Dissent has always been a dangerous thing. Over the past millennia one might have been thrown to the lions, tossed into an oubliette, or simply ordered to leave town (or the nation) for contradicting the prevailing orthodoxy.
America is, of course, a nation founded by those who successfully resisted the rule of an English king, and our country has historically served as a refuge from those escaping political persecution elsewhere. However, we are today often little different from the tinpot dictatorships that we sneer at when it comes to our own disdain toward those challenging the wisdom of the herd. People are always attracted to simplistic narratives that seemingly explain the messy complexities of our confusing lives, and those ideas that call our self-comforting assumptions into question are typically unwelcome. We are Americans who have the same human flaws and weaknesses as all our neighbors on this troubled planet, but we sometimes fail to recognize this reality.
Viewpoints that challenge the accepted truths have varied greatly over time. It used to be that the biggest trouble was to be found by questioning the Virgin Birth or swearing allegiance to the losing sovereign in a war. The ideas or actions that seem most likely to draw the ire and fire of today’s internet-enabled guardians of accepted societal truths involve inconvenient questions regarding the utility of Covid-19 lockdowns and shutdowns, the legitimacy of the vote count during the 2020 Presidential election, and of the actual prevalence of structural racism in America today. Our modern version of the oubliette—the suspension of your Facebook or Twitter account—awaits those who refuse to repent their refusal to be silent regarding their opposing beliefs.
Thankfully, burning troublemakers at the stake never became a fashion in America, but governmental and non-governmental attempts to suppress that which is deemed misinformation have been gathering steam in our nation for several years. These pose a particular challenge for a nation such as ours that claims—at least in theory—to still protect freedom of thought and speech, and the debate over how we deal with heterogeneity of thought in our heterogeneous country is likely to be front and center over the next several years.
It must be emphasized that all manner of base fakery and foolish fiction has run parallel to the most exalted moments across all of human history. Sometimes this has been relatively harmless, and its only ill effects have been to waste a little money or time. Purchasing that pair of “X-Ray Specs” advertised in the back of a comic book was likely a relatively benign early life lesson regarding the actual veracity of much consumer advertising. However, the numerous “Big Lies” told by the leaders of Nazi Germany led directly to inhumanity, death, and destruction on a massive scale, so we cannot be overly complacent regarding the consequences of propaganda for both our nation and world.
So what guidelines should we use to manage our interactions with one another in the cyberspace that now operates as our public square?
Unfortunately, we need to balance four contradictory needs: avoiding actual risks to our nation from misinformation and fake news, fighting our human disinclination to hear viewpoints that run counter to our cherished beliefs, encouraging free and open debate as a critical precursor to our democratic processes, and reducing the rancor in an American political and social atmosphere that has soured into unending partisanship and personal attacks. Should be easy, right?
As a starting point in this difficult process, even a modest return to traditional standards of common courtesy would be an immense help. I realize that many who believe in the righteousness and importance of their causes find polite standards of speech impede their ability to rile up their followers, but little is gained—and much likely lost—if you try to win every argument by using the most disparaging possible personal insults and characterizations.
In the final analysis, if acolytes are taught to revile their opponents rather than engage with them, potential converts are sure to be repelled; I don’t, for example, recall Jesus Christ calling non-believers a**holes in order to successfully win them over to entering the Christian faith. Although I realize that many will find the gentler rules of individual conduct we learned decades ago for our incredibly innocent high school debates to be inapplicable to our more flammable modes of personal interaction today, we still might do well to remember the inherent advantages of simple human decency when it comes to winning over the hearts of your fellow Americans.
In addition, we have to consider the difference between your average citizen simply expressing an opinion—an opinion with no potential or actual force of law—and the obligations to engage with the public that come with elected or appointive office.
Watching the Twitter trolls and Facebook flamers unload the full force of their wrath on some college student or factory worker who puts up a post that riles their supposedly enlightened sensibilities is a daily reminder of just what causes many otherwise forthright Americans to shun any but the most banal discussions. If the average individual avoids publicly expressing any opinion at all due to fear of personal attack by vindictive strangers, our national dialogue becomes, by default, a battle between the most extreme and combative elements of our society because the moderate center goes into stealth mode in order to protect themselves and their loved ones. Consequently, the rules of civilized discourse mutate into the laws of the jungle—a battle to the death with no quarter given.
Moderation is not dead, but it is most definitely in hiding today. If we fail to condemn those who bludgeon their fellow Americans for exercising their First Amendment rights and allow self-appointed censors to restrict the range of acceptable thought by scouring away all grace and reason with their caustic rhetoric, we gain only a nation that is increasingly angry, suspicious, and embittered—a perfect atmosphere for demagoguery and discord. We must do better.
Rather than restricting the speech of Americans in a false and foolish quest to promote some sense of faux-harmony, we must celebrate and protect the free expression of all. The question is, of course, just how are we to do this? The reflex to regulate or restrict Internet communications by either empowering private companies to ruthlessly police their websites or establishing some vast new government super-agency to scrutinize every post and podcast is understandable—but it is both wrong and dangerous.
Putting a cop on every corner in cyberspace simply encourages that at which bureaucracies sadly excel: the capricious application of brain-dead rules that become self-perpetuating mechanisms of societal harm.
Moreover, the inevitable creep of political and cultural biases into any process that would presume to evaluate whether a particular phrasing of an idea is acceptable—no matter how carefully and thoughtfully designed that process might be—would inevitably turn every attempt to monitor or moderate thought and language into just another partisan food fight. Given that today’s fashionable excuse for censorship is that words alone can, in effect, constitute violence against others, it is impossible to believe that free speech will not be quickly regulated out of existence in the pursuit of some chimerical vision of tolerance and unity that will, in fact, promote yet more intolerance and disunity.
As distressing as it might be to admit for some, this is not a problem that government or governmentally-empowered private companies can—or should—solve. There are, however, steps we can take as individuals that can help to protect our precious First Amendment rights as Americans while simultaneously reducing the feverish folderol that distracts from a productive national dialogue regarding the pressing issues facing our country.
First off, we need to recognize that the hyper-partisanship of so much of our news and entertainment is no one’s fault but our own. Our intellectually lazy tendency to self-sort into informational silos—a tendency actively encouraged by many Internet providers, news and information sources, and their advertisers—is a root cause of our attraction to extremism and our consequent inability to appropriately respond to ideas that differ from our own.
If we expect the right to express our opinions, we must also embrace the obligation to be well-informed. Sharing angry and infantile tweets may satisfy some need to strike back at those whom we perceive to be our enemies, but I will guarantee that no thought of substance, nuance, or breadth can be encapsulated in 280 characters. Critical thinking requires immersion in a level of detail that many might find onerous, but it is a duty of citizenship that we all must shoulder in order to save ourselves from never ending snark and stupidity that solves no problems—and creates new ones in the process.
In addition, we cannot promote a national dialogue that is either respectful or thoughtful unless we take a step back into our more responsible civic past and put an end to all anonymous social media posts and comments. I believe that, just as was once common journalistic practice, we need to sign our own names to our words and no longer skulk behind the veil of anonymity most websites readily—and wrongly—provide.
Anonymously posted words and other materials are an open invitation to cruel and destructive language. The social media cowards who castigate others are no different than the school bullies who spread scurrilous rumors during recess, and their awful behaviors should not be setting the standards for how we communicate with one another. Putting your name and the town or city were you live on every post and your profile will discourage egregious insults and worm’s-eye analyses that now pass for reasoned thought on many social media and news sites.
Those who hide their identities from public view are also often hiding an agenda that goes beyond simply sharing a thought or idea. As journalists have increasingly become willing to source that which they deem the unbiased truth from anonymous sources, they have also watched their credibility increasingly evaporate as so many of their supposedly reliable sources turned out to be disgruntled or vindictive partisans who were happy to make up tall tales in order to inflict damage on their personal and political enemies. No good ever came to a nation that depended upon what was scrawled on a bathroom wall to separate fact from fiction, and our idiotic elevation of anonymous trolls to positions of incredible influence is perhaps the surest indication of just how debased our national dialogue has become.
Finally, we must recognize that a diversity of opinions and viewpoints—even those we most definitely do not like—must be both respected and protected at all cost. Censorship is a tool of tyrants, and we delude ourselves if we believe ignorance of the ideas of others magically protects us from harm. Our infatuation with slogans instead of ideas has played right into the surface discussions and snide remarks that infest social media, cable new programs, and ill-informed celebrity tweets. This has impeded much necessary discussion and enabled the rise of a new class of clowns masquerading as thinkers, which daily degrades the democracy we all should cherish.
Free speech is a rough business that sometimes offends even as it enlightens, and contemporary Americans are not alone in the continuing struggle to find the delicate balance that somehow manages to simultaneously protect both precious individual freedoms and broader societal needs.
However, if we commit to more humane interactions, take the time to learn and think before we speak, and eliminate the reign of the anonymous troublemakers, I believe we will be able to make some progress toward the difficult understandings necessary to move America in a more positive direction. These suggestions will, of course, be yet another source of controversy to some, but they are humbly offered in the hope they can be a first step toward helping America to fulfill its promises to all Americans.