As 2018 draws to a close, the issue of speech has once again taken centre stage. Persistent commentary via thought and opinion pieces, essays and news stories, continues to analyse and evaluate the contribution that freedom of speech makes towards the advancement of society. Current concerns range across a spectrum from censorship to hate speech. The need to reflect together on the purpose of dialogue, as well as the manner in which we converse, has never been more urgent.
Perhaps beyond the freedom of speech debate is a more profound concern: the context in which this liberty is expressed. We celebrate concepts like debate, argument and persuasion. Diametrically opposed positions are often pitted against one another, with the view that one will inevitably emerge victorious.
Placing our public discourse within this adversarial framework does a disservice to the nuances of many of the issues at the heart of these discussions. Social reality and its corresponding challenges cannot be viewed through a binary lens. However, the culture in which freedom of speech finds expression today leads us to focus on the extreme voices within a conversation, placing ever more pressure on the individual to choose between narrow options. This inhibits our collective capacity to learn from, and analyse, the forces that have shaped humanity’s experience, leaving little room for the personal investigation of truth.
The current approach to self expression certainly allows for public discourse to thrive, for those in authority to be held to account, and for injustices to be brought to light. It also facilitates education, curiosity and spirited discussion. However, in its current conception, it has its limits.
Within the adversarial framework, the aim of much debate is to advance one’s own view, with the assumption that there is risk involved in relinquishing individual perspectives. When we attach personal opinions to the intrinsic worth of an individual, attitudes of resentment, dislike and positions of entrenchment can form. As a result, rather than being able to facilitate a collective learning process,
speech can become a cause of disunity and frustration.
Another feature of this adversarial framework can be seen in the power dynamics that operate within our society. A small section of the population generally dominates discourse, while many others feel marginalised and thus disinclined to engage in public conversations. As well as the disempowerment this causes, our capacity to understand truth holistically is limited.
Thus, it is necessary to re-evaluate the competitive context in which public discourse takes place. To overcome the limits we have outlined so far, it might be helpful to consider the drive that underpins much of our dialogue. Perhaps participation in national conversations could be motivated by the desire to learn, to empower, to encourage, and ultimately to contribute to a narrative that serves the well being of society.
Our assumptions about the value of competition often lead to a dichotomy between the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of unity. Often unity of vision is seen as a hindrance to progress. This need not be the case. In a spirit of unity, individuals, the community and its institutions are learning how to create a culture in which freedom of speech can achieve its fullest potential.
Far from shutting down speech, perhaps moving away from an adversarial framework would open up public discussion. In turn, this could deepen our collective understanding of the world, and refine our ability to contribute to the betterment of society.