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The free speech double standard

Cartoon by Julianna Scionti.

Social politics is an ever-swinging pendulum—the more it rises on the left side, the greater its tendency to be pulled back by the right. We are currently experiencing a feed-forward polarization of political thought, but for many ill-found reasons.

One flaw of intellectual discourse today is the predilection to conflate personal ideas and opinions with the person from whom they came. People are maligned by their beliefs and there is little separation between idea and presenter. The rise in the incidence of ad hominem attacks is a natural consequence of this form of discourse, and as a product of society it affects all levels of conversation.

This is apparent on the presidential debate stage and through the political posturing of the divisive attack ads. The discussion of ideas and policies has been replaced by vilification of the opponent on the path to filling the highest office in the land, but to think that this has happened in isolation is foolhardy. The example of Trump or Clinton (depending on your affiliation) seems at first like hyperbole, but then consider the millions of people who have backed your opponent’s presidential bid—their rhetoric does not exist in a bubble. The debate stage is a microcosm of society at large, and while everything is made up, the points do matter.

When discussing the presidential elections in the company of like-minded individuals, the opponent is the incarnation of evil and the descent of democracy. We don’t bother to discuss why their plans are wrong; we instead skip to the self-indulgence of berating their very essence. In the presence of the opponent’s supporters we either tend not to discuss politics at all to maintain civility and relationships, or we question how the other person is ignorant enough to support their nominee.

While this remains a looming problem and impediment to effective debate, the effects of this polarization are manifest in the unseeming recesses of daily life. We are quick to congratulate the bravery of a peer’s political statement when it aligns with the prevailing culture and accepted norm. I don’t mean to take away from either the necessity or the virtue in sharing political beliefs, but there is something inherently fishy and self-aggrandizing in how we put a statement in support of a popular opinion on a pedestal, but would equally scorn and ridicule the presenter of a counterculture comment.

How is a position brave if it is the intellectual equivalent of preaching to the choir? Bravery, if not also a bit of stupidity, is vocally dissenting at a Trump rally. And even as far as examples go, political candidates are a relatively safe demonstration. Start debating an unpopular opinion on the Black Lives Matter or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movements and watch the facade of liberal openness fade.

Ideas are our intellectual bedrock; you cannot dig deeper to a greater truth, and you cannot kill the ideas by disparaging those that would present them. Instead, let us discuss openly all ideas born not of malice and reserve judgment and discussion for the ideas themselves.

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