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The privilege of free speech

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“We’re all free to disagree with one< another in this forum, but at a bare minimum we need to keep the conversation civil and treat one another with respect.”

We have all heard this interjection by a sane and sensible person when an online conversation has become too heated. Heck, many of us have been that sane and sensible person. I personally tend not to play that role online, but I certainly have as a teacher. In fact, my syllabi routinely set out guidelines for discussion that include treating other people with respect, considering that you might be wrong, and always trying to take the most charitable interpretation of what someone else is saying.

I’m now getting uncomfortable about that. Explaining why will take a story in three parts.

Part One: I was brought up by my Jewish, very liberal parents to value free speech, especially for people who disagree with us. We were the sort of ACLU family that in 1978 defended the right of American Nazis to march through Skokie, Ill., a town chosen because of the significant number of Holocaust survivors who lived there. My father, who was a soldier in World War II, agreed. The best counter to a bad idea was not to suppress it but to put orth a better idea, or so we believed.

Origins of free speech

That belief and the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of free speech resulted from the Enlightenment commitment to reason. You should be able to sit down with your worst intellectual enemy and be ready to change your mind if they show you they’re right. And if in your mind you see two 18th century aristocratic men talking calmly over a cup of coffee in a charming European cafe as horse-drawn carriages clip-clop past, you’ve got the right picture: privileged men with little at stake except their ideas. Of course, we eventually and reluctantly expanded this picture to include women and people of all colors. At least in theory.

Even so, those sorts of conversations almost never happen, especially about core beliefs held so deeply that they are functionally perceptions.

Part Two: Recently, I watched as one of the elders of a mailing list I’m on stepped in to try to calm a heated argument by genteelly suggesting that our conversations be mutually respectful.

And that took it from brush fire to forest inferno. I won’t try to speak for the people from marginalized communities who were especially angry. Instead, I’ll tell you the two major points I learned from what they were saying, without promising that I was hearing them right. Both, shamefully, should have been obvious to me.

First, free speech absolutism of the sort I espoused is fine for people who aren’t being harmed by god-awful speech. It’s a position made easy by privilege, expecially since I’ve come to believe that logical argument rarely—never?—changes people’s mind about core issues. And since we’ve learned that the free circulation of bad ideas can easily lead to stronger belief in bad ideas, free speech is starting to seem like an indulgence for those who do not bear the brunt of bad speech.

Who gets to decide what can be said where? I don’t know, but I’d be happy if we took as our common primary task enabling our nation to live up to its ideals, and if that means marginalizing speech that works against those ideals, maybe that’s what we should be doing. I don’t know, but I’m more open to that idea than I ever thought I’d be.

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