In a recent Big Think headline we were warned that Prejudiced People apparently Invoke “Free Speech” to Mask Their Racism. The ensuing article by Paul Ratner can be summarised as follows: Racists invoke “free speech” disingenuously to mask their true (bigoted) motives. Like all regressive propaganda, Ratner’s article uses kernels of truth to tell overarching lies. The true part of his argument is that many people claiming to be in favour of “free speech” do not really care about free speech in principle, and support it only when the speech is in broad agreement with their point of view. The false part of Ratner’s article is that those who defend a consistent principled freedom of speech (i.e. free for all views, including the ones they personally find repugnant) secretly harbour racist sentiments. His article suggests that we should be worried, since ‘racism’ is the hidden motive of many defenders of free speech.
Not only is this an empty speculation by Ratner about the collective psyche of the free speech lobby. It is also bolstered by an example of bad science. The alleged prejudice of free-speech advocates is backed up by exactly one ‘scientific study’ from the University of Kansas. What is not mentioned in the article is that the study itself is completely biased and circular in its methodology. What we are told is the following:
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.
At first glance this all seems pretty reliable. But on a closer inspection, the study is flawed because (according to the premise of the research) one major criteria for defining a person as ‘having a racist attitude’ was that they would defend someone against an employer who wanted to fire them on the basis of racist speech. In other words, if someone defends freedom of speech (even for racists) then the presupposition is that they must be racist themselves. This methodology begs the central question because there are other reasons – besides tacit racism – why liberals, including black liberals, defend freedom of expression even for ideas they find repugnant (like racist speech). It would only be true that all defenders of racist speech are necessarily racists IF all people who defend absolute freedom of speech were also racists, which they are not. The article thankfully concedes this… but only after creating a mental link between free speech advocacy and the “science” suggesting that it is racist. Subjects were defined as having a ‘racist attitude’ if they responded negatively to someone getting fired for exercising their freedom of expression. The notion that a principled defence of racist speech is tantamount to a positive endorsement of ‘racism’ was a premise of the research, not an outcome or a ‘finding’. It was an a priori assumption, not an a posteriori observation. This is a major flaw because the starting premise frames all of the ‘results’. Even more concerning, this pseudo-science is being used as the basis for spurious smears against people who defend free speech, thus poisoning the well.
One of the UK’s leading anti-racists, Trevor Phillips, argued against this simplistic policing of speech in his Channel 4 documentary Has Political Correctness Gone Mad? He has also argued in support of freedom of expression for racists in his book Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence (Civitas, 2016), where he says, “any limitation of free speech is, in the end, an erosion of the last defence available to minorities in a diverse society.” (p. 54)
True liberals (as opposed to their cynical impersonators) know this, and have historically been unwilling to jettison essential freedoms whenever they become inconvenient. They know only too well that, if they do so, they will not be able to resort to these liberties later on, when their own ideas may be the ones that have fallen out of fashion.
Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years