Saturday, March 28, 2015

On Free Speech and Safe Spaces

Pathologizing disagreement is an intellectually dishonest way to cope with challenging arguments. It certainly doesn't support critical thinking. It also creates a culture wherein people are afraid to express dissenting opinions or question the party line....It's okay to disagree, but not to frame differences of opinion as abuse.

Meghan Murphy wrote those words in a column in today's Globe and Mail: "There's nothing 'safe' about silencing dissent," and I couldn't agree more.

I recently wrote at length about the need to limit speech in such a way as to allow for criticism of authority but stop mindlessly cruel rants that have become the norm on some social media sites. I want to end the perception that free speech entitles us to say any moronic or caustic comment that comes to mind like some racist fraternity chants we've been hearing about lately. Murphy's article gets at a different problem: people condemning words because they might make someone feel 'unsafe.'

It's imperative to protect the right to free speech when people question authority in order to limit the power of those in power, but it's also necessary to protect the right to free speech when people have dissenting opinions in order to protect ourselves against the natural pull of groupthink and mob mentality. Allowing dissension can also foster better, more nuanced defences as we're made aware of holes in our case that need to be filled more thoroughly.

I've seen the kind of issue Murphy raises - people denied a seat on a panel or a speaking engagement because of their perspective. I've even seen people who are backing a minority position claim that the people in the majority are bullying them, not because they're harassing them in any way or even know them, but because they have stronger arguments for their case - because they're winning. If arguing well enough to win a debate is considered bullying, then arguments will be won by whomever is more distraught at the end. If someone is so offended by contrary claims that they feel unsafe, then maybe that person shouldn't offer to sit on a panel to discuss the issue publicly. It's not much of a discussion if the panel is made of like-minded people unwilling to hear opposing points. I'd go so far as to suggest it's leaning towards propaganda.

We always have to consider that maybe our opponents are right even just in part. The unfortunate corollary of that could be that maybe we're wrong, but it's often the case that the issue isn't as black and white as we had thought. Sometimes dissension shows us the complexity of an issue that, without that consideration, seemed simply a case of good against bad. For triggering issues, that might mean having to re-think a position that we've neatly tucked away into a tiny box of a few core sentences.  Unpacking that could be painful, but refusing to see any other position leaves the whole argument untied and may create factions that could otherwise be bridged and misunderstandings that could otherwise be enlightened.

I know that rush of outrage that comes when someone questions a core belief.  Maybe they suggested something as heinous as, "Some women like to get raped." But instead of just shutting them down, I believe it's better to take the time and go the distance to dismantle the claim sufficiently in hopes, at the very least, that they won't try that argument with anyone again. If we just shut down weak arguments, then our opponents can claim we didn't listen to their side. As long as we're civil in our interactions, then we can have both a forum for debate and a safe space.

To commemorate Daniel Dennett's birthday, let's revisit his rules for civil dissension:
1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.  
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement). 
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.  
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

I'd add some more obvious points that aren't as common knowledge as I'd hope:
1. Don't start talking louder and interrupting often to the point that your rival goes unheard.
2. Don't rant and run - blast out an opinion, then claim it necessary to make a hasty retreat.
3. Don't attack the person's intelligence or position in an effort to discount their argument (an ad hominem) including everything from more subtle eye rolling to attention demanding head banging (which I like to call "gestural ad hominems").

These three all boil down to the daycare admonishment: "Stop and listen."

Then follow the listening with a well-supported rebuttal focusing on undoing the opponent's supports and adding further supports to flush out your own position. Arguing well takes a bit of thought and energy, so it's not for the lazy or faint of heart, but it's necessary if we hope to learn anything from one another.    

ETA:  This article is an excellent discussion of the issue.

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