Listen Carefully

Written by Stephen Rainey, and Jason Walsh

Rhetoric about free speech as under attack is an enduring point of discussion across the media. It appears on the political agenda, in various degrees of concreteness and abstraction. By some definitions, free speech amounts to an unrestrained liberty to say whatever one pleases. On others, it’s carefully framed to exclude types of speech centrally intended to cause harm.

At the same time, more than ever the physical environment is a focus of both public and political attention. Following the BBC’s ‘Blue Planet Two’ documentary series, for instance, a huge impetus gathered around the risk of micro-plastics to our water supply, and, indeed, how plastics in general damage the environment. As with many such issues people have been happy to act. Following, belatedly, Ireland’s example, plastic bag use has plummeted in the UK, helped along by the introduction of a tax.

There are always those few who just don’t care but, when it comes to our shared natural spaces, we’re generally pretty good at reacting. Be it taxing plastic bags, switching to paper straws, or supporting pedestrianisation of polluted areas, there is the chance for open conversations about the spaces we must share. Environmental awareness and anti-pollution attitudes are as close to shared politics as we might get, at least in terms of what’s at stake. Can the same be said for the informational environment that we share?

Since the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and amid apparent continuing erosion of public discourse in general, there has been a lot of talk about so-called ‘fake news’. While some of this is nothing more than the grumblings of bad losers – or in Trump’s case a bad winner –  there is some truth to the complaint: given that in the online age we are faced with an endless stream of information there is plenty of scope for imbibing nonsense uncritically presented as truth.

In the not so distant past newspapers were the mainstays of public discourse, and while there has always been bias the careful reader could still make informed judgements. Now? It’s hard to say. An editorial slant is one thing but clickbait free-for-alls or comforting lies are another altogether. Today it’s all too easy to find oneself in a bubble of satisfying sources, perhaps without even trying. When we do try, too, it is often a failed attempt to calm the oceans of noise and aggravation that we have suddenly found ourselves sailing on.

Mute a few keywords, unfriend that guy who keeps on ranting about… something or other, and before too long our newly placid online world is also a dripfeed of what we want to hear. Homebrew soma, if you like. A recipe for incuriosity.

It might seem that the flip-side to this, the cure even, would be to accept that tough things must be heard. The truth is not always easy to digest after all, so ought we not to think hard about muting, unfriending, and the rest? Perhaps.

It’s often worth testing our views against others that differ from them. There is at least something epistemically worthwhile in this – if I’m wrong about some fact or another, it’s a good idea to find that out. There’s maybe also an ethical dimension about community worth exploring. We are all of us in a shared world of influences, drives, values, and so on. Being open to hearing another’s view might be a good way to help contextualise that predicament. A bit of solidarity can’t hurt, right?

But we might be taking on too much with this approach. For one thing, it isn’t clear how one can filter out bad faith on the part of others when we have a practised disposition to listen to pretty much anyone. We have to figure out not only the value of what’s being said, but assess whether it’s being said as some genuine sharing of a view, or more as an instrument meant to sway or manipulate. That’s a lot of energy, and time, to put into things. The political realm might serve as a good example of what happens when discourse is routinely instrumentalised to sway rather than inform or enlighten. Faith in that realm is low.

Even if freedom of speech is paramount, in a context of endless information bombardment, much of it is analysis rather than fact. In this morass, can we also divine a liberty to filter? The answer might just be that while we should keep sacroscant the right to freedom of speech we should also realise that there is no concomitant duty to listen. It’s an elegant answer, but not one without problems. How can we avoid filter bubbles? And how can we remain open and continue to see ourselves as fallible if we don’t engage?

If we go too far, we demand expertise before we will listen to a point of view on some matter, we might lose a lot. What’s more, we may have made new problems: spotting experts, and shutting out perhaps novel perspectives. A 2010 paper titled ‘When Corrections Fail’ claimed that, in the face of evidence against deeply held views, people tend to harden in their position rather than resolve to change their mind. The so-called ‘backfire effect’, perhaps a species of confirmation bias, is more recently questioned, but it seems clear that open minds are rarer than many appear to think. That might make the spotting of experts tricky. Moreover, ‘expertise’ is a pretty loose notion that owes a fair bit to power in many instances. Power can amplify one message, while withering another, regardless of content.

Power ought not to be required to galvanise something worth hearing. We are supposed to admire those who ‘speak truth to power’, like paragons of a Socratic search for knowledge. But just as power ought not to amplify a worthless message, neither should the lack of it. If we are too precious about who we allow into the set we’ll hear, we risk shutting out the right stuff from the powerful, and the incisiveness of outsider views.

The crux is: what, speaking morally rather than legally, entitles us to free speech? The legal limits of speech are worth debating, but neither legal limits nor legal protection speak of value. Ought we not to care more about the reasons that makes something worth saying at all: the reasoning itself, evidence of thought, reflection about what is uttered. Perhaps when these are absent, obscure, or dubious, we ought to filter. When they are present we ought to give them consideration even – or especially – when what is said seems wrong in some way to us. We can still filter out the ranters, but stay open to potentially difficult points of view.

In respecting the right to freedom of speech we ought to remember that our duties to listen are not absolute. We ought to be as fastidious with our infosphere as we tend to be with the natural environment. The way to begin rooting out the rubbish is to look to the reasons, the thought, and the reflection apparent in whatever is presented to us. These are what makes something worth listening to more than a bald statement of a position. Whether for good or for ill, these are what make something worth arguing against, or changing our minds over.

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One Response to Listen Carefully

  • Simon Leigh says:

    Free speech means being able to criticize the government without being arrested. It never means that rudeness and lies are acceptable in a civilised society, like America believes it is.

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