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. 

Is Wit the Same as Parody?

Political discourse has taken an ever greater presence in our social fabric. Of course, discussions of topics such as cultural taboos or controversial legislation have always happened at the dinner table, freely discussed among family, friends or coworkers. However, this century has seen the rise of a more socially aware generation, eager to join the restless political landscape of our society. The accomplishments of previous generations, such as the Civil Rights movement, have cast a shadow of cultural achievement that we are not only eager to escape, but replicate. 

Social media platforms have dominated the current cultural discourse. Accessible, convenient, and easy to digest, social media has become a primary means of nationwide communication, connecting individuals to political and cultural thought throughout this country. But despite the universal and accessible appeal of social media, there is also a significant limitation. 

The social media platform offers only a restrained form of political conversation. For example, it would be difficult for someone to express his full opinion on a legislative bill in a 140-word tweet, or deliver a cultural critique on the transformation of modern art in a single Facebook post. The social media platform was designed for quick dialogues and informal opinions, quickly digested and reposted for others to consume. As a result, one could easily argue that the restrictive aspects of social media limit its impact on our discourse. Today, our culture has remedied this concern by employing an age-old tactic: rhetorical wit. Unlike in centuries past, the modern use of wit has had the opposite effect. Contemporary wit in our culture has led to the cheapening and devaluation of rhetoric in our society.

Wit describes the clever use of words, ideas, and irony to formulate expressions in a creative and oftentimes humorous way.  Michelle O’Callaghan, an English professor at the University of Reading, states that the term held “more specific meaning in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries” within English society. Wit came from the socialite gatherings of urban areas in England, where conversational exchanges were often filled with economic, political, and cultural substance. These “tavern societies” were distinctly attached “to a milieu within early modern London that cultivated a fashionable, urbane reputation.” Against the background of cultural and political events in England, there arose a new social group concerned with public sociability and the direction of political culture. 

This rising social awareness led to a greater desire for individuals to form and express their own opinions on society. Thence rose political satire, where wit was key. Wit has been present in politics and literature since the classical era, but became more defined during England’s early modern period. William Shakespeare was an early notable employer of wit, which heavily influenced the popularity of his plays and prose. Shakespeare scholar Sasha Roberts points to wit as the most highly valued literary faculty of Shakespeare’s time. 

Shakespeare’s use of wit was particularly unique, sharpening his talent for crafting double or triple entendres. Shakespeare used this talent to employ wit as a satirical weapon, often taking aim at hypocrisy in aristocratic society. For example, the fates of Othello and Iago can highlight how suspicion and deceit ruin the honor of noble men. 

The nature of wit started to evolve after the seventeenth century, expanding on the use of double meaning. Wit’s appeal came from the ability to express so much using so few words. Rather than direct debate and solemn discourse, wit was a more pleasant, brief and subtle way of guiding an audience to see a different kind of meaning. Traditional rhetorical wit had substance, and held a fine balance between funny creativity and introspective meaning. Sadly, we seem to have lost this balance.

Strong opinions about Trump’s election flooded national discourse, whereas political grievances seemed to keep our political landscape underwater. Satirical rhetoric, especially on social media, exploded. In response to the national critique surrounding the use of the electoral college, one Twitter user said he “thought the electoral college was the extra classes you took during school.” 

Rhetorical wit must find a balance between creativity and meaning. The tweet, though creative, was insubstantial. Wit has the ability to wrap cleverness around a sincere truth. The purpose of humor in wit is to bring humor to a difficult truth, to make a harsher reality easily digestible to a reluctant audience. However, if that truth is insincere or false, then such a comment simply becomes a parody – the fool’s gold of rhetorical wit. The significance, effectiveness, and historical implications of the electoral college were severely undermined in this tweet, unaddressed and therefore leaving a false sense of meaning. The “witty” tweet held little substance because the meaning behind the comment was merely an exaggeration, primarily intended to broadcast the author’s frustration at the election results rather than highlight a truth about our electoral system. 

Parody tweets are innumerable, but true wit is in short supply. People only seem to care about the creative and humorous side of wit, but pay little regard to the substance. Rather than caring about sincere meanings or truths, our culture seems to value reactionary and provoking discourse. Wit has cheapened, weighed down by the growing demand for provocative cleverness over substantial meaning. 

Ultimately, in order for wit to be properly used in contemporary rhetoric, our cultural must find a balance between creativity and sincerity in our political discourse. In order for wit to be properly employed in our rhetoric, our culture’s tendency to value reactionary dialogue over substance must be discouraged.

Photo By Aaron Burden aaronburden – https://unsplash.com/photos/y02jEX_B0O0archive