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Free Speech: Abuse It and Lose It

Argument from Max Pixel CC (2)We enjoy free speech only because we live in a democracy.  The right to free speech is an integral part of modern democracy. Abuse that right and you abuse democracy. Take that abuse too far and you won’t have free speech any more.

A big part of modern representative democracy is the free and fair competition of political leaders for our votes.  Among other things, that means citizens, the media, politicians, and candidates for office all need to be able to speak freely with one another – to share their ideas, debate, and try to persuade.

To reframe: democracy is constrained political competition – constrained to a contest of ideas rather than a war between armies.  This special quality of democracy is especially important to safeguard when the stakes are high.  Disrespect and demonization tempt us ever more as the stakes rise –  but giving in brings the risk of violence and destruction.

There is another angle too. Democracy thrives on trust: there is no point to competing for elections if the winners are sure to be sabotaged by the losers, and no point for the losers to try to compete again if the winners are certain to entrench themselves into power forever.  Shouting down your opponents, refusing them service at your restaurants, threatening them in your rallies, demonizing reporters and media outlets … these are all tools of sabotage and entrenchment. Such tactics, no matter who uses them, have no place in a healthy democracy.

Moreover, in the US, 37 percent of voters are independents.  Any side that wants to win will need to earn their support.  You won’t earn anything from the independents if you spend all your time barking at your opposition.

We are all for vigorous debate and competition. No matter what the contest, the side with the most votes wins. We appreciate what John McCain said in 2008: “We want to fight, and I want to fight, but we will be respectful … That doesn’t mean you have to reduce your ferocity. It’s just got to be respectful.” In that spirit, we offer several tips for more productive political debate:

  • A lot of people take their cue from how other people behave. Humans are hard-wired that way. Take advantage of this by leading by example. Be the best person you can be – in person and online.  Encourage others to do the same.
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because someone else behaves badly doesn’t make it OK and helpful for you to do the same. Fight with honor.
  • People are most respectful when they are face-to-face. There is little reason to expect people to be polite when they feel safe due to distance and/or anonymity.
  • People are most receptive when they have agreed in advance to be engaged. Hitting someone out of the blue with your opinions, even with the best of intentions, is probably not going to get good results.
  • People can’t listen or think well when they are angry. Choose a time when people aren’t riled up, and don’t get them riled up.
  • Don’t gang-up on people. It only makes them defensive.
  • Don’t use emotional words. They distract and make it hard to hear what you are saying.
  • Show some humility. You can’t possibly know it all. Your opponents may sometimes know something useful to you.
  • Most people match respect with respect. You will have a much better chance of being listened to if you start with respect and ask the same in return. Even if you deeply oppose someone’s choices, you can still respect them as fellow Americans. If you or your opponent can’t do that, then just walk away.
  • Move on if you can’t get respect from someone online. You might be engaging with a bot or a troll. Don’t waste your time.
  • People don’t like to be labeled. Engage each person as a unique individual rather than a part of some group (that you probably don’t like).
  • People hate having words put in their mouths. Let people speak for themselves.
  • People are more receptive when you start by making a genuine effort to understand their point of view, and show you get it, even if you disagree. Bonus: if you can see things from their perspective, you might find some common ground to build on.
  • People hate being told they are wrong. Telling people they are wrong closes their minds, puts them on the defensive, and encourages them to think of new reasons why they are right and righteous. Instead, let people know what you believe, what you want, and why.  Similarly, unless they ask, never tell people what to do or how.
  • People like to figure things out for themselves. Don’t lord your righteousness over them.
  • Give people space to change their minds without defensive baggage, Part 1. “When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides.” Blaise Pascal, 1623-62.
  • Give people space to change their minds without defensive baggage, Part 2. Discuss choices and ideas rather than the quality of the person.
  • Push for solving a problem instead of pushing against “them.” Think about what you want, what needs to change, where, how, when, and why.  Advocate for those changes.  Look for opportunities where what you want and what “they” want overlap. If you do it in this way, making sure not to personalize things, you may be surprised to sometimes gain allies, at least for some issues that matter to both you and “them.”

It’s so tempting when we are frustrated to want to hurt those people getting in our way. But this author has lived long enough and traveled enough to assure you that giving in to that feeling only leads to darkness and disaster.

Keep the faith.  When the going gets tough, remind yourself that most people have a lot of good in them.  There’s all sorts of helping and sharing going on every day.  If you need proof, look at this link here.  If you aren’t already one of those good people, become one.  Join an organization aimed at good works.

Photo credit: CCO Creative Commons.

Tell us what works for you!  Write to ffad.democracy@gmail.com

To learn more about democracy, see our Elements of Democracy page, our Resources pages, and our blogs.

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