How many times have we heard someone defend a racist, belittling or otherwise nasty tweet or Facebook post by claiming that critics were attacking his or her “First Amendment rights”?
The First Amendment may protect that person’s right to spew vitriol against government censorship, but it also protects the speaker’s critics–including, for that matter, decisions to fire the speaker from a private-sector position. Beyond that widespread misunderstanding of just what it is that Freedom of Speech protects, however, is a lack of appreciation of the important role of civility in America’s marketplace of ideas.
I recently participated in a “civility training” for Women4Change Indiana, and dug out a brief introduction to the topic that I had delivered a couple of years ago. Given how very un-civil American discourse has become, I thought it might be timely to share.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I mounted a campaign to promote civility and a more civil discourse. Several members let me know that they were upset, because they were convinced that an emphasis on civility somehow undermined, or was evidence of less than robust support for, Free Speech.
That misunderstanding is evidently shared by the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, the creators of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic websites, and participants in proliferating Facebook confrontations and Twitter wars. They defend vitriol as “Free Speech;” and disparage and dismiss civility as “political correctness.”
They couldn’t be more wrong.
This nation’s Founders understood that all ideas, no matter how noxious, should be available for discussion.They didn’t protect speech because they underestimated the danger bad ideas could pose; they knew how powerful –and dangerous–words and ideas could be. They protected free expression because they understood that giving government the authority to decide which ideas are acceptable—to decide what sort of speech should be permitted– was far more dangerous.
But that’s where civility comes in. If free speech is to achieve its purpose—if it is meant to facilitate a process in which citizens consider and vet all ideas, consider all perspectives—we need to listen to each other. Insults, labeling, dismissing, racial “dog whistles”—all those hallmarks of incivility—make it impossible to have the kinds of genuine conversations and productive disagreements that the First Amendment is intended to foster.
Screaming invective across political or religious divides actually undermines the purpose of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions. Is such speech protected? Absolutely. Is it useful? Absolutely not.
There are multiple reasons for the recent rise in incivility, but the anonymity and distance afforded by the internet and social media is clearly an important contributor. As many of you know, I have a daily blog, and I’ve found it necessary to impose standards of conduct for commenters. Civil disagreements are encouraged; ad hominem attacks, personal nastiness and unrepentant bigotry are not welcome and will not be tolerated– not just because they are unpleasant and hurtful, but because people engaging in those behaviors derail the substantive and instructive disagreements that people with different perspectives need to explore if we are going to live and work together.
Responding to a Facebook argument or Twitter blast with an insult may make you feel better, but it doesn’t advance the conversation, and it certainly doesn’t count as participation in the marketplace of ideas.