Debate and free speech ("the marketplace of ideas") were once considered the height of human thought. Philosophers have argued that debate is responsible for the evolution and improvement of human thought.
However, the internet has fundamentally changed the way that human beings typically interact with each other - and that means that the rules don't really apply in the same way.
If we're going to learn how to get along as a human race, it's likely that we're going to need to learn how to better interact with the internet, and with each other - and that debates may not any longer be the most productive way to do that.
When I first started taking philosophy classes in undergrad, I was exposed to work like John Stuart Mill’s books on utilitarianism in my 101 classes. In On Liberty, Mill argues for the value of debates and argumentation as productive of better patterns of thought. In debate, two people can engage their respective opinions in a kind of battle where the most well-thought-out one wins, and this leads to the betterment of ideas in a general sense over time. Bad ideas lose and die out, and good ideas prevail and move on.
Mill also believed strongly in the freedom of speech: that anyone should have the right to believe what they want. He believes that even wrong opinions can have a certain value: by serving as fodder for debate, they allow the better thinker to sharpen their skills and improve. In this way, even bad opinions, Mill believes, contribute to the eventual evolution of human thought and the betterment of the human race. He defends freedom of speech as a way of keeping that process moving: if we don’t have bad opinions, then the good opinions have nothing to debate against.
Likewise, Hegel believed in a process we call Hegelian dialectic, in which ideas follow a simple pattern of debate. An idea comes to be - this is called the thesis, or primary thought. The thesis is the dominant mode of thought at the time, the commonly accepted belief. But this gives rise to antithesis, an opposite and opposing style of thought which conflicts with it. The two of them are “cancelled out” in a process called “aufheben” (sublation) - the two debate, and what emerges is a new, third idea which shares the best aspects of the original two ideas (synthesis). This third idea then becomes the new thesis, and the process continues indefinitely.
In philosophical thought and in modern intellectual circles, it’s common to believe in the value of debate and free speech - something we heard called “the marketplace of ideas”. Without these two, it’s clear that fascism and thought policing arise. It would be hard to argue that debate is entirely useless, or that it serves no practical purpose. Clearly, the ability to disagree in the right way is valuable.
However, I want to push back on the idea that debate is the only or best way that people’s opinions improve over time.
Karl Popper laid out the concept of the paradox of tolerance in 1945. This paradox states that, if tolerance is expanded without limit, this eventually comes to include those people who are intolerant of the tolerant and of this process - and this leads to the breakdown of that society. Thus we must be “intolerant of intolerance”.
This makes sense, when we think about it practically.
Laws and rules exist in society to create a clear line between what is and isn’t acceptable. Those outside those lines are punished, and those within them are allowed to flourish normally. The enforcement of law amounts to the process of being intolerant to the intolerant - rejecting them from the benefits of that society because of the role that they had in removing the benefits of that society from others. If there are no enforced laws (if tolerance is allowed to continue indefinitely) then society will fall apart when criminals and anarchism overtake the tolerant. Now, this isn’t to say that the law is perfect or just in its application, and in many cases it is actually exceptionally intolerant in the name of tolerance - unchecked violence and indifference towards immigrants, for example.
The end result is that it becomes clear that certain kinds of free speech - the kinds which directly question and contradict the values of the system - cannot be meaningfully tolerated. Maybe the government may not directly seek out and criminalize people who hold this kind of free speech, but they have to at a minimum outlaw its expression.
The problem is how to define this, because we’re already straying into dangerous territory. If the state indiscriminately polices the speech of its citizens, then it is clearly a fascist one. The United States, for example, maintains freedom of speech in a general sense and affirms that the state is not allowed to interfere in normal free speech activities, but also maintains kinds of “hate speech” which undermine the process of law and the safety of its citizens, and thus can’t be tolerated in public spaces or in official state communication.
Worse, when there are laws against a particular kind of speech in place, this can simply cause the speech to rebound in a new way. If you are told that you are not allowed to publicly hold pro-Nazi beliefs, this may discourage neo-Nazis from forming. But at the same time, those who do hold those beliefs more closely will find ways around those rules - specific code words, unique patterns of speech that say to another within their club that “yes, I believe the same thing that you believe, even if we cannot talk about this thing openly.” In this way, they can continue to communicate and spread their beliefs to "those in the know" without being easily identified for what they really are.
The internet has made this kind of thing commonplace. The bigoted and intolerant now have even more masks to hide behind while claiming the appearance of civility. They use memes and internet personas to share their beliefs while always being able to provide a veneer of respectability and deniability - “I was just joking, lighten up”, “that wasn’t me”, etc.
Debate as a system only functions so long as everyone involved is sort of “following the same rules”. If two people meet and agree to an exchange of ideas, we can expect a certain degree of civility and good faith on both sides - both will meaningfully engage with the points brought up by the other without resorting to numerous logical fallacies and ad hominem attacks. Without this agreed level of civility, productive discussion can't develop, and nothing will really be discussed or resolved.
Unfortunately, the kind of “debate” that happens on the internet is often… not that, in the slightest. Due to the abbreviated and fragmented nature of the text or tweet format, a person may not be able to fully express themselves quickly and effectively the way they would want to over speech. Very often, the people you find yourself in arguments with are not close friends, or arguing in good faith, or even anyone that you meaningfully want to debate with - more likely, they’re random people who found something you wrote online and reacted to it. Without the presence of a physical person to debate with, chances are that both people in the debate will subtly dehumanize the other person mentally, not engaging them fully. Some people start arguments just to vanish when things start to turn against them. Online mobs can flood a single person with many more responses than they can meaningfully reply to, creating a gish gallop by proxy. It can be hard to immediately understand a person’s messages without the context of seeing their emotions or understanding whether or not a message was sarcastic, increasing the risk of misunderstanding. Bots and other insincere actors can muddy the water and escalate the level of discourse. Every random person feels like they have a right to be heard, which is wild considering how absolutely no one would stop a random person on the street and demand that they listen to your rants about feminism or whatever.
These kinds of behaviors are unique to online debates in a way that doesn't happen otherwise - and while some people learn how these behaviors work due to experience using these social networks, many people are still very in the dark about how these tactics work.
In short, arguing online is typically less productive than arguing in person, because no one is really on the same page. In this case it’s not about the “free market of ideas” so much as it’s just a constantly shifting quicksand of anger, shouting matches, and half-formed arguments. With this kind of debate, things just get worse - we tend to become more convinced of our own beliefs and less likely to accept thoughtful and well-meaning criticisms like the kind we might see in a traditional discussion in a classroom or with friends. We're seeing the recurrence of the power of intolerant and flawed belief systems that, just twenty years ago, we never would have let get this bad - not, of course, that we had fully overcome them in the first place.
The kind of debates that we get into on the internet are more like a shouting match inside a mob - everyone can hear everyone else and is constantly breaking off their conversation to attack someone else who said something that they dislike. Some people are running away. Others just want to fan the flames. At no point is anything accomplished.
I think it is most importantly safe to say that Mill and Hegel could not, in any way, have predicted the rise of the internet or the ways in which it would impact our lives. This is important, because most people are still stuck thinking about debate and free speech the way that these philosophers did.
Now, an increasing amount of our time is spent on the internet, where we’re getting more and more of our information and interaction. While people can carefully cultivate online groups of friends where they can have proper discussions, this is the exception rather than the norm. The overall level of debate has decreased. Fascist tendencies within governments are on the rise and general intolerance and bigotry is increasing.
If we are going to survive as a human race, we need to get better at understanding the way that online interactions occur. Maybe this is something that will never come to the older generation, who are slower to adopt and understand technology. Maybe it’s something that will come much easier to the next generation, who have never known a time without the internet.
The recent Cambridge Analytica data breach, the evidence of Russian interference in American politics via social networks, and the subsequent hearings in which Mark Zuckerberg defended himself to a confused congress for the way that Facebook data was misused - these are all signs that it is clear that as a society, we don’t yet fully understand the real power of the internet and social media to shape the way that people think and act. Meanwhile, Facebook ads are being used to fuel political unrest in developing countries, such as an instance in which political memes inflamed tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in Sri Lanka. This is not just "stuff happening online", and it has real power to motivate and inspire people to action in the outside world.
The internet was originally a libertarian paradise of deregulation - free speech, anyone can do anything. I think that this will likely need to change significantly if we are going to overcome our differences. The lack of internet regulation is what allowed this intolerance to develop. In some ways, efforts are being made to make the internet less lawless and more transparent - such as the recent GDPR regulations in Europe.
Debate may be a virtue, but it’s clear that we cannot rely on it in the same way we once did.
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