Trolls under the bridge: tribalism and freedom of speech

Trolls under the bridge: tribalism and freedom of speech

Aidan Patrick questions how we might have more productive conversations about free speech.

‘You can’t say anything these days,’ he said, ‘It’s political correctness gone mad!’

Some of you rolled your eyes, and some of you nodded. Political correctness is the issue in vogue – and you’re told you have to take a side. Pi Media is no stranger to this battle, as regular readers will remember from the ‘Bolsanaro affair’. For its detractors, it’s about freedom of speech. For its supporters, it’s about freedom from oppression. That’s a problem though. There is no general rule we can apply to this concept. It’s a debate about language, sure, but ultimately, it’s a debate about people and what they should and shouldn’t say to one another. And like people, it’s messy, it’s complicated, and no two cases are the same. A debate over no-platforming a certain speaker is, categorically, not a debate about no-platforming every speaker. It’s about that speaker, and why they should or shouldn’t be invited. The debate isn’t about specific instances, but the conditions around them. So how and where should we have these debates?

Let’s cut away the extremes. It is nonsense to suggest that there should be no restrictions on free speech. Sometimes you should be silenced. You should rightly be prosecuted for shouting “fire” in a crowded cinema. Incitement to violence is morally abhorrent and those who preach it ought to suffer the consequences. Furthermore, libel law protects you from slanderous material in print. On the other side, free speech should exist even if you dislike the outcomes. You shouldn’t be banned from discussing something merely because somebody else finds it unpleasant. Censorship carries with it a high moral burden, a burden that is rarely met by one person or a group alone.The discussion takes place between these two poles, in a reasonable ‘middle ground’ of what can be discussed.

I stress “reasonable”. Too often, malicious intent is ascribed to speakers. For the most part, people have good intentions and reason well. It is better to assume that they are good and sometimes be proven wrong, than to assume that they are bad and sometimes be proven right. A person arguing for safe spaces usually doesn’t believe that everything that is offensive should be banned. A person arguing against a no-platform policy for a particular speaker usually isn’t trying to erase people’s identities. It is easy to accuse somebody you disagree with of extreme things, but it helps nobody. Equally, accusing the other side of being stupid is easy, but still wrong. Most of the people you will encounter in your social circle are as smart as you, if not smarter. Robust, reasonable debate only happens with mutual respect.

Without this crucial axiom, the discussion is meaningless. If you are convinced the other side comes from a place of malice or stupidity, you’re never going to change your mind – it’s already been made up.What’s the point in engaging in a discussion when you’ve decided the other side is wrong before the conversation even starts? This is the problem with people like Steven Crowder, a YouTube celebrity who ‘debates’ with students on campus. His channel is chock-full of videos in which he relentlessly mocks people with different opinions to him. His brand is built on a refusal to accept the other side. We all deserve to be listened to, and when we aren’t, it just drives us further apart. Many who voted Leave felt – with good justification – that their Remain counterparts didn’t listen to them, and that they were simply considered too stupid to make the ‘right’ decision.

When I say “reasonable”, I don’t mean to say that these arguments should be devoid of emotion. Human emotion is a vital part of the human experience, and what we say to each other is a vital part of how we experience life. Despite what some people say, there is no coherent distinction between ‘emotional arguments’ and ‘logical arguments’. We make decisions every day on the basis of what will make us feel better. As a society, we make policies on the basis of making people feel happier. The reason that economic growth is good is not because our money will be worth more, it’s because we can live better lives with the money we have. When considering what we should and shouldn’t say to each other, our emotional response is central. It’s logically valid to accommodate your feelings, and the feelings of others. In a debate, no reason is unimportant, it’s just that some reasons are more important.

So where can we have these debates? Freedom to speak your mind exists in some spaces, but not all spaces. This is a very good thing. It would be absurd to allow a whiskey salesman into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. That space exists so people can share their experiences with other recovering alcoholics, and not to become worse ones. We all deserve a space to share our experiences with like- minded people without fear of ridicule, or invasion by groups who don’t have our best interests at heart. As a corollary, some spaces are ill-suited to some speech. For example, it is also wrong to host a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in a Ladbrokes, because that space is not for those people. Sometimes you should hold your tongue, not because of what you’re saying, but because of where you’re saying it. Equally, if there should exist spaces where people can share their ideas without ridicule, there should exist spaces where ideas can be measured up against others.There should be a forum where ideas are assessed on their merit, and voices (so long as they are well-intentioned) should be heard. I sometimes hear it said that there are no such spaces at UCL. This is wrong. UCL has a wealth of societies dedicated to debate and discussion. You’re reading an article from one.

Politics bends towards tribalism, and the debate around free speech is just another example of that. It is the duty of each of us to take this seriously, and approach it in a robust and fair way. We ought to try and bridge the gaps between us, rather than stay locked in our own bubbles. While there are always trolls Tweeting from underneath the bridge we intend to build, they should be ignored. All serious sides of this debate acknowledge that speech has power. If it didn’t, the issue would be trivial – if nothing anyone says matters, why should we care whether they say it at all? Freedom of speech isn’t a triviality, and both sides know that. So don’t feed the trolls, build bridges over them.

This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.

Illustration by Hannah Bruton