Censorship is not the way

As a free speech advocate I’m growing increasingly alarmed over the trend among many to limit speech that offends as well as the freedom of the press to report news. It is happening with increasing activity on college campuses and within much of our national dialog. While this is not unusual outside of the US, it’s becoming commonplace in the US. This essay was promoted when I heard Robert Scoble of Rackspace make an endorsement of the idea of filtering content that he disagrees with on his own Facebook feed. 

I have a great deal of respect for Scoble. He is a journalist of integrity and an important voice for innovation in technology, but for someone like him to come out and recommend technological advances that stifle free speech by creating a freedom FROM speech was disconcerting.  Article-2411817-1BA0651D000005DC-297_1024x615_large

Scoble’s recommendation came during the last week’s national discussion about whether Syrian refugees should be allowed into the US. The fact that I had not yet made up my own mind as to what should be done and rather than state an opinion, I decided to conduct a Facebook experiment to help mold my opinion while, at the same time, demonstrate how objectionable content can be used constructively. That is the point of this essay.

I began with three assumptions:

  1. I do not know everything.

  2. What I do know may be wrong.

  3. Someone else might know more than I do. 

Next, I read as many arguments and news stories as I could on both sides of the argument (they should be let in/they should not be let in) from reputable sources from places like the Washington Post, Foreign Policy magazine and The Economist (to name a few). After reading them I posted them without comment. Then I waited for comments from my friends and acquaintances.

Just about everyone had a specific side to take. It was obvious when they had read what I posted and when they had not. Just about everyone had a strong position based on their own political leanings. Conservatives angrily disagreed with opinions posted by Liberals. Liberal derisively disagreed with Conservatives. There was no middle ground and very little of it was civil to opposing sides. In some cases, I felt obliged to respond to some of the bile but I resisted. Instead, for each response, if necessary I asked for a clarification of their reasoning. This is where the conversation became more thoughtful.

Yes, there were still obvious biases in each respondent. Some went off on rants and diatribes but even in these emotional statements arose common threads, and the most common was, fear that they did not know everything about the issue; that they might be wrong; that someone might know more than they did. Xenophobia, political bias and outright bigotry played a part in all of it, but it was the fear of the unknown and what could possibly happen if their particular solution was not followed was the primary driver. 

I sat back for a day to think about all of this and I came to approach it using the three assumptions.

First was the fear of the unknown. Realizing that approaching an animal that is fearful or even wounded is a good way of getting bitten played into my reasoning. Many respondents described situations that legitimately established their fear of the refugees, while other described situations regarding close friends and relatives. Telling them that they were wimps, whiners and over-reactors (as President Obama has done) doesn’t get them to back down. It gets them to dig in their heels even more. To approach a wounded animal safely requires patience, the ability to properly assess the state of their wound and the means to affect healing.

Second, the fear of being wrong. These people tended to have lots of facts and philosophies at their fingertips. The rejection of German Jews in WWII was widely used. The poem on the Statue of Liberty, another. All of these arguments lacked one thing. Empathy for the fear expressed by the first group. Even when cooler heads addressed the arguments with reason the respondents replied back with aggression to whoever disagreed with them.  Conversely, the people who took exception to the logic snapped back at them in anger, not unlike a wounded animal, because they were afraid, deep down, that they did not know the real answer. 

Finally, the fear of being ignorant. There were some response to the pro-refugee folks that were quite convincing, but because they tended to point out the ignorance of the other in their argument, the response was angry and went in a completely different direction and away from the discussion at hand: whether to allow Syrian refugees in.

In this process I began to consider the fears, ignorance and polemics of the discussion as all valid for the individuals and then produced a single statement with my position:

“We need to accept the refugees as soon as the FBI has established a protocol for screening them. I'm more interested in making sure families are allowed entry. And I am in favor of each family being sponsored.”

This position first acknowledges the human tragedy that is Syria and that humanity demands a graceful response. It also understands the need to take every precaution to keep the nation safe while providing for the needs of the refugees and integrate them within the larger community. It establishes priorities for entry and prevents naturally occurring ghettos of Syrians that could become resentful of their isolation (as we see happening in France and Belgium). 

Instead of taking a side, I assimilated the emotional basis of each side into my position. Remarkably enough, there was not a single comment on they position, but the number of people the “like” the Facebook post spanned the spectrum of political though among my Facebook audience. So let’s bring back the issue of free speech.

If I had my feed filtered, as Scoble suggested, I would not have had the opportunity to come to a clear position, one that heard and understood each side, and came to a conclusion that was not, in fact, agreeing with anyone in particular, but satisfied the concerns of everyone in general. I could not have come to this point without all the raucous and uncivil discussion I saw on Facebook. Every position generated value. 

I do not know everything, but I have access to much knowledge and as I am often wrong, I can find correction relatively quickly. Listen to everyone, consider where they are coming from and respond in kindness. It’s not easy to do and I don’t often do it. But now that I have discovered how to do this, I no longer need that massive filter we seem to want now.