The traditional ways of silencing people are still all too common: libel or blasphemy laws, threats, the physical targeting of journalists, censorship, book burning or indexing, political correctness, exaggerated respect for people’s sensibilities etc. However, the silencers have developed new and increasingly sophisticated means. And I’m not thinking about tactics like internet filtering – this is indeed a new and sophisticated technology, but in essence it’s just a new form of book burning.
I’m thinking more about things like polarization as one of those new ways of silencing. A commonly cited justification of free speech is that it can help people to influence each other and spread their beliefs. We hold strong beliefs, we think we have good reasons supporting those beliefs, and we want to express these beliefs and these reasons in an attempt to convince others. Free speech helps us to do so.
At least, that’s the case in theory. In real life, this “marketplace of ideas” is dysfunctional. Many groups in society are not arguing, convincing or engaging in public thinking. Instead, ideas are expressed as claims rather than argued for. Expression, if you like, is limited to “brute” expression. One of the reasons for this is that expression can be motivated, not by the willingness to persuade, but by the need to show one’s identity or belonging. In other words, expression is signaling rather than arguing. Another reason for the lack of argumentation is the fact that a lot of expression is about being controversial and outrageous, antagonizing other groups on the polarized spectrum, provoking a “media storm” and cashing in on the advertizing generated by the ensuing pageviews, clicks or whatever.
If ideas aren’t debated but expressed in a “brute” way only, for whatever reason, then polarization is inevitable. No one is convinced by the brute expression of an idea or opinion. And if no one is convinced, then people stay in their respective camps. These camps then drift further apart because absent an exchange of reasons for beliefs, people start to see other groups as increasingly strange, alien and incomprehensible.
Now, polarization is of course nothing new, but I can’t help thinking that nowadays some people in positions of power are actively encouraging polarization as a means to silence debate, consciously or not. People in positions of responsibility, people who could use their power in order to organize and protect debate, use it instead to promote brute expression and hence to stifle the exchange of arguments and to polarize society. Think of news network owners, politicians, many journalists etc. These people are interested in polarized expression rather than debate, particularly the type of polarized expression that is mildly upsetting to other groups because that brings in the readers, page views, ratings and the corresponding advertizing dollars. The silencing that occurs here is not the silencing of expression but the silencing of argumentation and debate. Opinions are still expressed but no longer argued because argumentation – compared to a blunt statement of a controversial opinion - doesn’t provoke and hence doesn’t produce income.
Why do people actively promote the brute expression of ideas and the silencing of debate? Because of the dollars, of course, but also because it diminishes some discomfort. When there’s only brute expression, we can avoid having to examine our beliefs, defend them and possibly change them. We all value consistency in our basic beliefs and we don’t always want to take the trouble arguing for them or responding to arguments against them. If we are shielded from arguments in the media, then we don’t have to take these argument into account. And that’s relaxing. However, the result is polarization because the flip-side of the relaxation offered by the absence of arguments is the increasing alienation from people holding other beliefs: we are also shielded from the arguments these people have (or could have) for their own beliefs, and hence these beliefs start to seem strange, bizarre and not something we want to be involved with.
More on polarization here.