Should it be silenced?
© 26 Sep 2016 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Airtime, stereotype threat, abuse, and freedom of expression.


I believe in the freedom of expression. I believe that other desirable objectives are worth sacrificing in order to secure this freedom. For example, much as I find to object to in academic tenure, I support some form of its continuance—and, indeed, strengthening over current practice—to ensure that members of the academy are free to explore, discuss, and even advocate highly unpopular opinions.

At the same time, I find myself frequently advising educators, those same members of the academy whose ability to express any opinion I want to protect, that they should avoid mentioning some unpopular beliefs even in passing or in order to contradict them. It is the conflicted motives that lead me to make this suggestion that I want to discuss today.

When I express an idea about some but not all humans, my expression carries a weight that other expressions do not. At one extreme of this spectrum is verbal and emotional abuse: by smothering someone in negative messages about their worth and personal safety, it is possible to cause lasting damage and permanently stunt their ability to function in the world. However, there are significant effects far shy of this extreme: a single I have heard multiple anecdotes where one single comment has had life-course-changing impact that many repeated efforts to counter the comment have been unable to reverse, hence my assertion that a single comment has this power.
    That said, as Lucy Sanders once told me, “‍the plural of anecdote is not data.‍” I cannot defend the one-​comment-​matters point except by anecdote.
negative comment about someone’s potential can cause them to bypass opportunities and can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Some of the stereotype threat Again mentioned without being properly explained. I really do intend to get around to writing a post on this topic eventually. material I have read has suggested that mentioning someone’s demographic group in order to state that you do not believe stereotypes about that group can cause the individual additional stress, reducing ability to perform and heightening their chance of quitting.

Thus we find ourselves on a slippery slope. At one extreme we permit anyone to say anything to anyone, endorsing people’s right to cause lasting harm to others. At the other extreme we prohibit any negative statement about any person, reducing any claim to free expression to a mere farce. Neither extreme is palatable, but where can we draw a line between them?

I personally have found useful the following two-part position. It is likely not actionable as law or policy, but I find it effective in day-to-day decision making.

Any topic is open to being discussed with civility. I have frequently entertained students in my office who wish to propound their belief in philosophies that I find personally repugnant or obviously false, and I have enjoyed our conversations a great deal. I have enjoyed them because they have been discussions, not abuse. We have discussed personal beliefs, evidences for and against, and many things far beyond our available evidences, but all in a spirit of discussion and exploration. And because of that approach, these conversations formed part of The Conversation that the academy is supposed to promote. Indeed, a non-trivial part of the mission of higher education is the preparing students to engage in such conversations with those who disagree with them without becoming offended.

Negativity should be avoided when not germane to the topic at hand. This includes explicit negativity such as pointing out faults and name-calling, as well as implicit negativity such as displaying surprise at another’s success. None of these are categorically off-the-table; it is not infrequently entirely proper to observe that someone is lazy, or a liar, or a hypocrite, or expected to fail; or that they have failed many times in the past, or that their recent performance was surprising for being so good. And there are situations where observing that negative qualities are more typically associated with group X than group Y is likewise a perfectly valid and even important topic of conversation. But when these negative positions are not germane to the conversation they should not be brought up. If “‍they have lied‍” suffices, don’t say “‍they are a liar‍”—but if the more general statement is more germane to the conversation, by all means you are free to make it.

But all of that discusses one’s own choice of expression; what about the policing of the expressions of others? At what point should a government say “‍this form of expression is abuse‍” or an employer say “‍you may not say that at work‍”? At what point do we deem the civility too low and the objective too far removed from discussion for us to permit it to continue?

Alas, this is a question I do not know how to answer. I believe that the line we ought to shoot for and conscientious members of society is far removed from the line at which we ought to enforce behavior; but what that latter line is I do not know. I likewise do not know the proper handling of non-disclosure agreements and state secrets. The moment we begin to limit expression by policy and law we have entered a slippery slope, and there does not appear to me to be any crisply definable purchase on which to hang objective judgment. As a person, civil discussion without unnecessary negativity is an actionable principle; as a manager or government, something more seems to be needed. If any of my readers know what that ought to be, I’d love to hear it.

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