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Free Speech, Bobo Dolls, & 2016 Presidential Elections

Free Speech, Bobo Dolls, & 2016 Presidential Elections

It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep hoping. The amount of news relating to events of violence and hate within the last year has often left me at a loss for words, overwhelmed by emotion, and wishing for the existence of a magical portal that would lead to a just reality, upholding the values of equality and kindness (man, how the standards for alternate universes have fallen). Individuals seem to be neglecting the implementation of stricter guidelines based on a past that has not been fair to everyone, to hold beliefs separate from scientific reason, and to underestimate the effect of societal standards.

The United States has somehow remained in the mindset of finding prejudiced attitudes legally acceptable despite the world having seen similar issues elsewhere (looking at you, Germany). According to the University of Chicago Law professor Geoffrey Stone, it is due to not having learned the same lessons. In his response to Vox, he mentions that the first amendment implies a lack of trust in the government. While Germany responded to the continuous struggle with neo-Nazis and the far right by setting limits to free speech for the sake of a peaceful democracy, the United States decided not to specify what speech is and is not okay to express.

That being said, the first amendment only protects individuals from government intrusion and does not prevent private companies or universities from deciding what is or is not permissible in a workplace or on a college campus. The responsibility to treat everyone with respect then seems to be an individual decision, and one might conclude that human beings simply have not progressed enough, or do not hold the capacity to leave racism behind altogether. I certainly have wondered about the intricacies of nature and nurture that result in closed-minded behavior as well as attempted to calculate how many generations it could potentially take to leave the worst of this fight behind. Yet that might be the wrong focus.

Recently, I experienced a connect-the-dots process occurring within my mind as I was listening to the Hidden Brain hosted by Shankar Vedantam. If you have ever had the joy of listening to this NPR podcast, you are well aware of its power to shed light on perplexing topics. The particular episode covering free speech explored the work of Chris Crandall, a professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas, who studies prejudice.

Dr. Crandall once conducted an experiment comprised of a measure of racial attitudes, a Facebook post involving a complaint about a customer made by a barista, and a group that read two versions of said post (mentioning & not mentioning race). It was done for the sake of figuring out whether racial attitudes determine how much individuals defend the speaker. As it turns out, the effect is substantial.

The study concluded that people are inconsistent in creating their defense. Those high in racial bias defended the barista‘s complaint that included anti-African-American remarks using the free speech argument. While those low in racial bias only defended the barista‘s complaint not involving racial comments using the free speech argument. In other words, not only did the study confirm that racial attitudes determine when someone uses the free speech argument, but also that free speech can get pulled out of the back pocket anytime someone constructs a defense, regardless of the level of prejudice.

Another one of Dr. Crandall’s studies was conducted before and after the 2016 presidential elections involving both liberals and conservatives. It posed questions related to what expressions are permissible within society. Participants rated their attitudes towards Muslims, Canadians, blind people, immigrants, and women on a scale of 0 to 100 (the higher the score, the more tolerant the attitude).

Both the supporters of the Republican and the Democratic candidate expressed different opinions about permissible behaviors just 10-14 days after the initial answer. As it is highly unlikely that people changed their mind about the groups, the explanation lays in the effect of the election. Dr. Crandall argues that there was a large number of Americans who were suppressing their prejudice because they knew it would be punished, and the election removed the suppression, allowing for people to express their hidden beliefs.

Moreover, there was an increase in the levels of acceptable prejudiced speech towards specific groups that the Republican candidate had actually mentioned in his speeches by expressing a negative attitude towards them. After the 2016 presidential elections, people found it more acceptable to insult or look down upon Muslims, Mexicans, illegal immigrants, and fat people, while not finding it any more acceptable to discriminate against blind people and Canadians (groups that were not directly mentioned during any speeches).

Seeing as the free speech argument is used whenever an individual wishes to defend their beliefs, and human beings look towards others to determine what might be acceptable to express, why has the society of this nation not woken up to the simple solution of stricter guidelines? How long will it take? How many lives will need to be lost?

Americans seem to be placing an incredible amount of responsibility on individuals making the right, decent, respectful choice when many psychologists have shed light upon the malleability of human nature. Even „an early parallel with the Bandura study“ could simply be made, according to Chris Crandall. The study essentially showed kids behaving the way their adult „model“ behaved, which included violent actions. (If you are not familiar with the famous Bobo Doll experiment, you can listen to Bandura himself explaining the results.


Children attacking a Bobo Doll in Bandura’s experiment.

As appealing as the idea of grown-ups holding beliefs completely independent from morals upheld by the surrounding society may seem, the studies indicate that people may be overestimating their ability to think independently. Aging does not remove the link between one’s personal behavior and what they have observed to be socially acceptable. Of course, opinions and values differ, yet implied permission has more power than one might think.

There is no way to explain the current mindset of the United States with a simple answer, or to easily understand the intricacies of human nature, or not to wish that racist attitudes could simply evaporate into thin air. I am well aware that the mentioned information is simply one student’s attempt to scratch the surface with the help of brilliant minds that have put years into developing scientific research. Nonetheless, I believe individuals should pay more attention not only to policies but also to the behaviors they support with their vote, that each individual should attempt to understand the effect of their decision, and extend that understanding a little further with each passing day. Yet most of all, I wholeheartedly hope that the situation will not have to get worse before it can get better.

If you wish to familiarize yourself with Germany’s approach to hate speech, you can click on the link.

About Lucy Bergere

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