Free Speech – How To Make it Worthwhile

Free speech is vital to democracy but most of us dread actually doing it.  Here are some tips to make it worth your time.

discussion-pexels-photo-57825-2Democracy is all about using dialog, debate and votes to change things instead of coups and civil wars.  Before an election, it’s the only way to try to persuade other people to vote for our favorite leaders or policies – especially in party primaries — other than violence.  After an election, it’s the only way to persuade your elected officials to make laws you can live with.  More generally, free speech is a great way for people and businesses to share ideas and get useful feed-back.  That’s one of the reasons democracies generally have better life-styles than dictatorships or oligarchies.

Those are wonderful and lofty-minded words, but the truth is that most of us hate getting into political discussions with people who might disagree with us.[1]  Lately it seems that even our elected congressmen and senators prefer to grandstand rather than truly engage with each other.  So, if we are going to do it at all, we need a way that doesn’t leave us frustrated, a way that isn’t a waste of our time.[2]  Here are a few ideas that really work.

  • Try to meet in person, and with several people at once. There are big advantages.  You will talk more efficiently, you will have better opportunities to learn about each other, and people will tend to be more respectful (no internet trolls!).
  • Check your attitude.
    • You are not going into a you versus them situation. You and them are both part of the same country that you both seek to make a better place.  You may have different ideas about how to do that, but you have the same goal. (See also “Connectedness.”)
    • You are never in a permanent winner takes all, zero-sum situation. Democracies always offer new opportunities to make changes, in new elections and in various places around the country. If you or your side loses today, you can try again tomorrow.
  • Speak as you would have others speak to you.
    • Try to catch people when they are willing to hear you. Yelling on a street corner with a sign isn’t going to work. Same for Facebook and the like.  It’s better to go to a meeting or a social media forum, organized specifically for people to hear and discuss various arguments for/against something. Sharing a meal is a great way to do this. Check out The Village Square for an example.
    • Start out by noting your opponent’s good intentions – after all he/she is there listening to you when they could be doing something else, and they want to make life better, the same as you.
    • Try to get your idea across clearly and in just a few sentences so people don’t nod off or check their smartphone. Consider practicing ahead of time.
    • Make your point, be assertive. Do NOT be aggressive, it could earn you a punch in the face. Do not be passive either, you won’t be heard.
    • Talk only about what YOU want and why.
    • You hate being labeled or put in a box so don’t do it to them either.
    • Do not rush to judge your opponent’s character or ideas.
  • Listen to others as you would have them listen to you.
    • Do NOT be thinking about how to argue back as you are listening. Do not focus on how hurt you are by something. You can come back to these later, after you are able to show you understand what they are trying to say.
    • Ask for explanations when you don’t understand what they are trying to say.
    • Consider carefully if what they want is truly against what you want. Many times, it’s possible to find a way for both of you to be happy, either by collaborating or by compromising.
    • Consider the possibility that you could both be right, just from different angles. A wedge of cheese can look like a triangle from one side and a rectangle from another side.
  • Try thinking “outside the box.” Sometimes a problem might be less about “them” and more about the system.  Here’s just one example:
    • In many states, the dominant party will have selected its voters instead of you getting to select your representatives. This happens through gerrymandering. It makes your representative feel very safe, with little need to pay attention to your concerns – except during the state primary when someone could challenge them. You might want to support organizations seeking to end gerrymandering and/or participate in the next primary election.

There’s much more to be said.  Future blogs might talk about how to get legislators and bureaucrats to listen to you, should money be construed as speech, the pro’s and con’s of non-violent protests, your right to freely assemble, the 2016 Consumer Review Freedom Act, strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), the role of the media, how to deal with internet trolls, and whether it is productive for universities to restrict speech in any way.

Photo credit: Pexel/Shutterstock

[1] According to one survey of US citizens from early 2016, 76 percent say rude behavior makes it difficult to discuss controversial issues; and 64 percent say they have stopped paying attention to political conversations and debates.  Nearly all Americans, 95 percent, say civility is a problem, with three-quarters (74 percent) saying civility has declined in the past few years and two-thirds (67 percent) saying it is a major problem today.  Source:  Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, 2016, Civility in America, 2016.

[2] You won’t find much guidance about how to exercise free speech productively on the internet.  You can find a LOT about what free speech is, and what is or is not allowed under the US Constitution.  You can find all sorts of things about why it’s important or why it’s dangerous or how it is under attack.  You can find lots of university speech codes of various kinds.

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