Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

Bridging the Divide between Sensitivity to Minorities and Free Speech

While we often study issues related to bridging divisions between liberals and conservatives, there are many issues that aren’t quite as clear cut. We recently studied an event put on by The Village Square concerning the tension between sensitivity to minorities on campus, which sometimes involve limits on what people can express, versus the principle of free speech. Recent controversies at universities like Claremont Mckenna, Yale, and the University of Missouri have highlighted these tensions, with liberals tending to be more in favor of protecting minorities, but also often pitting liberals against fellow liberals.

At the beginning of the event, the liberal leaning audience was indeed more implicitly inclined toward people who want to err on the side of sensitivity toward minorities, feeling that such people were more likely to be good people who they would want to be friends with.  Knowing this, the organizers of the event were able to recruit a free speech advocate who argued their point from a liberal perspective. From the Village Square’s description of their event.

For our Free Speech program we started with a liberal local Rabbi as facilitator who had a very positive relationship with an African American community leader who is beloved locally – and who until recently was a Republican. We knew that Mr. Hobbs had some empathy for both the need to protect minorities and the value of free speech. To complete the panel, we invited Jonathan Rauch of Brookings Institute, who saw the danger of the anti-free speech trends on campus earlier than anyone, originally publishing “Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought” in 1993. Rauch argues that the protection of free speech actually protects and advances the cause of minority students – so he makes a liberal argument for a more classically conservative value. Another quality we liked for our panel is that he’s Jewish, so it gave him something deeply in common with our facilitator (to balance the existing positive relationship between the facilitator and Mr. Hobbs). This very high level of pre-existing empathy and cross-cutting relationships made this program quite easy compared to our usual programs, as well as especially enjoyable – though lacked as much tension as some programs do.

We always arrange a meeting between panelists ahead of the program. This gives them the opportunity to break bread together and bond as human beings, by the time they’re on stage they feel to all like friends. As we met for breakfast the morning of the program, when one panelist shushed me up because he wanted to hear more details from the other panelists about something, I sat back and said to our facilitator “my work here is done.” We call this whole process leading up to whoever is on our stage as choreography. We think it is central in delivering results. By the time the program begins, much of the fate of the program is “baked in.” In fact, one could reverse these principles to engineer a disaster, or pay no attention to them and throw the results out to luck.

Following exposure to Mr. Rauch and the generally friendly discussion between people on opposite sides of the issue, the liberal audience’s opinions about those who emphasize free speech rose to be comparable to opinions about those who emphasize sensitivity to minorities (see the below graph for a pre vs post event comparison).

Free Speech vs. Sensitivity to Minorities Event Results

As we have found in previous studies of events, there was little change in people’s attitudes about the issue.  The generally liberal audience did not feel any differently about protecting minorities or free speech.  However, they did feel differently about those who they may disagree with.  It is this difference that enables people who disagree about issues to work together, and if we can get more friendly conversations across this divide, and get people out of their moral communities, then perhaps we can avoid a repeat of some of the ugly scenes we have seen on college campuses between two groups of people who both have genuinely good intentions.

– Ravi Iyer

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Free Speech and Responsible Speech

In my small, rural community in northern Massacusetts, we have a neighbor-to-neighbor online forum. In fact, we have two, because a few months back, a division occurred over the purpose of the first forum. That forum's stated purpose was to share information and discuss issues of interest to local residents. Inevitably, in an era of sharp political differences, some individuals felt obliged to add political commentary of no particular local import. There were complaints, and reminders that the stated intent of the forum is to "keep it local." An informal poll was taken that reaffirmed that purpose, and at least one discussant was upset enough about that decision to unsubscribe from the forum.
Another participant, also inclined to political commentary, decided to open a new forum — what he called a "virtual pub," where no subject was off limits. That seemed to me to be a sensible reaction — one that would assure the neighborliness and usefulness of the first forum, while offering an opportunity for residents to discuss anything of interest to anyone in another. The predictable happened, and the virtual pub quickly became a place for partisan political commentary. Participants were required to identify themselves by their real names, and that tempered the discussion somewhat, but it quickly became clear that the majority of those who signed up seemed eager to espouse and reinforce a particular political viewpoint. A couple of us have chosen to engage with some of the opinions that have been expressed, and our thoughts are often ridiculed.
I started a discussion thread on the topic of civil politics, and asked if others, regardless of their political persuasion, would join me in discussing political issues in a civil manner, respecting the sincerity of opposing viewpoints and avoiding personal attacks. The founder of the virtual pub quickly responded with a rejection of the idea, because he wanted no restriction on anyone's "freedom of speech." Understand that I was not asking for the entire virtual pub to show restraint — only whether people would join me at a corner table for civil discussion, that we might be more open to finding common ground.
I was more than a little surprised by this reaction, and have since noted that many others have this same idea — that our Constitutional protection of freedom of speech means we should feel free to speak without any sense of self-restraint. It is a guarantee of our right to be disrespectful, unfair, erroneous, ill-informed, obscene, and inflammatory. It's an invitation to join with groups of like-minded individuals — rhetorical gangs — to 'defeat the enemy' using whatever verbal 'weapons' are at one's disposal. This view is especially evident in forums where contributors can hide behind anonymity to avoid responsibility for their remarks.
The tragedy in Tucson became an occasion for a number of well-intentioned people to question whether some circumspection is in order. Shouldn't our leaders, and those who aspire to lead, be expected to lead in a responsible and respectful way, setting a civil tone for the rest of us? Whether or not the recent toxicity of our national discourse played any role in this recent tragedy, shouldn't we consider that inflammatory speech by our leaders might eventually lead to tragic consequences? Hadn't the congresswoman who was shot in the head asked this same question just a few weeks before?
ImageThere is, of course, a particular point to me made about a particular person — Sarah Palin — and her response to these questions. It was Sarah Palin's repeated and insistent use of violent imagery in political speech that Congresswoman Giffords had specifically cited as the kind of speech that represents a possible threat to public safety. Congresswoman Giffords herself appeared in the cross hairs of a gun sight on a graphic that was nationally publicized. At this point in time, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Congresswoman Giffords has no ability to reiterate her argument. Shouldn't these events compel the rest of us to at least take another look at it? Don't we owe her that much?
Ironically, Congresswoman Giffords had, just days before, proudly read the First Amendment on the floor of the house. Even more ironically, Sarah Palin invoked the First Amendment to mount an attack on everyone who had criticized her own violent rhetoric. "But just less than a week after Congresswoman Giffords reaffirmed our protected freedoms, another member of Congress announced that he would propose a law that would criminalize speech that he found offensive," she complained.
It is a stretch to posit that Congressman Robert Brady's (D-Pa.) plan to introduce legislation that criminalizes verbal threats to federal officials (which is considerably different from "speech that he finds offensive") presents any real threat to First Amendment protections. Such a law is already in effect when those threats are directed against the President. More importantly, however, both Sarah Palin and Congressman Brady are missing the point.


It isn't the legal right to say what one wants to say that is being questioned — either by Congresswoman Giffords or by many others who have lodged the same concern. It is, rather, the wisdom and the judgment of people who are or aspire to be our opinion leaders that is under question. It is a claim that leaders should lead, in part by modeling the kind of respectful, civil discourse that endangers no one, at the same time affirming that the importance of free political speech is to find ways to transcend our differences, rather than tear us apart. Political arguments are almost never 'won,' but can often be successfully resolved when good will is maintained. For our leaders, at least, responsible speech should be as sacrosanct as free speech. For the rest of us, that should be an important determinant of who gets our vote.
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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.