Cancelling Censorship through Civility

This week, big tech companies including Apple, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have taken measures to limit or eliminate speech they determine to be willfully inaccurate, inflammatory, threatening, and inciting. Most of these measures have been carried out against voices from the political right, particularly the conservative social media platform Parler, and President Trump’s Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts.

Twitter stock tumbled in the wake of its decision, and the other forms of backlash are beginning to arise. Even Elon Mush weighed in by responding to a tweet from the satirical Babylon Bee (one of my favorites). He wrote, “A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”

Defenders and opponents of tech companies’ censorship each have free speech in mind. One side emphasizes liberty, while other emphasizes liberty’s limits. It’s a fair concern. After all, freedom of speech does not protect someone from being prosecuted for yelling “fire” in a theatre. So, freedom of speech does not mean you can say whatever you want, wherever you want, about whatever you want. Liberty does have limits.

In contrast, however, each person hearing or reading another person’s words is responsible for what they do with those words. I cringed at President Trump’s speech to an already amped-up crowd at the Elipse, but even legal experts are saying Congress’ efforts to impeach the President on charges of inciting violence will be difficult at best to prosecute. I think his words were terribly irresponsible, and there must be appropriate accountability, since those words were spoken by the Commander-in-Chief and carry enormous weight (as I write, Congress is debating measures to facilitate Trump’s removal from office). President Trump, however, didn’t MAKE anyone from that crowd storm the Capitol. They chose a violent and shameful response to his irresponsible words. So, where does the ultimate burden of accountability lie?

Listen, I share concern over the presence of bad information, irresponsible rhetoric, and loose-cannon blowhards, but I don’t think censorship is the answer. I still think the ultimate burden of accountability lies with the hearer, who has the right and responsibility to … THINK. I think the answer lies in critical thinking, the competition of ideas, and civility.

I just don’t think we think about thinking very well. Why do you think that is?

Think about it …

Critical thinking is too often avoided because we’ve become overly sensitive to having our ideas challenged. We’re quick to post a thought or opinion, but if there’s pushback, we experience what my younger counterparts called being “butt-hurt.” Worse still, many will cry foul and say we’re being bullied or triggered, or suffering a micro-aggression, or label our interlocutor a bigot, sexist, racist, or some other vilifying term. I’m not denying the reality of bullies and bigots, but it’s an insult to genuine survivors of bullying and bigotry to apply those labels to people who have done nothing more than expose the weakness of your argument.

If you get pushback, don’t coddle your mind. Look at that critique. Study it. Sit in the discomfort of the contradiction. Don’t worry about who said it. It doesn’t matter how much you respect the person who championed the idea, how much you detest who leveled the critique to that idea. Let it irritate you like a splinter in your mind. Only then can you begin to deal with it, wrestle with it, refute it, and dispute it. If you can, then you’ve become more adept at understanding and explaining your perspective. But if you can’t, then it’s time to change your mind.

But too many people will not conceive of changing their minds, so they shut them down, and they want any voice other than the one they agree with to be shut down, silenced, canceled, and censored.

The problem is that censorship does little to slow the distribution of ideas. At the beginning of COVID-19, those conspiracy-based alternative info presentations were being censored left and right, only to show up on another website in an online game of cat and mouse. Each cycle of internet wack-a-mole only demanded more attention, generated more curiosity, and gained 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 be heard alongside one another and encourage the people 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 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.”

Many people mistakenly think that Civility demands consensus. 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 perspectives we don’t understand, theories we may find bizzare, and accusations we believe to be baseless? The same thing we should do with the latest information on ideas and from sources we tend to trust and prefer. If ideas from either side 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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