad about themselves, Chris? They felt bad that the person who has a view similar to their own is being punished in some way, and they're trying to defend that person as a way to defend themselves.

CRANDALL: That's exactly what we thought was going on. And when we started showing these studies, everybody would nod when we'd say, and so maybe they're defending themselves. But we did several studies where we tried to find out if people's self-esteem was attacked by this, if they needed help to feel good about themselves. And we could never find evidence that people were defending themselves.

What we found evidence for was that people were defending their right to say things. They were defending the speech so that their future speech would be protected. They wanted to create a world where this kind of prejudicial speech was acceptable for them to say, for others to say, in the future.


VEDANTAM: How would you respond to people who might say, you know, let's look under the hood of Chris Crandall's brain? Isn't it possible he's just, you know, a lefty academic who's coming up with research findings that endorse his own preexisting views of how the world works?

CRANDALL: I think that some of that criticism would probably land. I am sort of a lefty academic. I'm a little bit more centrist, I suppose. But we were interested in studying prejudice because prejudice is a particular social problem. It shows up all around the country. It affects people's lives. And so we studied that.

But people would be inconsistent about, for example, being environmentalist and failing to recycle, or going too fast in the right-hand lane of a highway. People are inconsistent all the time. And they manage to get over that pretty easily, mostly by being unaware of it or not paying attention to it too much.


VEDANTAM: When we come back, we look at the effect of free speech arguments on our behavior. I'm also going to ask Chris about how the language we use and the things we say can reshape our culture, especially when the person doing the talking is the president.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's, like, incredible.

CRANDALL: It's not so much what's in your head and heart as it is you looking around and seeing what's acceptable, seeing what's OK, seeing what people will tolerate. And the election changed people's notion of what was tolerable.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. If you're a parent, your kid might have one of those inflatable punching bag toys. Sometimes it's a clown. Sometimes it's a shark - or, like the one in this YouTube video, an inflatable Spider-Man.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Woah, he got me.

VEDANTAM: The thing that kids love about these toys is that they can punch them over and over, and the toys keep bouncing back. They're weighed down, usually with sand, and they can take all kinds of abuse. These toys, which are known as Bobo dolls, were used in a famous psychology experiment in the 1960s. The researcher, Albert Bandura, had kids watch as a person repeatedly hit a Bobo doll with a hammer. I'll let researcher Chris Crandall pick up the story from here.

CRANDALL: Now, what Bandura had his children watch was somebody who came in, went and grabbed a hammer, straddled the Bobo doll so that it was lying on the ground and then hit it in the face with a hammer saying, punch him in the face, hit him with a hammer. Afterwards, sometimes what he called the model, the person doing the punching, was punished. Sometimes nothing happened at all. Sometimes they were rewarded.

The children were then put in a room filled with toys and, over in the corner, a Bobo doll and, elsewhere in the room, a hammer. The kids who had seen the model either have no consequence at all or be rewarded quickly went over, grabbed the hammer, got the Bobo doll into the middle of the room and started immediately pounding it about the face with the hammer and repeating, punch him in the face, hit him with a hammer.

The kids who had seen the model be punished did not do this at all. But here's the trick. Bandura wisely said at the end of this, you know, if you saw something in that video that interested you, you should know, you won't be punished for this. At this point, a majority of the kids get a look of glee on their face, run over grab the Bobo doll, grab the hammer, and start beating it about the face and straddling it and doing what they'd seen the model do. The moral of the story is that we learn from what people do. And sometimes, we don't do it. We may want to punch the Bobo doll, but we know that we'll be punished for it. If somebody comes in and says, it's OK. You can use that hammer and Bobo doll, they will gleefully run and grab the tools and start beating the face of the Bobo doll.


VEDANTAM: So what do Albert Bandura and the Bobo dolls have to do with free speech? The link here has to do with social norms and what's permissible and not permissible. Chris Crandall conducted a study in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. He looked at both liberals and conservatives and asked them a series of questions.

CRANDALL: We were interested in what prejudices people had. And we also wanted to ask them what they thought it was OK to express in the world. So we asked them about Muslims, Canadians, blind people, immigrants, women. And we asked them, how do you feel about them, on a zero to 100 scale. And the lower the number, the less you like them. But other people, we asked them, what do you think is OK to express in the U.S.? And we asked them about all the same groups - Muslims, Canadians, blind people and so on. So we were able to find out not only what people say they have as prejudices, but what they think is acceptable to express in the U.S.

VEDANTAM: You brought these same people back after the election. And you asked them the same questions. What did they say?

CRANDALL: For both Trump, conservative supporters, and Clinton, more liberal supporters, we found that they thought the nation had changed substantially in what it was OK to express as a prejudice. For the groups that Trump had actually targeted in his campaign - Muslims...


TRUMP: I think Islam hates us.

CRANDALL: Mexicans...


TRUMP: They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.

CRANDALL: Illegal immigrants...


TRUMP: They beat us at the border. People are flowing through. Drugs are coming across, pouring across.

CRANDALL: Fat people...


TRUMP: Only Rosie O'Donnell.

CRANDALL: There was a significant increase in how acceptable it was to express prejudice towards them. The interesting thing is there was no change in the acceptability of prejudice towards groups that Trump had not aimed his prejudice at - blind people, Canadians and so on.

VEDANTAM: What do you draw from the experiment, Chris? I mean, it seems remarkable that in a matter of weeks, you know, from stage one to stage two of your experiment, people's views of what they consider acceptable are changing.

CRANDALL: Yes. It was really only about 10 days, two weeks. And we don't think that anybody changed their hearts and minds in that time. What we think is that the election of Donald Trump changed people's understanding of what America felt. The election of Donald Trump, despite all of his overt expressions of prejudice, meant that it must be OK in America to have these prejudices. And so their scores on the acceptability of prejudice, for the Trump-targeted groups, went up - but not the ones he didn't target.

The interesting thing about this is that people's own prejudices did not go up following their sense that America accepted it. And in fact, to a small degree, our participants, both Trump supporters and Clinton supporters, said they went down a little bit in prejudice, just a little bit. And what we think is going on is that they looked around, saw the acceptability of prejudice, saw in America how much there really was, more than they thought. And they said to themselves, oh, I'm less prejudiced than I thought I was. I must be OK because there's a lot more prejudice out there than I thought.

VEDANTAM: Did it strike you as remarkable that things changed so quickly? I mean, I think most of us think about social norms as being relatively stable and enduring things. They're - the things that are acceptable in a country or a society one day, are probably going to be the same things that are acceptable tomorrow or next week. And you're finding there was this dramatic change. Was it just the scale of the election and the fervor of the election that you think might have made the difference? Or do you think that actually social norms actually are very malleable, and they can change fairly quickly?

CRANDALL: You're right that most norms are stable, especially ones that have been around a long time and are as public as prejudice norms in the U.S. But this is a little bit different. First of all, the presidential election and coverage of Trump and prejudice was massive. The mass media and personal discussion over Trump and his discussion of racial groups, immigrant groups, fat people and so on was a huge intervention. Second of all, people were surprised that the American public approved of it by electing him. Now, of course, it wasn't the popular vote. But still, winning the presidency alone is likely to have an effect on social norms.

But one key difference with this social norm is that there is a large number of Americans who are suppressing their prejudice, who were holding it back, who wouldn't say what they really felt because they knew it would be punished. This is what is meant by political correctness. People have attitudes that are negative, but they don't say them out loud because they know that they're unpopular. The election of Trump removed the suppression. It was a key that opened up the floodgates, just a little bit, for people who had been suppressing their feelings a lot. And that's why the number of hate crimes seems to have jumped right after the election - not before, when the speech was all there, but after, when the nation seemed to approve of Trump's prejudices.

VEDANTAM: So it's almost, you know, a parallel - this eerie parallel to the Bandura study. Because what you are saying is it's not enough just to see the model strike the Bobo doll with the hammer. That isn't what actually causes the children to then imitate the adult. It's actually seeing what happens to the model after he or she does that to the Bobo doll. Does the model get rewarded? Does the model get punished? It's that action that then determines whether the children imitate the model or don't imitate the model.

CRANDALL: That's exactly right. It's not so much what's in your head and heart as it is you looking around and seeing what's acceptable, seeing what's OK, seeing what people will tolerate. And the election changed people's notion of what was tolerable.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if this research has any connection with some other work that you've done looking at the question of authenticity. You know, you found that we all crave politicians who are authentic, and certainly that was one of the big appeals of Donald Trump. But sometimes you've argued or your research has found that authenticity is a way to express more subtle feelings.

CRANDALL: Yeah. People said that Donald Trump was very authentic, and we wondered - there's really two ways that that could go. One is that we think he's authentic because he says things that are unpopular. And by saying things that are counter to the social norms, we see that he's revealing something about himself that's different from every other person. To say that you like ice cream is to reveal very little about yourself, but to say that I don't think ice cream is any good reveals quite a lot about you because it's so unusual and so atypical. With the case of prejudice, we wondered if maybe people thought he was authentic because he was saying these horrible things that they thought were horrible. But holy cow, at least he says it.


TRUMP: I don't frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either.

CRANDALL: That's one possibility. The other possibility is exactly the opposite. And that is, authenticity is really just code words for saying, you are saying the prejudice that I have. An authentic person is somebody who says what I feel when I can't say it myself.


VEDANTAM: Trump supporters who listen to this critique might say that they are being boxed into a corner. Just because they believe that Trump is authentic or they believe in free speech protections doesn't automatically mean that they're closet racists.

CRANDALL: That's a fair criticism. The reason we are interested in Trump is that we are interested in trying to explain how Americans were able to tolerate his racism. I think that most of us in the social science community were surprised that Trump was elected not because of his politics but because his racism, his attitudes towards immigrants, his anti-fat prejudice, his misogyny didn't seem to stop most Americans or many Americans from voting for him. And that's the question that we're trying to explain. It's not particularly a liberal or conservative thing to be hypocritical. It's a very human thing to do that. But the public policy implications for prejudice - and we are prejudice researchers - is why we chose to look at Trump and authenticity in this way.

VEDANTAM: Where does the research go from here? And are you still trying to figure out ways to study if social norms are continuing to change as we move further and further from the 2016 election?

CRANDALL: We've been following some of the same people that we followed at the election. And what we have found is that the norms for prejudice are becoming more tolerant of prejudice even beyond what Trump targeted. So the bad news is that it seems that all prejudices are becoming somewhat more acceptable as the course goes on.

VEDANTAM: Chris Crandall is a psychologist at the University of Kansas. Chris, thank you so much for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

CRANDALL: Thank you, Shankar.


VEDANTAM: Hidden Brain is produced by Jenny Schmidt, Maggie Penman, Rhaina Cohen, Renee Klahr and Parth Shah. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. This episode of the show was produced by Lucy Perkins, who joined us on a rotation for a few weeks. She's now off to Austria on a fellowship. Lucy is the sort of producer who consistently fires on all cylinders, and we're so impressed by all she's done in her time with us. Thanks, Lucy.


VEDANTAM: Our unsung hero this week is Gemma Hooley. Gemma is the vice president of member partnership here at NPR. She oversees the team that interacts with stations across the country, and she helps bring the best of public radio programming to your local airwaves. Gemma's office is right next to our planning board, so she's often unwittingly subjected to our meetings as we plan for upcoming episodes. We're launching a radio version of HIDDEN BRAIN this fall, and Gemma's leadership is one of the reasons that launch is going smoothly.

Coming up next week, we're going to look at regret, why our minds are drawn to coulda (ph), woulda (ph), shoulda (ph) kinds of thinking and why this might sometimes be a good thing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: As I learned more, I really started to realize that regret is actually a very hopeful emotion.

VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.


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