Why Accusations of Discrimination Often Morph into Debates about Free Speech
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Social Impact Mar 1, 2022

Why Accusations of Discrimination Often Morph into Debates about Free Speech

A study of the psychology behind this common rhetorical tactic.

two men point fingers at each other while talking

Lisa Röper

Based on the research of

Felix Danbold

Ivuoma Ngozi Onyeador

Miguel M. Unzueta

Here’s a scenario that may sound familiar: Members of a minority group say they’ve been mistreated and ask for change. In response, some members of the majority group, rather than engaging with the original claims, argue that their rights are being curtailed. Think of the Kentucky court clerk who refused to grant a marriage license to a gay couple and answered the outcry from LGBTQ+ activists by claiming her religious liberty was being threatened.

This now-familiar arc fascinated social psychologist Ivuoma Onyeador, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, who wondered why discussions of prejudice so often morph into debates about free speech or religious liberty. “We’re no longer talking about the original dimension of critique,” Onyeador observes. “Now we’re talking about something else, where dominant group members could ostensibly have the moral high ground.”

She wanted to get to the bottom of the phenomenon: “What’s the psychology behind it? Why is it useful, in contrast to other responses people could make to criticism?”

In a new paper, Onyeador—along with coauthors Felix Danbold of the University College London School of Management and Miguel M. Unzueta of the UCLA Anderson School of Management—explore this common rhetorical tactic, which they call “digressive victimhood.”

With digressive-victimhood claims, dominant group members counter accusations of discrimination by shifting the topic of discussion. The researchers contrast this approach with “competitive victimhood” claims, in which dominant group members respond to criticism by claiming that in fact they
are the true, oppressed victims—for example, by saying they have suffered “reverse racism” under affirmative-action admissions policies.

“Using this digressive-victimhood argument to appeal to some broader value doesn’t necessarily mean you actually hold the value in high esteem.”

— Ivouma Onyeador

Onyeador and her colleagues found that members of dominant groups endorse digressive-victimhood claims more strongly than competitive-victimhood claims because they believe digressive victimhood to be more effective at countering critiques. Notably, dominant group members endorse digressive-victimhood claims even when they are ambivalent about the underlying principles, such as free speech, that they purport to be defending.

“Using this digressive-victimhood argument to appeal to some broader value doesn’t necessarily mean you actually hold the value in high esteem,” Onyeador explains. In other words, someone who counters accusations of racism by appealing to free speech may not object to the banning of books they find distasteful.

Who’s the Real Victim?

To understand digressive-victimhood claims, Onyeador and her colleagues recruited 1,170 white participants in the U.S. to complete an online study about responses to claims of racial discrimination.

Participants were presented with transcribed excerpts of an unbeknownst-to-them fictitious podcast episode about nine white college students receiving suspensions for wearing racially insensitive costumes at an off-campus party. The podcast clip contained either a competitive-victimhood claim (“the true victims are the nine white students”) or a digressive-victimhood claim (“the true victim … [is] the First Amendment”).

Next, participants rated from one to seven how much they endorsed the argument they had read, as well as how effective they thought it would be in countering opposition. Then, they answered a series of questions designed to measure their levels of racial resentment and support for free speech, and completed a demographic questionnaire.

The researchers’ analysis revealed that participants endorsed the digressive-victimhood claim more strongly than the competitive-victimhood claim, rating their support at an average of 4.15 as compared with 3.46. They also rated the digressive-victimhood claim more highly for effectiveness (3.78) than the digressive victimhood claim (3.23). This pattern held true even when controlling for political ideology, suggesting that white Americans across the political spectrum see digressive-victimhood claims as a preferable and more useful type of argument.

Onyeador and her colleagues took a closer look at two subsets of participants: those who expressed very high levels of support for free speech, as well as those who showed high degrees of racial resentment. They were interested in how likely these groups were to gravitate to a digressive argument. Statistical analysis showed that participants low in racial resentment but very high in support for free speech did sometimes endorse the digressive-victimhood claim. However, you could also find high support for the digressive-victimhood argument “amongst people who are less supportive of free speech but high in racial resentment,” Onyeador says.

This suggests that utility, rather than sincerely held belief, may drive a lot of the support for digressive-victimhood claims.

The researchers conducted another, similar study among participants who identified as Christian, focused on religious-liberty claims in response to LGBTQ+ rights activism, and found the same pattern: consistent preference for the digressive-victimhood claim, even among participants who were not particularly concerned about religious liberty in general.

How Nondominant Group Members Perceive Digressive-Victimhood Claims

In their final study, Onyeador and her colleagues wanted to understand why people respond more favorably to the digressive-victimhood claims and see them as more effective at refuting calls of discrimination.

To help answer this question, they recruited 1,475 online participants, about half of whom were non-white. The researchers presented them with either a competitive- or a digressive-victimhood claim, using the same podcast scenario as the first study. As before, participants reported how much they endorsed the argument and how effective they found it. By including non-white participants, the researchers wanted to see whether “digressive-victimhood claims just appeal more to everyone,” Onyeador explains—not just majority groups.

This time, the researchers also added several questions about the perceived universal benefit of the claim with which they were presented, such as, “The argument presented is primarily concerned with protecting the rights of everyone, regardless of group membership.” Participants registered their agreement with the statements using a one-to-seven scale. This would allow researchers to further explore how much people support such claims for utilitarian reasons, versus “because they have more of a universal benefit,” Onyeador says.

As in the first study, white participants thought the digressive-victimhood claim was more effective than the competitive victimhood claim; non-white participants did too, but only slightly and below the threshold of statistical significance. Both white and non-white participants thought the digressive-victimhood claim had more universal benefit than the competitive victimhood claim, but once again, the effect was stronger for white participants.

When the researchers analyzed why white and non-white participants endorse digressive-victimhood claims, they found that both groups support such claims on the basis of their universality. However, only white participants support digressive-victimhood claims because they perceive such arguments to be more effective at countering criticism. In other words, people do prefer digressive to competitive claims because they appeal to more universally applicable values—but the utility of digressive-victimhood claims only holds sway for dominant group members.

Arguing in Good Faith

To Onyeador, there’s value in having language to describe digressive-victimhood claims. Naming, describing, and studying this rhetorical tactic “can help people identify when they see it being used and respond accordingly,” she says.

In her view, it’s especially important to understand that people making digressive-victimhood claims may not actually be very committed to the principles they claim to uphold. Often, digressive-victimhood claims are treated credulously, as good-faith arguments—but they may not be, the research shows. “It’s important for people to identify when others are using these arguments to forestall future critique,” Onyeador says.

Ultimately, more productive discussions and arguments might emerge from staying narrowly focused: “I’d argue that it’s important, as we’re talking about these issues, to return to the original harm and to focus on the original critique.”

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Danbold, Felix, Ivuoma N. Onyeador, and Miguel M. Unzueta. 2022. “Dominant Groups Support Digressive Victimhood Claims to Counter Accusations of Discrimination.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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