On December 6, Texas A&M University will play host to Richard Spencera leader of the “alt-right” movement, and an open white supremacist. Many will likely view Spencer’s presence at Texas A & M as confirmation that Donald Trump’s election to the presidency has allowed fringe political views to enter mainstream discussion.  When Spencer, or someone like him, makes a statement like “America was, until this last generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity.  It is our creation and our inheritance, and it belongs to us,” many people may question why we should remain committed to the First Amendment.  This post argues why members of an academic community need to remain steadfast in that commitment, even when faced with a figure like Richard Spencer.

When hardcore racists and xenophobes remain consigned to obscure message boards and poorly attended events, it’s fairly easy to believe in freedom of speech and expression.  But when organized hatred arrives on campus, such defenses can be perceived as granting unacceptable cover to viewpoints that are widely considered despicable and immoral.  To many, such viewpoints don’t deserve the protection of the First Amendment.  Unfortunately, the impulse to start limiting speech – either with on-the-books campus speech codes or simply through stepped-up social enforcement of speech taboos – is likely to pour gasoline on the fire and make the problem worse.

Research suggests that restrictions perceived to threaten or possibly eliminate behavioral freedoms may trigger “psychological reactance”, and increase one’s desire to engage in the restricted behavior.  For instance, Worchel and colleagues (1975) assessed desire to hear censored material among students at the University of North Carolina.  The experimenter informed participants that they would soon be hearing a tape recording of a speech and that the study was interested in how personal characteristics impact a speaker’s ability to get their message across.  Some participants were then informed that because a student group (either the YM-YWCA or the John Birch Society) on campus was opposed to the content of the speech, the experimenter would not be able to play the taped recording.  Consistent with reactance theory, participants who were informed they could not hear the content of the speech, reported a stronger desire to do so.  This effect occurred regardless of whether the student group was viewed positively (YM-YWCA) or negatively (the John Birch Society).  More recently, Silvia (2005) investigated if interpersonal similarity could override the experience of psychological reactance.  In two separate studies, psychological reactance occurred when people felt their attitudinal freedom was threatened when interpersonal similarity was low, but not when interpersonal similarity was high.

More broadly, while ingroup favoritism may depend more on positive affect towards the ingroupperceived discrimination by an outgroup increases ingroup identification, and can increase anger, hostility and aggression towards outgroups.  If we incorporate these findings into our thinking about whether to censor a speaker, the following chain of events does not seem to be an implausible reaction:

  1. Censoring a speaker may increase some people’s desire to hear that speaker’s message, particularly those who perceive the speaker as similar to them in some way.
  2. Censoring a speaker may be perceived as threatening to people who perceive the speaker as similar to them.
  3. The perception of threat is likely to increase identification with a salient ingroup.
  4. Increased ingroup identification in response to threat may result in anger, hostility, and aggression towards outgroups.

In other words, censoring and disinviting a speaker such as Richard Spencer may actually make him and his views more popular.  Instead of acting as an antidote to hatred, censorship may pour gasoline onto an already simmering fire.  Calls to disinvite, and thus censor, Spencer may produce the unintended consequence of promoting his vile, racist views.

People like Spencer revel in the power of their words to arouse emotions and strong reactions in their opponents. They interpret attempts to silence and exile their voices as fear of the truth they possess. The alt-right movement confidently hoists the pirate flag of rebellion, but it can only claim to be rebellious if it can point to the “powers that be” trying to shut them down.

Meeting hate speech with more speech is hard. It is extremely difficult to engage with people who hold beliefs that call another’s humanity into question.  But engagement may be the most effective tool we have. Speech codes and disinvitations may feel good in the moment, but they represent an easy way out.  Often, what has been made taboo and socially undesirable comes back stronger than before.

We believe a stronger antidote is needed, and that antidote is more speech. To challenge Spencer, this speech can take different forms; and on December 6, some may find it cathartic, empowering and/or exciting to do so. However, we urge that opposition be constructive, not disruptive. Donating to counter causes, such as the Anti-Defamation Leaguethe Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the National Organization for Advancement of Colored People’s legal defense fund, that are actively combatting people like Spencer and his ideas is one useful tactic.  Indeed, shortly after the announcement that Spencer would be speaking on campus, the psychology department at Texas A & M launched a fundraising campaign to protest Spencer and his racism. Joining this protest and funding groups opposed to Spencer is a form of speech and action that makes Spencer weaker, not strong. Same thing for attending his talk and rebutting his speech during the question and answer period. Speech can be deployed as a scalpel, able to cut through vitriol, rhetoric and mendacity to help counter speech that advocates for harmful ideas and outcomes.

Suggested Readings:

Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (1981). Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control. Academic Press.

Brewer, M.B. (1999).  The psychology of prejudice: Ingroup love or outgroup hate?  Journal of Social Issues, 55, 429-444.

DeSteno, D., Dasgupta, N., Bartlett, M.Y., & Cajdric, A. (2004).  Prejudice from thin air: The effect of emotion on automatic intergroup attitudes.  Psychological Science, 15, 319-324.

Jetten, J., Branscombe, N.R., Schmitt, M.T., & Spears, R. (2001).  Rebels with a cause: Group identification as a response to perceived discrimination from the mainstream.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1204-1213.

Riek, B.M., Mania, E.W., & Gaertner, S.L. (2006).  Intergroup threat and outgroup attitudes: A meta-analytic review.  Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 336-353.

Silvia, P. J. (2005). Deflecting reactance: The role of similarity in increasing compliance and reducing resistance. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27, 277–284.

Worchel, S., Arnold, S., & Baker S. (1975).  The effects of censorship on attitude change: The influence of censor and communication characteristics.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 5, 227-239.