On this episode of The Great Antidote podcast with Juliette Sellgren, she is joined by guest Nadine Strossen. In their discussion, Juliette and Nadine discuss free speech, hate speech, its policy implications, and if we should be protecting it.
Nadine Strossen has written, taught, and advocated extensively in the areas of constitutional law and civil liberties, including through frequent media interviews. From 1991 to 2008, she served as President of the American Civil Liberties Union, the first woman to head the nation’s largest and oldest civil liberties organization. Professor Strossen is currently a member of the ACLU’s National Advisory Council, as well as the Advisory Boards of Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Heterodox Academy, and the National Coalition Against Censorship. When she stepped down as ACLU President in 2008, three Supreme Court Justices participated in her farewell and tribute luncheon: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, and David Souter.
Her 2018 book, HATE: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship, has been widely praised by ideologically diverse experts. Her earlier book, Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights, was named by The New York Times as a “Notable Book” of 1995.
The National Law Journal has named Strossen one of America’s “100 Most Influential Lawyers,” and several other publications have named her one of the country’s most influential women. Her many honorary degrees and awards include the American Bar Association’s prestigious Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award. At New York Law School’s 2019 commencement, Strossen attained the unique distinction of winning both the award for outstanding teaching and the award for the best book.
Professor Strossen has made thousands of public presentations before diverse audiences, including on more than 500 campuses and in many foreign countries, and has commented frequently on legal issues in the national media. In October 2001, she made her professional theater debut as the guest star in Eve Ensler’s award-winning play The Vagina Monologues during a weeklong run at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Professor Strossen’s writings have been published in many scholarly and general-interest publications. Her co-authored book, Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, was named an “outstanding book” by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America.
In 1986, Professor Strossen became one of the first three women to receive the U.S. Jaycees’ Ten Outstanding Young Americans Award; she was also the first American woman to win the Jaycees International’s Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World Award. She has received honorary Doctor of Law degrees from the University of Rhode Island, the University of Vermont, San Joaquin College of Law, Rocky Mountain College, the Massachusetts School of Law, and Mount Holyoke College.
Professor Strossen is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Juliette Sellgren: Welcome back. Today, I’m honored to be speaking to Nadine Strossen. She served as the president of the ACLU, or the American Civil Liberties Union from 1991 to 2008. She’s one of our nation’s foremost champions of free speech. I’m delighted to talk to her today about her book, “HATE: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech” Welcome!
Nadine Strossen: Thank you so much, Juliette. I’m delighted to be here.
Juliette: Before we jump in, I’m going to ask you the question that I asked all my guests in the beginning, which is what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don’t?
Nadine: I think it is a great question. I’m going to dodge it to a certain extent in this sense. I think, for me, the answer is the same regardless of which generation people are in. I think people, in general, have what I often refer to as historic hubris rather than historic humility. The tendency to think that what we are experiencing in our time is completely new and different and off the charts from anything that has ever happened before. And therefore, either completely ignoring lessons of history or downplaying their significance. And I see that tendency, yes, on the part of many college students and younger and older students as well. That oh, well, we’ve got such a new brave, new world with social media that all of the precepts of free speech and privacy and other civil liberties that applied to earlier media are just don’t make any sense at all anymore. We should completely rethink our approach.
That said, Juliette, I hear exactly the same comment being made by people of every generation, of every age including people who are older than I am. So, what I urge young people and older people alike is, let’s not have that historic hubris thinking that we are so exceptional in the course of human history, I’ll let us instead have more humility and seek to draw lessons from history and build upon the wisdom of those who went before us and the experience of those who went before us rather than to precipitously casting it aside.
Juliette: That’s a great response. I think about this a lot in terms of, I guess, on a smaller scale. When I’m complaining to my mother about my problems and she always responds, “well, you think it’s a new problem.” Like, every teenager in the history of teenagers has been through this and has faced this problem. And it can be applied to the bigger scale world, to social media, and to all these things that are new in terms of, oh, well now, we have iPhones and all that, but the problem itself is not necessarily new.
Nadine: Every single individual is unique. Therefore, everybody has experienced the same general problem in a unique individual way, and it’s certainly true. That the same general fundamental principles of individual free speech and individual liberty, more generally, will have somewhat different applications in each New Media context, but it’s to say that we can still be true too and be guided by the eternal underlying principles.
Juliette: That is a great point. Okay, first off. What is the ACLU?
Nadine: The ACLU, as you rightly pointed out stands for American Civil Liberties Union. I hasten to point that out because our detractors are constantly coming up with other phrases that our acronym supposedly can stand force. So, I’ve seen even graffiti in public restrooms that say ACLU means All Criminals Love Us because yes, we do stand up for the rights of people who are accused of a crime. One group said that it stands for the Anti-Christian Lawyers Union because we do bring a lot of lawsuits defending what most people call separation of church and state under the Non-establishment Clause in the First Amendment. One of my favorites and I’m going to give it a trigger warning, in case anybody in your audience is sensitive, I’m going to quote something that was said by a group that engages in hateful speech, the Westboro Baptist Church. They’re the ones that among other things, had many demonstrations and protests outside the funerals of slain members of the US military. Their website pretty much sums up their philosophy. Here’s where the trigger warning comes in. The website is called, www.godhatesfags, all one word,.org. And they basically thought God hated everybody, except members of the Westboro Baptist Church.
So, one time I was giving a talk in Kansas, near where their headquarters are. And they were there picketing against me and the ACLU. So, I went up to thank them for exercising their free speech rights, which the ACLU has defended, including, recently in the Supreme Court. And I was very amused at their picket signs. Again, some tender ears might want to be averted because it’s Politically Incorrect, but first of all, one of the signs said, which they intended as a criticism, but I loved it. It said, “ACLU, Nation’s number one fag lobby!” And I thought, yeah! I like that. But my favorite was ACLU, they said, stands for the “Anal Copulaters and Lesbians Union”.
Juliette: That’s creative.
Nadine: I loved humor. And then, at one time, we ran a contest on our website for what we think the best phrase for the acronym could be. And for my money, the hands-down winner was, “Aw, Come on, Lighten Up” You think you can get the gist even through the examples that I’ve given, Juliette. The ACLU which became a hundred years old last year has tried our best to defend all fundamental freedoms for all people. We believe no matter who you are, no matter what you believe, no matter what demographic or other pigeonhole society wants to put you into, in terms of ideology or identity that you are by virtue of your humanity entitled to equal and full rights.
Now, what exactly those rights are and what exactly are the appropriate limits on them? Because no right is absolute. What do we do when there are conflicts and tensions between and among different rights? These are very, very difficult questions with which all governments including our government, should be wrestling and I think it is absolutely critical to have at least one Civil Society organization that is dedicated to that same overarching commitment. To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t another. There are many fine organizations in this country and other countries for that matter that are dedicated to particular freedoms. So, we have many organizations that are focused on free speech, on free press, on religious freedom.
There are rights of criminal defendants there are many fine organizations that focus on the rights of particular groups that have historically been the victims of discrimination, including denial of equal access to their rights. So, we have racial justice organizations, and women’s rights organizations, and religiously identified organizations. But I think it’s really essential to have, as I say, at least one organization that’s trying to do what it is the government’s responsibility to do. To not automatically prefer particular rights over other rights. Do not automatically prefer the rights of particular groups over other groups.
Juliette: It’s a worthy cause. I think it’s something very important. I mean, protecting free speech, protecting civil liberties. It’s a very worthy cause. In your book, you start out with a bunch of definitions that are important to begin before we can start talking about free speech, hate speech, and all of that. So, let’s follow suit with that. What is free speech and what are the essential principles that frame our nation’s commitment to freedom of speech?
Nadine: This is such a huge question. I couldn’t answer it even if I spent an hour. So, let me start with part of an answer and please I know you’ll feel free to exercise your free speech rights and ask follow-up questions. I find freedom of speech as going beyond the freedom that is guaranteed by the First Amendment. This is a really important distinction, Juliette, that a lot of people are unaware of. The First Amendment with its Free Speech Clause as is true for the entire Bill of Rights, applies only to a government. It protects us, we the people, only from government violations, government abridgments, to use the word in the First Amendment, of our freedom of speech or press. Now, that is incredibly important. It would be terrible to free speech if the government could outlaw the expression of certain ideas or impose a gag order against a particular speaker. Deny parade or demonstration permits to particular organizations, clearly, that violates freedom of speech. And it’s very good that we have a First Amendment Free Speech Clause that allows ACLU and others to successfully challenge any such attempted repression by the government.
But if we are to exercise meaningful free speech in our society, we need to go beyond just legal protection. We need to have a culture, that I like to call and others have called a free-speech culture, in contrast with a conformist culture, or a cancel culture, to use some phrases that are abounding today. And in particular, the First Amendment does not impose any limit on private sector actors, that in fact, our speech suppressive. So, a major case in point, which I already alluded, the powerful Tech giants, the social media platforms. They can kick off anybody for any reason at all, or for no reason at all. That is not only not violative of any free speech rights that you and I have because we don’t have free speech rights against Twitter or Facebook. It’s not the government.
Moreover, Twitter or Facebook being engaged in the business of communications have their own First Amendment rights. Including the rights that you are exercising as a podcaster, to decide which guess you want on your show, whom you want to host on your platform and whom you do not, and which message a lot. So, Twitter’s terms of service say what you could say. If you were going to state what your standards are for who can use your podcast platform, Twitter’s terms of service say, “we may deny service to anyone at any time for any reason or for no reason.” Now, I find this a very difficult problem because, on the one hand, I’m not one of these people who’s anti-capitalistic, I really respect the rights including the Free Speech rights of Corporations. Especially, when they’re engaged in the business of communications. So, I would reject any heavy-handed government regulation of these platforms that says, “we’re going to tell you whom you can and cannot host and what messages you can and cannot host.” That’s violative of the First Amendment and the free speech principles.
However, given the dominance of these platforms and how uniquely important they are for the exchange of information and ideas, including between government officials and, we the people, to quote the opening words of the Constitution. We wield Sovereign power under our constitution. But how can we do that? If we can’t meaningfully and conveniently exchange information and ideas with those we have elected to represent us or who are seeking our votes. So, it’s, to me, very problematic that Tech giants like Twitter and Facebook could de-platformed Donald Trump at a time, when he was the duly elected president, right? And that to me, didn’t violate the First Amendment but it did violate Free Speech principles. Including not only Trump’s right to convey information and ideas but also the corresponding right to receive his information and ideas and to discuss them on that platform. The Supreme Court has said that when it comes to a speech by public officials or about public affairs, that this is more than near self-expression. It is the essence of self-government.
So, there is a democratic, with a small D, stake in preserving a free speech culture on these dominant online platforms. Even though they can’t be reined in by the First Amendment itself. Then what I alluded to cancel culture, the clear power of individuals exercising their free speech rights to criticize ideas, and speakers, and books, and so forth that they disagree with. They also have free speech rights to band together, in what people can call Twitter mobs, but that’s exercising freedom of Association which is protected under the First Amendment. And they even have a right to Advocate that people should be fired, that people should be ostracized, that students should be expelled from school. That’s all constitutionally protected speech, so I would absolutely oppose any attempt to punish or censor it. But look at the absolutely chilling impact it has on other people’s exercise of their free speech rights. Every public opinion survey shows that people, including students on college campuses and professors on college campuses, are engaging in massive self-censorship, not daring to voice certain ideas that are controversial, and most dishearteningly, not even willing to discuss sensitive subjects, which are the most important subjects; race, gender, immigration policy, police reform. So, that doesn’t violate that cancel culture, doesn’t violate the First Amendment but it sure is completely inconsistent with meaningful free speech.
Juliette: And a lot of what people are fighting against and kind of attacking on Twitter and a lot of these platforms, and even on college campuses, all over the place is hate speech. If you’re critical of Black Lives Matter, that’s hate speech, if you criticize the Catholic church, that’s hate speech. What is hate speech?
Nadine: Hate speech is not a constitutional law term of art. In fact, even though most countries in the world have laws that outlaw hate speech, there’s not an agreed-upon definition. Generally, it refers to speech that conveys a hateful or discriminatory view based on race, gender, religion, other demographic characteristics. And the problem with it, with that whole concept, Juliette, as your introduction, as your question, really captured is that it is an inherently vague concept, right? It’s an inherently subjective concept. If you look at how the term has been applied in our country, you gave a couple of examples and others range across the ideological spectrum. Just the word T-R-U-M-P chalked on sidewalks on some college campuses was attacked as hate speech. On some college campuses, the phrase Free Speech was attacked as hate speech.
So, basically what it boils down to, for all practical purposes is any idea that the person using the epithet hate speech hates or deems to be hateful. And that’s why it is so dangerous, inherently dangerous to give any authority figure the power to enforce any so-called standard of hate speech. I say “so-called standard” because it’s inevitably arbitrary and depends completely on the subjective values of the enforcing authority. Which are usually going to be responsive to what is the biggest pressure groups in that authorities constituency are. So, it’s not surprising that if we look at how anti-hates speech was enforced in other countries around the world, how they’ve been enforced in this country before The Supreme Court started cutting teeth into the First Amendment on they consistently or disproportionally enforced against those who are unpopular, who lack political power, who are marginalized too, or minority groups, who are political dissidents. And that’s why so many human rights activists around the world, whom I quote in my book, say that even though hate speech laws may have a very positive intent hoping to improve the equality and dignity of people who have traditionally been marginalized and disempowered, that they ultimately have exactly the opposite impact. They become yet another tool that the enforcing authorities can use to further disadvantage those who lack political power.
Juliette: In your book, you explain that hate speech legislation, all of it, shares three of First Amendment flaws. Can you tell us what these are and how it kind of contradicts the first amendment?
Nadine: I don’t remember what the three are. I could give you a dozen off the top of my head. So, let me just start, and then you’ll fill me in, Juliette. You obviously, read my book more recently than I have. I’m smiling of gratitude. I talked about one of the fundamental flaws, which is the inherent vagueness, undo vagueness, right? I’ve read every single definition of the outlawed speech under every hate speech law around the world and everyone that has been proposed, and they are all inescapably big when it comes down to it.
Hate is an emotion. And you come up with synonyms, the words that are commonly used are speech that is dehumanizing or degrading or disparaging or demeaning and so forth. And that is such a subjective matter leading to the problems that I discussed a moment ago. A very related inherent problem is substantial overbreadth because they are so vague they sweep in all kinds of expression that even the people who draft and advocate for and support the law say should never be in compass. So, for example, I think, when people think of hate speech, they tend to think of the most obvious example, which would be racial slurs, epithets that we would all recognize to convey no significance or certainly no laudable idea. And yet, when you read the definitions, and you understand how they have been applied, or how people are arguing they should be applied. They also apply to very subtle nuanced statements that may or may not reflect a racist idea, that may or may not lead to or support racist policies.
For example, debates about affirmative action. Race-based affirmative action on campus. And related to the, you know, when something is so overbroad, you have two problems. I mean, you have two options, both of which are problematic. You could enforce it to apply to any expression of any idea that might have some racist intent and or racist impact. So, a critique of affirmative action as not being beneficial to minority students and I have heard that kind of argument attacked as hate speech. And scholars who have written from that perspective. Including minority scholars, have been accused of hate speech. So, you could punish it as hate speech. I think that’s problematic. It’s clearly going to shut down very important policy discussions about how most effectively to advance equality of opportunity for those who have historically been and are still being discriminated against.
On the other hand, you could say okay, we’re not going to apply the anti-hate speech laws to something that’s more subtle and might or might not have a racist impact or intent or impact. And then you get the after problem which Skips Gates, Henry Louis Gates, the long-time share of the Afro-American studies at Harvard, put it so well years ago. He said the crude racist epithet, which can be targeted by these laws, it really has no impact on our society, right? I mean, I should say, is no impact. It can obviously be emotionally traumatizing to somebody to whom it’s addressed, but it’s not going to persuade people who aren’t already racist to adopt a racist ideology.
He said the more subtle and nuanced expression is the one that’s the most invidious, precisely because it’s harder to smoke out any potential racist impact or intent. And at that time, when colleges were just proposing hate speech codes, Skip Gates, put it so well. He said we should care a lot more about coded speech and speech codes. So, either you’re going to be punishing everything that has been said on the subject of race or you’re just going to have some symbolic punishment of the most crude epithets that aren’t really going to have much impact anyway. So, then two, now, you’re going to have to tell me what the third one is.
Juliette: I don’t remember off the top of my head but you summed it up pretty well. Go read the book and find out.
Nadine: Know that there are more than three, I was being selective.
Juliette: Yeah, I think there are so many and I don’t know, you could go on and on. You could write an entire volume of encyclopedias about this. So, your book is concise and I feel like it shares the most important parts, the core of these arguments. Something else that–
Nadine: I was really trying to do it like you did.
Juliette: You did a good job. Something that’s extremely hard to do is to draft anti-hate speech legislation or hate speech legislation. It often backfires, is what it seems like, in what you express in your book shows this. Can you explain why it backfires and how this happens? And also would you give us a few examples?
Nadine: Yes. The examples are legion of, you know what it reminds me of, Juliette, a famous statement by a Supreme Court Justice, which you may well have heard of. Many people who haven’t studied law are familiar with a statement that Justice Potter Stewart made in one of the Supreme Court’s obscenity cases. And another inherently vague and subjective concept, right? Certain sexual expression, but which sexual expression in Justice Potter Stewart famously said, “I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it.” and he was being totally serious. And that is exactly what it comes down to about hate speech, that every single one of us knows what we consider to be hate speech, that we think should be subject to punishment, but we all have a different it. And that is why it is so dangerous to give anybody else the power to take those determinations away from us as individuals.
So, I can give examples that go from right to left, across the ideological spectrum. I think it’s really important to understand that no matter what their most cherished values are, somebody else is going to see it as hate speech. So, for those on the more traditional, conservative end, who would revere the flag, they will be disheartened as I was as Patriot, that a group of student government leaders at a university in California a few years ago, decided they were not going to fly the American flag because to them, it was a symbol of hate. Hateful expression standing for colonialism and imperialism. On the other, we know from all the media coverage that many, many people consider kneeling, taking a knee rather than standing, and saluting the flag before athletic events. That is hate speech, right? Because it’s not sufficiently reverent of the flag. So, two Polar Opposites.
And I gave one of the examples in my book, that also involved a flag. There was a group of students at Harvard College quite a few years ago. I mean, that meant maybe 10 years ago, I don’t think it would happen today because times have changed, but a group of students from the South was hanging a Confederate flag outside their dormitory and many were proud that they were from the south. Here they are in the Northeast and New England. And they say they intended it as a regional statement, but others interpreted it as a hateful speech against African-Americans, given the history of the Confederacy, whereupon the students who were members of the ACLU.
Oh, well, let me add one more wrinkle to it. So, some other students, because they wanted to convey their idea that the Confederate flag was hate speech, they hung a swastika out their window, which was facing the Confederate flag. And they say that their intent was to be saying to the students who are displaying the Confederate flag, “oh, you’re as bad as Nazis because you are engaging in racial supremacy.” But other people just looked at the swastika flag, not surprisingly, and saw that as a symbol of Nazism and therefore, a hate speech. Just throw in one other little factoid in this drama, which illustrates the overbreadth and the vagueness inherent in the concept.
The student members of the ACLU wanted to express their view and so, they held a little bonfire in which they burned both the Confederate flag and the Nazi flag, which of course, could be seen as a hateful expression against people from the South or anybody who saw something positive in the swastika, including as you probably know, its origins in ancient India. So, no matter who you are, you can find something to be hate speech, and other people will find that it’s exactly the opposite.
Juliette: When you were mentioning the flag with the swastika or the swastika, I don’t know if it was actually a flag, but I was really thinking I do not see how that conveys that message, personally, and it makes sense that no one else saw it that way.
Nadine: Yeah. You know, there’s a big debate these days, Juliette, as I’m sure you know because you’re obviously following news, does intent matter, you know? So, we’ve had many examples on many campuses where a professor is teaching a historic document or a legal case or a work of literature in which the racial epithet against African-Americans is used for pedagogical purposes, including to condemn it. And yet, we have students saying, “we don’t care what the intent was, it should be absolutely categorically band. We don’t care if Mark Twain said it, we don’t care if Martin Luther King said it, we don’t care if Barack Obama. These are awful examples. We don’t care if the US Supreme Court has an in its opinion because it’s essential to the reasoning of the opinion. We don’t care that you want us to learn how to crusade against racism and therefore, you’re teaching us the history of racism. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is how we feel.”
And as you’re saying, you have your own subjective perceptions as every single one of us does, what should be the touchstone when we make these decisions for a larger group? Including what’s appropriate or not appropriate on a college campus and in a college or law school classroom?
Juliette: To me that goes past intent. It’s not only intent but its context. It doesn’t really– The intent of the person who set it in the historical document may be, well, understanding that is what matters, but the context in which you are learning about it or someone is talking about that is, and especially, the intent of what they think, what they’re doing if they’re teaching you, in order for you to be able to take this information and learn from it. I think it’s difficult to make the case that intent doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t seem to be unsuccessful in today’s world. Especially, on college campuses.
Nadine: You’re going to be having a lot of discussions I’m sure, at the University of Virginia, given its special history there and not only history going back to its founding and its founder, but throughout the Civil War. And the more recent history, as a major Battleground between the white supremacist and the counter-demonstrators in 2017. I’ve spoken in Charlottesville a couple of times since then and I’m always greeted with a great hostility because the ACLU famously or infamously defended freedom of speech for the Unite The Right demonstrators. And we won and I still believe that was exactly the right thing to do, and the judge ruled the right way based on the factual record that was available at the time, including the chief of police, supporting the rally going forward and saying, “we have no evidence of any plan violence and if there is any planned violence, we’re completely equipped to deal with it.”
As you probably know after the terrible events unfolded, the city council commissioned a non-partisan study of what had gone wrong which was completely condemnatory of law enforcement at every level from the University campus police, all the way through the FBI, the State, and County police in between, saying that they were completely unprepared. They did not communicate with each other. But those issues, understandably, are so very much at the forefront.
You know, I felt I made a pilgrimage to the place where Heather Heyer was killed and so many others were mowed down. It’s a sad memorial to a failure to protect human life and a failure to protect free speech also, for the counter-demonstrators.
Juliette: What happened was awful. And a lot of people have used this in similar events as reasoning to say that we should not protect this. This hate speech. But in your book, you make the argument, specifically, that free speech is the best cure, the best way to counter hate speech. Can you make that case?
Nadine: I can, but I would make this amendment, Juliette, that counter speech is much more effective than censorship in dealing with the problems that are reflected in hate speech, right? It reflects an underlying attitude that is a problem. And hate speech can inturn, spur people to engage in hateful or discriminatory conduct, including violence. So, to me, the problems are, number one, the underlying attitude. And number two, any conduct that is actually discriminatory. The expression is just a superficial manifestation and to stop people from saying something hateful when they believe the ideology that it represents is just like putting a band-aid, rather than doing major surgery, right?
And also it’s always a diversion, to me, too for any social problem, deep-seated social problem to just look at a superficial manifestation. The words or some of the words as we discussed earlier, only a tiny subset of the words in which those ideas are reflected to silence them. And many law enforcement officials say that when we try to suppress these hateful speakers and drive them off the mainstream platforms where they go onto the dark internet, that’s actually adverse it to law enforcement’s efforts to track these organizations and groups and to intercept their communications and find out and foiled any plans they have to engage in actual illegal or discriminatory conduct.
Counter speech is a term that refers to any way that we can exercise our Free Speech rights to counter the underlying ideas from taking root and spreading. And there an infinite variety of options ranging from supporting people who are disparaged by hateful speech and social science. Evidence shows that that is incredibly important and powerful. We should never dismiss the impact of positive speech and castigating hateful ideas but saying positive things about the targets of hate speech. The term counter speech sounds a little bit too defensive. So, I want to really stress that it applies, in my view, the most important steps that we can take. And when I say, we, I mean, all of us. This is not a burden that falls on people who are subject to hateful speech themselves. But it’s the rest of us who are committed to full freedom and equality of opportunity for everybody in our society. We should constantly, proactively, and affirmatively be preaching values of equality, dignity, diversity, inclusivity, and societal harmony and doing it in every way that we can. Including through education, including through culture sections.
Probably, the classic study of the clauses of prejudice and how to counter them, to use a term that sounds a little bit archaic, but that was the term that was first used when it was studied in the earlier part first half of the 20th century by a famous sociologist at Harvard named Gordon Allport. And he wrote a book called The Nature of Prejudice, which has stood the test of time. You said that he formulated what he called The Contact Theory, that the most effective way for people to overcome bias or prejudice today would call it hate, discrimination, stereotyping against any individual or group is to have contact with somebody in that group. And then you realize, “oh, gee, you know, they’re just like you or me.” Each person is a unique individual but I can’t make any generalizations based on a group characteristic.
And just thousands and thousands and thousands of studies have been done since then and meta-studies of the studies. And they continue to reaffirm, not only the basic contact theory but interesting iterations on it, including what’s often called Social Contact. And this is really important if you’re living in a place where you don’t really have access to certain minority populations, there aren’t many Muslims living there, there aren’t many sheiks living there, you know, you name it. These studies have shown that virtually, the same impact occurs from a media depiction of somebody in the other “groups”. So, a book that features that characters or a movie or a play. And that’s so significant because we’ve had a lot of ferment recently in the publishing industry. Oscars is so white, Emmy is so white. And it turns out that the reason to try to be more representative and diverse in these cultural productions is not only to increase equality of opportunity for those who have historically and traditionally been denied it but also for the benefit of everybody. So, we can virtually have the opportunity to overcome our biases and prejudices.
So that’s another big example of counter speech. I did want to say, Juliette, that in addition to counter speech, powerful as it is, there are other steps that we should not take for granted because we do take these steps in the United States, more so than in other societies. And that is to make it illegal to actually discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion and so forth. So, you cannot deny somebody an opportunity for a job or for housing or for a public benefit or an education and so forth, based on these demographic characteristics.
United States was ahead of the curve in doing that. And I’m not saying we’re perfect. We certainly could enact more such laws. In some jurisdictions, it’s still legal to refuse to hire somebody or to fire somebody on the basis of sexual orientation, or gender identity. So, we have to repair that. Where we do already have laws, they’re not enforced perfectly so I’m not giving us an A+. But I am saying that we started making those efforts in a concerted way long before most other countries. And where the other countries were focusing on the outlying hateful speech, they did not outlaw outright hateful discriminatory conduct. Germany only, very, very recently. Because it was pressured by the EU, finally enacted an anti-discrimination law.
So, you know as Americans, we may take it for granted that well, of course, you’re not allowed to actually discriminate on the basis of hateful attitudes, but we should not take that for granted.
Juliette: I think exposure does seem to be one of the most important things in changing people’s perceptions of the other side or people groups that they do not understand.
Nadine: Mm-hmm. The other side in politics, right? When you say that.
Juliette: Yeah or the other side in any sort of disagreement. And censorship definitely seems to be more of an obstacle in changing people’s minds or helping us develop as a country, as a people, anything. Thank you so much. I want to wrap up with the question, what is one thing you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?
Nadine: That was such a great question. And I honestly could think of only one really dramatic example, of a dramatic change of mind. I would say there are many other issues where I’ve refined my view, revised it, but the word “changed” seems like an overstatement. And this is almost embarrassing for me to admit, as you know, an atheist for the vast majority of my life. When I was a young child, I did for a short time believe in God. I don’t know if you would call that a change of
mind or a change of heart or change of soul, but it did happen. And I think in retrospect, it was what I really wanted. I was so afraid. My father was an international businessman and this back in the early 1950s when he would be on flights that would go around the world and airplanes were much more primitive then, than they are now, much less safe. And there was so much news every time there was a plane crash. My father himself was very afraid of flying. And I was so afraid of him dying in a plane crash that I think I just persuade. I wanted so badly to believe that there was a God that I could pray to who would protect my father. And so, I talked myself into that but it didn’t last too long.
Juliette: Thank you so much for sharing. That’s a big change. But also the fact that you recognize that, that is why that’s very important. Thank you so much for fighting for our civil liberties, and for sharing your wisdom with us today. Thank you for being on my podcast.
Nadine: I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for having me, Juliette.
Juliette: Of course. Well, that’s all we have time for today. I’d like to thank my guests once again for their time and insight. I would also like to thank everyone who listens, subscribes, and shares The Great Antidote podcast. If you would like to be on the podcast, or if you have a guest in mind, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] Bye.