Dealing with Humanity

Does The Right To Free Speech Mean We Have To Listen?

After becoming more politically engaged on Twitter these past few months I am having a very interesting time watching the left and the right wings articulate themselves (both in the public and within me).

One of the trickiest areas seems to be the right to free speech. I find that every time I develop an opinion about it, some event pushes me to reconsider my views – as if we were living in a time of thought experiments meant to endlessly nuance our morality.

Overall, I find that this is a good thing. Being young and still naïve – the debate is forcing me to become aware of beliefs I hold that I would have otherwise left dormant in the comfort of a peaceful political world.

Podcasts seem to hold the densest intellectual conversations about these issues, and the latest one from Sam Harris is particularly interesting. He speaks with Douglas Murray (a sometimes-controversial historian who writes about the migrant crisis) on recent events and the likely course of history.

Generally, I found that it was helpful and relieving to hear these men discuss politics with emotionally intelligent rationality and a sense of wanting to do good and learn more. I especially enjoyed the reminder that much of what is going on may come from an existential crisis of not having meaning. Where once religion held our hearts happy, now we need to replace its scaffold with other forms of community. Douglas warns of the damaging effect of using politics to find meaning – echoing Sam’s disdain for all identity politics.

It is an incredible reminder to broaden my perspective of what is most important in my life from the debates about politics today to the long-term careers and relationships I have. Meditatively I can see that true meaning comes only from my honest interactions with humans in my world.

But then what is the “meaning” of politics?

When pressed about an interview with the dubious Stefan Molyneux, Douglas insisted that all conversations must be had, and that many of our problems could be solved if we widened the breadth of those we were willing to have dinner with – if only for one glass of wine.

As a rule I find this to be a simple, rational solution that I agree with – we can best expand our minds and learn about the ideas of others by having as broad a discussion as possible. I think this makes life interesting and may allow for a collection of enough data to gain better precision in the group decision making process of life.

But there are two uncertainties I have with this idea:

Is having an investigative open-door the luxury of those not emotionally invested?

I have been interested to observe that in my emotional reality, there are very few people and events that can cause me as much immediate anger as someone like Stefan Molyneux. I give him credit that even while never having interacted with him, and only having seen a handful of his videos, he is able to inspire suffering.

He was suggested to me by my older brother as an “interesting other take”, and I laughed through a video in which he thoroughly and impressively abolished a “flat earther” and defended the scientific practices that I love. I then followed him on twitter and Facebook, mentally putting him in the category of other thinkers like Sam that I was listening to.

But unlike those who may be unfairly defamed (Gad Saad for his emotionally insensitive dry humorous look on politics), Stefan very quickly showed his a**hole in a video decrying women for having made their own oppressors by choosing to have sex with the worst of humanity. “It’s your fault baby,” was a favourite phrase from this feverishly ranting man.

After watching that video, and uncovering more of his opinions about women, I spent a fair amount of time fuming about the irrationality of his claims, and the frustrating social consequences of such views. I wrote many draft blogs and seriously considering calling in to his show to debate him.

But I realized that I had extreme stress reactions whenever I began this conversation. Even imagining a debate in my head caused me physical sensations of preparing for an actual, dangerous fight (not that his opinions are that dangerous, rather I have reactively identified him as being a danger to who I think of myself as, as a woman).

I would say that even if I were in the position to debate such a man, or to innocently speak with him to see where we might agree, there would be an emotional cost to such a meeting because I am affected by his views on women.

I think it might be similar to insist that a person of colour speak with a white supremacist, or a Jew to debate a Nazi – for some this would cause real emotional and physical distress that might not be worth the outcome (since these opinions don’t seem to change often).

Are we too sensitive? Or are these damages not worth sustaining?

Can I be a protector of free speech (as I want to be) without having to listen to, and engage with those that attack me in such absurd ways that they cause stress?

Or is this an issue of my inexperience in debate?

How do I learn to speak with someone who thinks that I am inherently inferior without getting emotionally invested? Am I being an over-reactive SJW for feeling substantial hits to my self-esteem and sense of worth when debating those on twitter about the Google manifesto?

Or are these fights for those who have the luxury of not being fundamentally criticized by the views of them on the other side of the table?

Finally, how much of an idea’s popularity is created and maintained by debate?

Continuing to use Stefan as an example, I want to gain more clarity about the “guilt by association” claims. In some ways, there exists a conversational economy, in which interaction is the currency. For many, the linking of two people will either add or subtract them from a team of thought. While this is a lazy approach to journalism and education, there is not enough time to fully vet the opinions of others.

Thereby, I think we have created certain people as beacons of ideologies. Linda Sarsour may be a beacon of misinformed and harmful “feminism” (as I discuss in my interview with Sarah Haider), and Stefan seems to act as a magnet for those men with some of the worst ideological leanings out there.

Of course a podcaster is not wholly responsible for the beliefs of their audience, but they are absolutely responsible to clearly and repetitively articulate the specifics of their morals about a topic when it comes up in recorded conversation. In this way we learn (especially those like me who are so new to thinking) that you can agree and disagree with the same person on different beliefs.

The example that is set by having conversations with those with ridiculous opinions can be that ridiculous opinions are worth considering.

I am curious to know how much of this “war of ideas” can be won by negation – by ignoring those on the edge in the conversation to show that they won’t be heard unless they have interesting and mature positions?

Will this help warn young men like James Damore that society will likely react with outrage to certain voiced opinions? Will its social consequences lead to self-development?

Or does having the fame of the Google Manifesto retweeted by Joe Rogan and Sam Harris (a difficult pill for a woman in STEM like me to swallow) show that articulating topics with obviously harmful intentions are acceptable – even though it was not the ideas being supported but the right to say those ideas?

We must remember the lowest common denominator of processing in our society. Us masses are impressionable and busy, and we need responsible information delivering to make opinions clear.

How does this factor in to free speech? Is there a way that we can more clearly label a conversation as an exploration of thought and not an investment in each other’s beliefs?

I understand that the implications of my questions may sound horrendous – my own mind says that all cases of free speech should be allowed. But I also consider this internet to be like a group of friends standing in a circle at a party – do we let one of ours say something hateful about the others within the group, and then politely ask him for more? Or do we laugh and ridicule this opinion? Do we empathetically handle the insecurities behind absolutist beliefs, or does this coddling of rude young men encourage their behaviour?

This was meant to be an email to Sam or Douglas, but I am honest enough to know that it would likely go to their respective abysses of fame. May my questions be answered in some form as I continue the not-all-meaningful-but-still-interesting journey of political aging.