Jennifer Schubert-Akin: More speech, not less, is the ticket to bridging divides
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Increasing political violence, culminating in the recent riots at the U.S. Capitol, demands that Americans of all political persuasions come together to condemn force and reemphasize the importance of civilized discourse and debate.
To counteract this growing threat — seen not only at the Capitol but also during the Black Lives Matter riots this summer and the shooting attack on Congressional Republicans in 2017 — we need more speech, not less.
Together, we can rise from this low point in American politics. We can usher in a future where logic, persuasion and rhetoric overcome the factions looking to supplant these ideals with violence, mob rule and incitement.
Unfortunately, the Big Tech syndicate (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter) responded to the riot in Washington, D.C., by reducing free speech at the worst possible time. Facebook and Twitter, which are today’s equivalent of the town square, canceled numerous conservative commentators’ accounts, including former President Donald Trump’s. They banned countless social media pages, including seemingly all those that discussed election irregularities. And they purged high-profile accounts of tens of thousands of followers.
Google and Apple removed the competing social media app Parler from their app stores. And Amazon terminated its web hosting altogether, removing it entirely from the internet. These actions muzzle the primary means of political communication in 21st-century America.
This attack on free speech will only make the country more divided. Banishing political speech from social media will not make it disappear but rather move it to the back pages of the internet, where it will grow unchallenged. In contrast, political content is best moderated not by censorship but by the marketplace of ideas, where users poke holes in arguments, raise logical objections and present persuasive counter-arguments. These rhetorical bombs are preferable to real explosives.
Free debate and discourse make us closer, not more divided. For instance, passionate free speech is largely responsible for the broad bipartisan consensus around formerly divisive policy issues, such as gay marriage, legal status for Dreamers and the limits of nation-building abroad. As The Steamboat Institute’s two recent Electoral College-National Popular Vote debate participants wrote in a joint Gazette op-ed:
“We recognize that each side’s argument has its merits. More importantly, we don’t view each other’s positions as character flaws. We respect one another as individuals, intellectuals, fathers, husbands and Americans. We don’t think of our differences first but rather what we have in common. That is the purpose of civil debates; they allow us to establish common ground.”
In contrast, some political commentators are trying to stifle free speech by calling conservative expression not wrong or misguided but dangerous and in need of censorship. For instance, last week, Nicolle Wallace, an MSNBC anchor and former White House communications director for former President George W. Bush, said, “It would be my policy that a Republican must assert the truth before they are allowed to share any other views. … If we can protect against counterfeit dollar bills, we should be able to protect against fake news that we now know has the potential to kill people.”
It is an interesting fact that some of the most vocal proponents of free speech have immigrated to America from other countries, where political dissent is criminalized by the government, including Venezuela, Cuba and China. For many years, the Chinese Communist Party has suppressed political dissent, and its recent crackdown on democracy advocates in Hong Kong has had a chilling effect on this once vibrant world financial center. It is unthinkable that big tech oligopolies here in America are increasingly censoring controversial political speech. The parallels to the suppression tactics of the CCP are impossible to ignore.
Robust free expression is also vital to restoring support for America’s first principles, including individual rights, free-market capitalism and limited government. These principles are responsible for America’s unprecedented prosperity and are the reason why millions of people from other countries want to pursue the American Dream. Socialism has destroyed millions of lives over many decades, yet somehow it is on the march. Free speech is the vehicle to save America’s founding ideals and reduce support for the socialist policies on the horizon.
Support for free speech should transcend our personal political differences. These are secondary to the broader philosophies that we should all share as Americans. Disagreements over political and economic policy should be something akin to family squabbles, which can get heated but are built on foundations of love and respect. A renewed emphasis on civil discourse and robust debate can make this vision a reality.
Jennifer Schubert-Akin is the CEO, chairman and co-founder of the Steamboat Institute.
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