Silence isn’t golden when it comes to free speech

Natasha Moore defends the all-but-lost art of listening to those we disagree with.

This trend to silence opposing views and then cluster around shared beliefs is not only worrying, it may ultimately weaken our own understanding of an issue, writes Natasha Moore.

In a laughably provocative recent article, entitled “It’s time to put an end to anti-choice speech”, a self-proclaimed Australian human rights activist made a long, repetitive case for legislating against “oppressive speech”.

What counts as “oppressive” started out as any opposition to abortion, but by the conclusion of the article the category had gotten considerably out of hand:

Not only should anti-choice speech be banned, but so should all speech that voices approval of reactionary, hateful, bigoted, or anti-human rights ideologies. This includes pro-gun speech, speech that voices approval of Israeli apartheid in Palestine, speech that voices approval of the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, speech advocating oppressive economic systems, anti-feminist speech, anti-environmental speech, anti-healthcare speech, anti-immigration speech, climate change denial, and any other ideologies which are harmful, hateful, and/or dangerous.

To wit: disagreement with my personal moral and political persuasions (and those, presumably, of most people I know) should be illegal. No debate to see here, folks; all other viewpoints have been defined off the cliff-edge as bigoted, small-minded, and dangerous.

To be fair, the article was published on Thought Catalog, a website that’s been pegged as the natural home of “angst-laden screeds” and has been repeatedly in hot water for its lack of editorial oversight: it will publish literally anybody.

It does, however, have a monthly reach of 20 million people. And however amateurish the article, it’s not difficult to find echoes of its arguments, its outrage, and the militancy of its calls to stop people saying things that make us angry hiding in plain sight, in much more “respectable” journalistic contexts.

A couple of months ago Time magazine was trying to shame Mark Zuckerberg for failing to ban anti-vaxxers from Facebook; just this week, Clementine Ford has suggested that the views held by people of Christian or any faith should be excluded from Australian political life. Ideas about family or gender that differ from her own are not be engaged with and refuted, but simply taken off the table.

Within an increasingly polarised intellectual and political culture, there is a signal lack on all sides of something that might traditionally have been called humility: a self-awareness that can involve holding serious convictions, passionately, and yet at the same time acknowledging that none of us is right about everything, or even (most likely) completely right about anything. No matter how sound our ideas themselves might be, our emphasis, our policy conclusions, or our understanding of the full implications of those ideas will always be more or less flawed.

It has been said that John Stuart Mill’s classic work, On Liberty, should be compulsory reading for everyone who wants to participate actively and honourably in a democratic society. Its logic is compelling. “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility,” Mill insists. He notes that, while most of us will happily admit to not being infallible, we are less capable of acting as though we aren’t:

Few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable.

Not only are we unable definitively to judge which opinions are absolutely true or false, but to kill off discussion of even the most widely-accepted and deeply-held verity, Mill argues, is only to weaken it. If our convictions are not to be tested and contested, held up to the most thorough scrutiny, pitted against the strongest of contrary convictions, how can they become properly robust?

The echo chambers of modern life allow us to segregate ourselves pretty consistently from those who think, live, and vote differently from us.

“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that,” he suggests. And in reality, in any conflict between two opinions, it’s far more likely that they “share the truth between them” than that one is wholly false and the other wholly true. This means that to silence those who disagree with us is, ultimately, to weaken our own understanding of an issue. Multiplying restrictions on freedom of speech disadvantage all of us.

It’s perhaps the mutual incomprehension that is the most worrying sign of things to come. The echo chambers of modern life allow us to segregate ourselves pretty consistently from those who think, live, and vote differently from us. We live in suburbs filled with people of similar incomes and political leanings and consumer choices. We create and re-post memes that aim, not to convince, but purely to reinforce people’s sense that their own convictions are unimpeachable and their opponents’ baffling and reprehensible. The limitless smorgasbord of online news shrinks in practice to silos of selective reading or, alternatively, “hate-reading”.

No wonder that those who disagree with us become distant, indistinct, an undifferentiated bloc of idiots or reactionaries. Every time we find ourselves starting a sentence with the immortal and deeply satisfying phrase “I just don’t understand how anyone could…” – followed by anything from “vote Liberal” to “vote Green” to “still participate in organised religion” to “think that vaccines are harmful” – alarm bells should be ringing internally.

To declare that a significant minority (or in some cases, a majority) of my fellow Australians are simply incomprehensible to me – to airily dismiss them with a convenient label (“racist”, “leftie”, “elitist”, even “stupid”) – is an admission of defeat or, more precisely, surrender in terms of the whole enterprise of living together peaceably and productively.

The growing social and political segregation of our lives, then – how easy it has become to surround ourselves with people who are pretty much like us – is a big deal. Political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell have written about the phenomenon they’ve dubbed the “Aunt Susan effect” to describe the comfortable diversity of American religious life. Because of intermarriage and other demographic factors, most Americans have traditionally known personally (or even been related to) someone of a different faith (for our purposes, read: political allegiance, sexual orientation, take on the current hot-button issue).

That makes it a lot harder to demonise them. We chuckle at the moment in the 2009 film The Blind Side when Sean Tuohy turns to his wife (Sandra Bullock) after they’ve just hired a high school tutor and says bemusedly, “Who’d have thought we’d have a black son before we knew a Democrat?” Yet how many of us count people with significantly different views to our own among our friends?

Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner: to understand all is to forgive all. The proverb is hyperbolic, of course; entering with empathy and a genuine effort at impartiality into the reasoning of someone whose ideas are alien to us won’t necessarily lead us to agree with them. But it will almost certainly help us to judge them less harshly, and to hold our own opinions more humbly and less aggressively. It will make it impossible for us to write off vast swathes of our countrymen and women as blind and bigoted. It will encourage open debate instead of angry calls to silence opposing views, because those who hold them will seem worth trying to convince instead of trying to exclude and bully and coerce. Even, perhaps, worth listening to.

After all, none of us is infallible.

Dr Natasha Moore is a research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge.

This article first appeared at The Drum.