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Free speech and the “echo chamber”


The internet was supposed to be a great force for democratising ideas and information. With blogs, social media and youtube, it has never been easier for anyone to present their views to the world and for individuals to consume a wider range of diverse opinions and ideas than ever before.

Curiously, instead of exploring far and wide, people have become more cocooned in the views they solicit and endorse. Social media forums, like facebook and youtube, are like echo-chambers where views are only volunteered when those who expound them can be certain of approbation by their peer group. People seem to have clustered around common ideas and try to deride and shut down discourse which does not fit within their pre-approved thought cluster.

In a way this development isn’t so new – in the United Kingdom, the Guardian has pursued a liberal leftist editorial line while the Telegraph has held a conservative political disposition. Indeed the philosophical origins of political divergence between the “left” and the “right” are deep.

A plurality of competing ideas and ideologies is healthy and essential for a vibrant liberal democracy but sadly people seem more cocooned than ever.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, wrote last year about a trend of “partyism” emerging in the United States.

While the coming together of individuals around a shared vision has probably happened since modern democratic states began, the inability to consider or understand alternative points of view seriously weakens critical thinking skills.

Being a student of politics, I have frequently engaged (and continue to engage) with people holding a plurality of diverse viewpoints.

It has disturbed me over the last year or so to hear people in my age bracket from the “left” and the “right” respectively say they wouldn’t want to live in a flat with someone from the alternate ideological persuasion.

The refusal to engage with others holding different viewpoints suggests an incredibly arrogant moral certitude which is incongruous with civil discourse and humility which I personally believe are the paramount political virtues.

The desire not to vehemently express disapproval with speech presenting a competing argument but to actively try to prohibit speech is not only an affront to the liberal ideals western democracies were built on it suggests a weakness in argument.

The pervasive “no platforming”, on the rise on university campuses (historically bastions of free speech) in the United States and the United Kingdom, raised its ugly head in this country recently with the efforts of academics at Victoria University to bar Israeli soldiers from speaking at the campus*.

If those who try to ban speech were truly confident in their position they surely would not have to resort to curbing speech but instead present a cogent argument correcting the fallacies of their opponent.

Free speech of course is like motherhood and apple pie, few people in modern western liberal democracies actually say they are opposed to freedom of speech but many try to qualify their support for the essential principle of the liberal society.

The outspoken advocate (and near iconoclast in today’s political climate) for free speech, editor of  Spiked Online Brendan O’ Neill is right when he says if you don’t defend freedom of speech for everyone holding all sorts of views, you aren’t defending it.

Aligned with these developments is a worrying trend of incivility. In rugby playing the man not the ball is against the spirit of fair play which is at the heart of the game. Such a practice in political discourse means insulting the speaker not their opinion.

This does a terrible disservice to civic minded citizens who want to inform themselves about the issues and form an opinion and not simply regurgitate pat party responses generated by PR professionals in the spin departments of the major parties.

The moral certitude displayed by those who wish to curb speech is anathema to the virtuous approach to discourse of the great roman stoic, Seneca who counseled his protege “There has yet to be a monopoly on truth and there is plenty of it left for future generations”.

*The Dominion Post’s editorial at the time was philosophically on-point in making the case for the soldiers right to speak



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