With Elon Musk’s recent takeover of Twitter, and the violent pro-abortion protests following the leaked draft of SCOTUS’s opinion on Roe, discussions of free speech have flared hotly yet again. Meanwhile, the candidates for Alabama leadership have passed up their opportunity to speak freely to one another and their constituents in open debate.
Why is it so hard to exercise the right to free speech well? In our increasingly divisive political climate, I hear more and more people stress the importance of listening to the diverse opinions of others with respect. Yet we seem incapable or unwilling to do so. We must relearn how to discuss opposing ideas, for a house divided does not stand. Contrary to popular belief, differing beliefs themselves do not necessarily divide but how we propose them; and we have a responsibility to exercise our right to free speech in a way that builds up our country.
I realize – arrogantly - I’ve thought that Conservatives discuss or debate differing opinions better than Liberals. We’ve heard the stereotypes that Liberals base decisions on emotion, while Conservatives prefer reasoning, history and commitment to documents. Since we champion the right to free speech and dialogue also for those who disagree with and hate us, it's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we must be better at using this right as it was intended.
Personally, I’ve seen this to be the case sometimes. In my conservative Christian middle and high school, I learned Lincoln-Douglas and policy debate and, to a lesser extent, mock trial. Learning formal and informal logic and arguing apologetics, government and school policy with my sharp peers was the height of my intellectual development.
Conversely, at my extremely liberal college, the height of “dialogue” was the “protest tree,” an old fat tree that sat at a sidewalk intersection between classroom buildings where the bulk of the student body passed each day. Students would write anonymous “subversive” messages on colorful paper and plaster it to the tree. If a disagreeable message appeared, students would cover it with contrasting and increasingly heated scrawled messages or even scratch out the disliked words with marker or scissors.
These students refused to internalize the concept of an ad hominem or straw man fallacy regardless of how many times their methods were questioned. So, in this situation, I perhaps rightly, though still proudly, assumed that Conservatives exchange and debate ideas far better than Liberals.
Yet one of my dearest friends recently challenged me, saying, “You say you love debate yet you only ever complain about bad experiences.”
This gave me pause. Working in news and politics, meeting more thinkers and politicians than ever before, I could not remember the last time I last debated with an informed, respectful and eager opponent or even watched others engage in such a way. Political “debates” seem ridiculously dumbed down, with candidates merely taking turns to offer mini speeches or else childishly ripping into one another with petty insults.
Even in my personal life, all my recent intellectual “debates” have been dominated by careful consideration of my conversation partner’s emotional responses. I spend more time worrying how to affirm and soothe an individual, and to hear the pain or excitement in their voice to assess their level of personal investment in a topic, than I ever do challenging the moral or logical implications of an idea - with the gleeful expectation that my companion will do the same to me, as a sign of utmost respect.
How could I not complain about such pathetic substitutes for the true vigor of intellectual debate when the greatest common thread among such conversations is fear and self-consciousness?
No one knows how to take full advantage of our right to free speech in a way that builds up rather than tears down, including myself. Citizens are rarely taught rhetoric or logic anymore, and even if we are, it is difficult to translate such practices from formal settings into a format others will accept in everyday life. Additionally, Americans have lost much of the common sense and value for good character which drove us to use our words responsibly and kindly. Just as we’ve lost the practices of sitting quietly rather than only rushing around busily, listening more than speaking, and keeping our promises and commitments regardless of changes in the last hour, so too Americans have lost the ability to speak to one another of the deepest thoughts of our hearts in an edifying and challenging way.
In the past, I’ve concluded that schools need to teach logic and debate, Liberals need to chill out, and Conservatives can stand to try on empathy more often. But that seems naïve to me now. You can’t prescribe a treatment to someone who doesn’t think they’re sick. Do our Senate candidates even think there’s a problem with the fact that they’re likely incapable of genuine debate? Does anyone really want to stop trolling the other side on social media to vent their anger? Before we can improve our ability to dialogue and debate, we need to both internalize the fact that doing so wisely is imperative and acknowledge that we’ve truly lost the skill.
Perhaps it is just as irresponsible to exercise our right to free speech in an untrained, self-centered and divisive way as it is to carry arms improperly, without ever learning gun safety.
Caylah Coffeen is the host of Prayers For Life Radio in Huntsville, and a millennial who speaks up for truth and a future as bright as the stars. Her column appears every Friday in 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.