From the Saturday WSJ Review section, Land of Free (and Fettered) Speech by Adam Kirsch:
At a town meeting, however, people are speaking to their neighbors, who they know in real life and might meet the next day. In those circumstances, there’s a pressure to speak moderately, to try to convince opponents rather than attack them. But what happens to free speech when instead of addressing 100 people we know, we’re talking to 40 million strangers we’ll never meet?
Such cases show what happens when our heightened eagerness to take offense meets institutions’ innate desire to avoid trouble. If hearing a contrary opinion feels like a personal assault, then any potentially controversial statement is equivalent to shouting fire in a crowded theater. It’s much easier for a business or a school to avoid trouble, and potential liability, by shutting down discussion altogether. And when people are silenced in real life, where else can they go to exercise their free speech but the internet, where every grievance is welcomed and amplified?
This vicious circle can’t be broken by legislation, and the technology that set it in motion isn’t going away. The challenge facing Americans today is primarily cultural: We have to relearn the role that free speech plays in a pluralistic society. Declaring speech out of bounds in certain contexts, especially when it expresses views that are actually widely held, glosses over conflict without resolving it.
On the contrary, when people are told that they can’t say what they think, rather than being presented with an argument for why it’s wrong, they may comply, but they won’t change their minds. As the philosopher Benedict Spinoza wrote in the 17th century, when religious opinions were the ones being censored, people “are most prone to resent the branding as criminal of opinions which they believe to be true…In a democracy, everyone submits to the control of authority over his actions, but not over his judgment and reason.”
- You do not convert or persuade a person because you have silenced him.
- The voting booth is the ultimate safe space.
- Social media has become a blessing in expanding venues for expression and toxic for removing civility from our discourse.