Is Free Speech Enhanced by Civility?

A Wall Street Journal article caught my attention earlier this week. The article, “The Rebirth of Civility?” suggests that a ‘Bloggers Code of Conduct’ is an appropriate move for the time.

Two leading citizens of the Web, Tim O’Reilly and Jimmy Wales, have proposed a ‘Bloggers Code of Conduct.’ The reason for this code is the phenomenon of people posting extremely nasty verbal comments about other people on Web sites devoted to political and social commentary.

The article goes on to say that free speech and democracy on the web is being used to intimidate others into silence. Consider the Congressional Black Caucus’ attempt to hold one of its Democratic presidential primary debates on Fox News. Opponents of the news channel virulently opposed the plan and scared the three major Democratic presidential candidates off.

The strategy of deploying charged and hyper-aggressive language is now evident: First intimidate one’s targets, then coerce them–into conformity or silence.

I have three points:

First of all, vulgarity and hyperbole discredit the writer. Just as racial slurs and references to Nazism and the KKK cut both ways, discrediting the speaker and the intended recipient, extreme virulence suggests to readers that the writer is off balance and so swayed by emotion as to not be able to comprehend the other side, and thus be untrustworthy. The primary audience of these writers tend to be similarly off balance and not care about understanding the other side.

Secondly, hyperbole does not separate the idea from the person conveying the idea. Rather, they are one and the same. Therefore, when these people “hate” an idea, they also hate the person holding the idea. This tendency is counter to foundational principals of Christianity which teach that people are endowed by their Creator with inestimable worth and must be treated as such regardless of their beliefs or choices.

The article also mentions: “In the House of Representatives, Members by tradition address each other as the ‘gentleman’ or ‘gentlewoman.’ These salutations often drip with irony but exist nonetheless to temper the bitterness beneath much political combat.” While separating the person from the idea may not be the primary purpose of the customs, they enforce civility and the deterioration of debate into anarchy.

Finally, the article begs the question whether, regarding censorship, there is a distinction between controlling how an idea is conveyed versus controlling the idea itself. In the realm of law, there is a difference between private forums (censorship is allowed), semi-public forums (schools, government buildings, government email systems, etc., where the public is not freely allowed a person may be limited in what they say or do.) and public forums (sidewalks, etc., where most anything is allowed provided it is not obscene, criminal, etc.). Controlling how and when ideas are conveyed is legal, though still censorship.

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