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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: dialogue

The crucible of open dialogue and the echo chamber of fear

Stephen H. Provost

There’s a school of thought that’s gaining currency. It states that people don’t have a right to an opinion about things that don’t directly affect them.

The argument usually goes something like this: “You can’t possibly know what it’s like to deal with this, because you’ve never gone through it, and you never will. You’re not one of us, so you don’t get a say!”

This is dangerous for more reasons than one.

First, it sets up an adversarial mentality between two “sides” before anyone even gets a chance to express their ideas. It perpetuates the “us vs. them” attitude that has become so pervasive in today’s culture.

Second, it makes identity more important than the substance of what might be said. It assumes that a particular group is unqualified to weigh in, not because of what they might say, but because of who they are. If any member of the “out” group dares to speak, he or she had better parrot the party line – thereby adding nothing to the conversation – or risk public censure/alienation.

When identity is codified into law as the basis for inclusion, things get ugly. People aren’t allowed to vote because of their gender or skin color. This is both bigoted and undemocratic.

Third, depriving a segment – any segment – of the population of a voice makes dialogue impossible and casts the status quo in stone. Conforming to a status quo without question makes growth impossible, because it shuts down the marketplace of ideas. Only through dialogue can we bounce ideas off one another and find better solutions than any of us might have arrived at on our own.

Shutting people down makes greater understanding impossible, too. But when any group that shuts out people who “aren’t like us” isn’t interested in understanding other points of view. Members of such a group think they know everything already, and that other perspectives hold no value moving forward.

Free speech

Finally, it violates the spirit of free speech.

In the Skokie case, courts ruled that neo-Nazis were allowed to march through a heavily Jewish community that included a number of Holocaust survivors on the grounds that freedom of speech trumped their feelings. They were, essentially, trying to create a “safe space” for themselves. I, personally, disagree with the court on this. I think speech and events designed to provoke an incendiary response add no value to the public discourse.

But the point is, the court thought so highly of free speech it allowed an event most considered repugnant to go forward.

Now, before someone decides to lecture me about the First Amendment applying to governmental limits on free speech, rest assured, I get that. Shutting people down based on their identity doesn’t violate the letter of that amendment, but it sure as hell undermines the spirit of it. That spirit is founded on the notion that we’re all better off when we feel free to share openly – and when we make the effort to listen. Even – and perhaps especially – when what the other person’s saying might challenge our prejudices.

Most places aren’t Skokie, and most people aren’t neo-Nazis. This essay isn’t about such extremists, or anyone whose views are so clearly worthy of disdain. It’s about ordinary, rational people who are being told to STFU because they belong to a specific group – regardless of what they might say. Not a group like the KKK, but much larger groups, many of which aren’t joined electively and hold no abhorrent or even unified views. Not all (fill in the blank) are alike!

Imagine if someone said sports fans had no right to an opinion on free agency because it only directly affects players and owners. Or if people without children were told they had no right to speak their mind about the condition of our schools. Many people are affected by actions indirectly, and many of those people have ideas about those actions. Do they have as much insight as those with direct experience? Perhaps not. But those outside a situation can bring valuable perspectives that, in some cases, offer ideas based on a more detached view. Pre-emptively dismissing such ideas because of their source rather than their merits is short-sighted and foolish.

The crucible

Conclusions and prejudices may turn out to be well founded, but they still need to be challenged. And those challenges need to come from people with different perspectives. Otherwise, how will we know for sure whether they’re valid? We might still believe in a flat Earth, a geocentric model of astronomy, that dinosaurs lived alongside humans and that masturbation leads to blindness. Forming a hypothesis and conducting an experiment are crucial to the scientific method. But how can you form a reasoned hypothesis if you’ve never considered alternatives? And why bother to experiment if you already (think you) know the answer?

When you shut out people you worry might have opposing views based on nothing more than the messenger’s identity and the fear of being offended, you set the table for the kind of insular thinking that spawned Jonestown. An extreme example? Sure. But the principle is the same. And if the principle operates unchallenged for long enough, that’s the kind of thing that ends up happening. The frog will boil.

So, the next time you tell someone they don’t have the right to an opinion because they’re not like you, ask yourself whom you’re hurting. They won’t be the only losers, because it’s not a zero-sum game. Your conclusions might be right. Them might be wrong. Or, just maybe, greater truth and understanding might arise from the crucible of open dialogue.

Without such a crucible, nothing new and beautiful will ever be fashioned. Increasingly, out of fear, we’ve chosen to replace this crucible with an echo chamber.

There are no “safe spaces” when it comes right down to it. The world is a brutal and dangerous place, which is precisely why we need to stop alienating one another. We may not achieve safety, but we can find hope for a better world – not by ostracizing and dismissing others before they even open their mouths; only by engaging.

Like it or not, we’re all in this together.