In Defense of Civil Discourse, Free Speech, and Friendship

Shutting down hate speech only makes those speakers become martyrs for their causes and paves the way for more polarization. In that sense, those speakers become stronger, not weaker.

I have always been predisposed to defending the idea of civil discourse, defined as a discussion between two or more people where emotions are tempered and reason is emphasized. I could not see how anyone could oppose such an idea. I brushed off any criticism of the idea and I thought no less of it.

Of course, nothing is free of criticism. There are those who would argue that civil discourse and free speech allow for the dehumanization and marginalization of minority groups. The main criticism is that free and open discourse allows for–and even endorses–hateful opinions; for example, opinions that deny someone else’s existence (e.g., forced conversion therapy should be legal). Similarly, those who advocate for civil discourse (usually free speech “extremists”) operate from a position of privilege – these people have never had to deal with the consequences of free speech, which is being on the receiving end of hateful and spiteful opinions that may not call for violence against individuals or a group (which I think everyone can agree is the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech), but allow for marginalized people to be further marginalized. Allowing such hateful speech and opinions to be said opens those opinions to normalization, or for their positions and sentiments to be watered down, presented, and therefore more gullible to moderates. 

I am not going to argue that this argument is wrong; rather, I think it is a legitimate argument that warrants assuaging, not falsifying. If anything, it is not really an argument at all, but a cry for addressing genuine concerns about who participates in political discourse.

To begin, I am what some would call a “free speech absolutist” with very few ifs or buts. I am very skeptical of those who harass or shut down other opinions because “they are not worth wrestling with.” I do not find any value in deplatforming certain people other than those who would openly call for violence (as for hate speech, most opinions that get labeled as such are not really hate speech). There are more nuances, but you get the point.

Moving forward, I think the issue is the foundation upon which virtually all modern political discourse rests. That foundation is the assumption (and the fear) that it is acceptable to use the awesome power and violence of the state to impose our political beliefs on others. Personally, I think this assumption needs to be challenged, as I feel that most people are inclined to shut out other opinions because it would involve the creation of a reality that is unconscionable: a reality that is defined by people being forced to do something against their will.

Realistically, I do not think many people will accept this argument, as many political ideologies are heavily reliant on using force (read: the state) to enforce its public policy prescriptions, which is why I think we should return to the defense of civil discourse. The purpose of it is quite simple: it is designed to create equanimity where there is none. It is purposefully designed to create a space for people who normally get left out or are very easily left out of a conversation (in other words, people who are excluded). 

Besides, shutting down hate speech only makes those speakers become martyrs for their causes and paves the way for more polarization. In that sense, those speakers become stronger, not weaker. Alex Jones is still around, championing the cause of free speech to the mainstream even while being barred from multiple social media platforms. Milo Yiannopoulos only gained more notoriety when more calls were made to shut him down, and he only fizzled out after a combination of financial trouble and public comments defending pedophilia. 

It is easy to get emotional in politics, especially when there are objectively bad policies out there, both enshrined in law and floating around in public discourse. But there is no reason that we cannot reasonably deconstruct prejudiced policies in a fair and respectful manner. To reiterate, I think that the breakdown of civil discourse is likely to lead to more polarization, dehumanization, and tribalism, which has a greater chance of exacerbating extremism. It may well be the case that civil discourse marginalizes oppressed people by allowing “harmful” opinions to float around. However, shoving those opinions into a dark corner does nothing to eliminate it and has the opposite effect. Those opinions gain a following, unencumbered and unchecked by any rational counter-viewpoint, and become more radical and violent. 

In the end, politics is and always will be a toxic forum for discourse. Not a minute goes by that someone in the political world does not receive a death threat online. By extension, there is so much hate and divisiveness out there. The solution I would offer is this: more friendship. Friendship allows for more mutual understanding to take place between people of differing opinions. Personally, I’ve benefited immensely from befriending both liberals and conservatives, sometimes even outright extremists. A few of my friends are libertarians, and I’m okay with that. The goal is not to insulate myself from other opinions, but to expose myself to wildly different opinions and figure out what motivates people of different ideologies. I’ve found that I’ve grown in my understanding of politics and subsequently become more tolerant and understanding of different opinions. I think if we had more people doing the same, we could come to conflict resolution more quickly, safely, efficiently, and effectively. 

Don’t Do You

Here’s a thought experiment for you: what is the last thing you think about before going to sleep, and the first thing you think of when waking up? When your mind is at rest and when the only person you have to interact with is yourself, often you can learn something new and reflect on what you fundamentally value. These are the thoughts which you either anticipate or dread, cherish or regret. For me, it always traces back to the pondering of other people, those who are valuable to me.

Human value is a more nuanced topic than most understand. On the surface, human value seems obvious. If you consider all of creation, minus the empty space, rocks and life which is not only conscious but has the means to achieve its desires, you’re left with humans. Humans, compared to everything else, are exceedingly rare and useful – so therefore must be valuable, right?

In theory, all people are inherently valuable—but in practice, are we really treated this way? Often in reality, utility determines if you are appreciated and pleasure determines whether you are loved.

Here at college we see this daily. We measure utility when we regiment the value of a person by grades, by how useful we can be in a team, or how we might be the most human by playing our role as a brick in the wall. We seek pleasure when we bestow value on those who are the most agreeable, the leaders in keeping the waters still and in repressing their own collective conscience for the sake of appeasement.

Are people valuable? Yes, by nature they are valuable and have a right to live, and to pursue true personal satisfaction and peace. Then why change nature? Why would one redefine a rule you not only did not create, but have no authority in changing? The solution is to go with nature, not against it. The solution is mercy.

Mercy can be the only correct way to assign personal value because it is the most virtuous in the case of human treatment. To act for the sake of another is the definition of mercy: nonreciprocal goodness. Through the view of mercy, grades are not even a blemish on the face of the person, because no class or major can add or subtract from one’s worth. Pride cannot exist here because you cannot place yourself above another. Lust cannot exist here because people can no longer be objects for pleasure. There can be no reward for action besides the understanding that you acted in good conscience.

If this idea sounds like bad school counseling, that’s because this is. There is no way you can quantify mercy into grades or ethics into job experience. However, my purpose here is not to show the way to scholarly success, but to show what makes real friendship. You need to leave behind the false satisfaction of utility and pleasure, in other words, you can’t always “do you”. You need to set aside what is expedient for yourself, pleasure, for what is right to others, mercy.

Real friends are those who act for your sake. You should know that you are a true friend if you practice this same nonreciprocal goodness. You should also be aware that, if you are in a relationship where your value is regimented by how useful you are or how good you make someone else feel, you are not in true friendship at all. All people deserve to know someone who is merciful to them, to go to sleep at night with a clear conscience, and to wake up everyday with the understanding that they are loved.