Censorship, Civility, and the Critical Competition of Ideas

The past few weeks have seen people across the world respond to the Covid-19 pandemic in a variety of ways. Quarantined citizens play music, sing together, or organize to cheer frontline workers through open windows, balconies, and porches. Others express disagreement with government decisions through protests. All of us are trying to make sense of these stressful and complicated times by gathering the best information we can.

An additional source of stress and complication comes from an atmosphere of distrust. Government information and media reporting have been inconsistent at best, leaving many to wonder if what authorities are telling us is the whole story.

Enter the alternative experts and media outlets, with stories of a government cover-up and sinister plans to control humanity. Some of these are so bizarre as to be easily dismissed, but others have caught the attention of concerned citizens and have gone viral, only to be taken down by Facebook and YouTube. Whether it’s the two doctors from California or the Plandemic documentary, sources of alternative information like these are being censored over concerns that they’re spreading misinformation.

Those who would favor censorship cite reports of people ignoring social distancing measures, refusing to wear masks (or coughing/sneezing on those who do), or worse, ingesting bleach or performing other dangerous practices response to misinformation.

I share concern over the results of bad information, but I don’t believe censorship is the answer. I think the answer lies in critical thinking, the competition of ideas, and civility.

Censorship has done little to slow the distribution of the most popular alternative info presentations. They just show up on another website in an online game of cat and mouse, each time demanding more attention, generating more curiosity, and gaining a larger following. Seeking to silence perspectives, even ones we deem bizarre only makes them louder. Their proponents dig in even deeper as they fight to be heard. As John Morely once said, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”

I think a better way is to let the voices of alternative information be heard alongside the voices of mainstream or “official” information and encourage the populace to critically think through the implications of each source. Critical thinking, informed critique, cross-checking, verification, and investigation can distinguish the accurate from the absurd.

But how? Given the polarized nature of so many other issues, what’s to keep the critique mentioned above from descending into rhetorical chaos?

Civility.

How can civility provide a pathway to free and productive dialogue? Hasn’t civility been misused as a means of tone policing or as a way to shut down conversation altogether? Yes, it has been misused in this way, which runs contrary to its intended purpose, making it, in reality, an act of incivility.

True civility does not silence conflict; it manages and facilitates conflict productively.  

As Teresa Bejan writes, “If civility is your attempt to avoid making an argument, to isolate yourself to a more agreeable company of the like-minded, if you are not actually speaking to anyone who fundamentally disagrees with you, then you’re doing civility wrong.”

Civility is believed to be reached when consensus is reached. Common ground is an important element of civility, but it’s not the purpose. Keith Bybee, in his book, How Civility Works, suggests instead that civility establishes rules of social belonging, which facilitate the competition of conflicting ideas. Civility provides a place and process to determine which views and interests merit consideration and who makes the best and most substantial argument, after which we continue to live together. Bejan reinforces this approach, “Civility is a virtue that allows us to disagree without denying or destroying the common life tomorrow with people we might oppose today.”

What then is to be done with alternative information like the California Doctors, the Plandemic documentary, or even more fringe theories? The same thing we should do with the latest reports from the WHO, CDC, or the White House Task Force. If they want to be taken seriously, let them compete in the arena of ideas. Don’t give them the easy way out through blind acceptance or blind censorship. Subject them to critical analysis and let them stand or fall accordingly. Let no one believe they are entitled to be heard and let no one call foul if their ideas are found wanting.

Now is a time when civility and critical thinking are needed most.

“Civility is not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences. It is a tough, robust, substantive concept that is critical to both democracy and civil society, and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future.” – Os Guiness

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