Speech, Speaking and Humility

We live in a country that guarantees the government will not “abridge the freedom of speech…”  That’s in the first amendment to the Constitution.  In other words, the government can’t keep us from speaking our minds about something.  That’s a good thing even though some of the permutations get a little weird, e.g. the blurred line between art and pornography.  Or annoying, like burning the flag.  Personally, I’m not a fan of the last one and it kind of pisses me off.

Freedom of speech, or more accurately the freedom from the government abridging our right to freedom of speech is not the same thing as being able to say whatever you want because you have freedom of speech.  Even the first amendment has limitations such as not yelling ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater just because you want to.  There is some occasional confusion on this point.  Someone, usually famous, will say something outrageous and when the backlash comes from those who disagree there is a cry of “Freedom of Speech!  He/she gets to say what they want!”.  Not so.  Well, only partly so.  You can say what you want but if someone disagrees with your speaking, they also get to say what they want.

Putting it another way, the first amendment doesn’t guarantee that you don’t have to deal with the consequences, from sources other than the government, of your speaking out about something.  Yes, we live in a (mostly) free country but if you’re going to say something be ready for some pushback.  And please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t fall back on the first amendment to defend saying something stupid.  The government may not be able to keep you from saying it but the rest of the interwebs might have a response.

Sadly, all this frequently leads to incivility in our conversations.  As time goes on, the left gets farther left and the right gets farther right.  We stake out our positions and engage in commentary that isn’t designed to convince the person we’re talking to but instead is designed to prop up those who agree with us and are listening in on the conversation.  Let’s face it, do we really expect to change someone’s mind by saying they’re wrong and here’s why they’re wrong?

Good luck with that.  Reason is not likely to change opinions.

But relationships will.  Here’s a question.  Do you spend time just listening to, not debating, people or media that disagree with you?  Why or why not?  Most people don’t, preferring the relative safety and comfort of hanging out with those who agree with our positions.  Not to mention, it is a lot of work finding credible sources with which to get information.  Fox News is neither fair nor balanced but neither is MSNBC.

And so, the downward spiral continues.  Consider this though; what would happen if you had a conversation with someone you disagree with and began that conversation with the areas in which your argument is weak, flawed or flat out wrong?  And if you think your argument doesn’t have weaknesses, flaws or parts that are wrong, think again. Certainly, some people will respond with “Aha!  See!  I told you!  You’ve got it wrong!” and if that happens, stop speaking with them.  They’re only interested in what they have to say and nothing you say is going to matter to them.  The time-honored internet maxim of ‘Don’t Feed the Trolls’ comes into play here.  And by the way, you may be the troll.

But maybe, just maybe, they’ll respond in kind with the shortcomings of their position.  And maybe, just maybe, a conversation can continue where both are engaged in the conversation rather than defending their positions.  And maybe, just maybe, both will learn some things.

Maybe.  Just maybe.

Some of the ideas here came from an “On Being” podcast featuring Jonathan Haidt.  If you are interested click here 


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