#PeacefulMondays: Make debates whole again

(Demonstrators clashed at a free speech rally in Berkeley, Calif., in August. Credit Josh Edelson/Associated Press )

I’ve often wondered what America’s Founding Fathers would say about the current state of debate in the public sphere, and whether it mirrors their free-speech intentions as enshrined in the First Amendment.

Does free speech mean unfettered speech, no matter the consequences? Is all speech protected under the law? If so, why does it feel so hard to stomach or swallow, and is our society actually the better for this torrent of words?

I’m all for a healthy debate, and for listening to different perspectives. If you’ve worked with me, you know I honor every voice at the table so that we make more robust decisions and chart better paths forward.

But I think there’s a line to be drawn when that debate descends into chaos or violence. That’s when the threads of our social constructs start to unravel…and we may as well revert to the warring tribes and civilizations that gripped our shared history for millennia.

Is that what we want? Is this devolved speech worth the destruction of our institutions, our discourse, our very way of life?

I hope not.

I hope we still see the worth and value of engaging with each other for a larger purpose, for a goal or destination that embraces what many or most of us seek for our workplaces, communities and the public sphere.

This is why I was heartened to read this piece by a law school professor. He makes a compelling case that, in an age where hostile foreign actors are flooding social media platforms with trolls or propaganda, we need to take a clear-eyed view of the First Amendment in the cyber age.

There are common-sense ways to balance free speech protections with what needs to be regulated (and why), so that we can return to that healthier discourse for the greater good.

From the article:

“Some might argue, based on the sophomoric premise that ‘more speech is always better,’ that the current state of chaos is what the First Amendment intended. But no defensible free-speech tradition accepts harassment and threats as speech, treats foreign propaganda campaigns as legitimate debate or thinks that social-media bots ought to enjoy constitutional protection. A robust and unfiltered debate is one thing; corruption of debate itself is another. We have entered a far more dangerous place for the republic; its defense requires stronger protections for what we once called the public sphere.”

And speaking of what needs to be regulated…

Top lawyers from Facebook, Google, and Twitter will be grilled in Congress on Nov 1 this week, about the role the companies played in Russia’s attempt to influence the US presidential election.

Evidence is mounting that Russian actors were expert at finding the fault lines in America, and focused on issues like LGBTQ rights, border security, police brutality, and immigration. They’ve been successful, and continue to be successful, at exploiting these fault lines. If left unchecked, they and other hostile actors will be emboldened to do more in the future.

Because we can’t completely legislate our way out of these attacks, and because the legislative process moves at a snail’s pace compared to how swiftly these foreign actors are upping their game, US voters will also need to be more skeptical about what they read on the internet…or indeed on any media platform with extreme perspectives that seek to destroy our social constructs.

We all have a role to play in this, whether it’s in

  • checking our own potential for pushing extreme perspectives, so that we instead return to that healthier discourse
  • alerting others to posts and pieces by hostile foreign actors, so that their destructive commentary won’t find a large audience
  • finding common ground along these fault lines, so that we inoculate ourselves against nations who would do us harm

Yes, some of these actions are harder than others, but it doesn’t preclude us from trying.

As American Abolitionist Wendell Phillips (and other leaders from US history) was known to say:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Questions to ponder

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About the author

Maya Mathias

Maya Mathias is a global leadership veteran, with a life and career spanning 3 continents and 5 inspired self-reinventions. She is a peaceful leadership advocate and mentor, bringing her unique blend of East & West to her leadership development and innovation management practice. Maya’s life began with a lower-middle class upbringing in Asia, surrounded by poultry & vegetable farms and the ‘simple life’. She doesn’t forget her humble roots, and her body of work seeks to bring more equality, justice and personal purpose in troubling times. Learn more about Maya here.

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