Column: 12 Rules for Free Speech

For The Washington Post
Saturday, June 09, 2018

If you write a column about athletes kneeling during the national anthem, you can expect to find yourself rapidly mired in debates about free speech. Because speech is (we lightheartedly hope) nuanced and complex, there will always be an element of “I know it when I see it” in placing cases into “protected” or “unprotected” categories. Which means we could spend the rest of our lives arguing about just what free speech means — and, frankly, we probably will.

What we ought to be able to agree on is some principles for making free speech better. And in that spirit, I’ll go first.

Principle No. 1: Don’t burn flags.

In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that a communist agitator (no, really) named Gregory Lee Johnson had a First Amendment right to burn a flag in protest outside the Republican National Convention. The Supreme Court was right. Johnson was not. Burning flags is an incredibly stupid mode of speech, and you should refrain from it.

Good free speech tries to express ideas and achieve some positive change with them. And positive change does not include “sending people I dislike into a hopping mad rage for the sheer joy of watching their spittle fly.” Astute readers may suspect that I am talking about conservative students who invite “trigger the libs” speakers to campus. Yes, I am — along with the speakers themselves. This sort of speech is not merely a waste of time; it is not merely beneath the dignity of adults; it is also completely counterproductive.

People who are actually fond of the thing you are insulting — whether it’s the American flag, feminism or something else — take only one message from your speech: The speaker is a jerk. Most people do not want to associate themselves with jerks or the things those jerks support. And people who just don’t care one way or another — which is to say, your most fertile hunting ground for new supporters — will look at you spewing a stream of insults and think, “I guess I’ll go listen to someone who actually has something to say.”

So congratulations, your brave stand against ... whatever ... just made it less likely that any of the things you’re for will ever happen.

This also applies to protest that isn’t simply pure provocation, like refusing to stand for the national anthem in order to protest police brutality. It’s going to strike many people as disrespectful, if you yourself are an American. You can insist all you want that you’re not disrespecting the anthem, but others are still going to see that way. Which you must know at some level, because if no one cared about the symbol, you wouldn’t bother refusing to honor it. No one protests something they care about by refusing to stand for the Good Humor ice cream jingle.

When it comes to the anthem, I understand why people might feel inclined to that refusal; I respect their right to refuse. But why handicap yourself before you’ve really gotten into the argument? You should always choose forms of speech that are the most likely, not the least, to get your ideas a warm reception.

Principle No. 2: Don’t preach to the choir (too much).

We all need affirmation, to vent our frustrations and seek reinforcement from like-minded companions. The appropriate space for this is the privacy of your own home, or a conveniently located bar. It’s not the public square. Don’t give yet another speech about how right you are and how dumb your opponents are. Don’t write that article. Don’t send that tweet. Don’t.

What do you expect to achieve if you spend most of your time convincing people who already agree with you that you’re not just right but really, really, really right? It feels good, I know. I’m told heroin feels good, too. Still not really a productive use of your limited precious hours on this Earth. Which brings us to our third principle:

Principle No. 3: Don’t confuse your enjoyment with your effectiveness.

When I was in college, I went to a lot of protests for various left-wing causes. I enjoyed them a lot. Chanting in groups is fun, especially when those groups include your friends. I got to feel important, part of something that really mattered. Those friends and I exchanged a lot of theories about why protest was so important and effective. But over time, I noticed that it mostly seemed to be effective at building strong networks of people who liked to stand out in the sun and chant. Tangible action seemed to occur elsewhere.

That’s not to say that protest never works. But it is seductively easy to confuse holding a sign with actually having accomplished something. So while protest can build solidarity for positive change, it can also become a substitute for said change. This illusion is particularly damaging when your protest is something that is actually working against your goals, like flag-burning.

So too with many other forms of less-than-useful speech, such as preaching to the choir. When asking whether your speech is worthwhile, don’t ask whether it makes you, or people like you, feel good. Ask how it makes the people who aren’t like you feel. And don’t cheat by imagining that they probably feel just like you.

Principle No. 4: Don’t start talking if you aren’t ready for people to talk back.

One of the laziest, most destructive ideas in modern debate is some version of “It’s time for men to stop talking and listen to women about sexism in the workplace.” That’s just one example of a common phenomenon: people saying that we need a “national conversation” about gender, or race, or some other issue — and then making it clear that their idea of a “conversation” is that they get to deliver a stiff lecture, while the folks on the other side alternate between listening raptly and apologizing profusely.

Return to your dictionary and reacquaint yourself with the meaning of the word “conversation.” A conversation is an exchange of ideas. The other party is free to disagree with you. Which is good! They will have information and perspectives that you lack; they are willing to give these to you at absolutely no charge. Take them up on their exciting free offer.

If you can’t handle hearing “I disagree,” then you are the one who should stop talking. If you open your mouth, prepare to be criticized, often forcefully.

Principle No. 5: Always explore the option of ignoring provocative speech.

Despite my best efforts here, a lot of people are going to burn flags, actual or rhetorical. Because their highest joy is seeing their opponents turn an exotic shade of purple, they will try to do this as ostentatiously as possible. Quite soon, you will find yourself conferring with like-minded friends, all of them anxiously saying, “What are we going to do about it?”

Have you tried “nothing”? When it comes to responding to people who are trying to provoke you, not responding should always be your first resort, not your last. I mean, sure, you can try arguing with them. You can try arguing with your bedroom walls, for that matter, but neither argument is going to do you any good. Provocateurs aren’t looking for a debate; they’re looking for your reaction. The minute you give it to them, they win. The way you win is to happily be doing something else while they’re off talking to the walls.

And that applies even to people who aren’t being pointlessly provocative but are still making you plenty mad. Look, I get why conservatives think people should stand for the national anthem. But what societal calamity do you really imagine would befall America if you just decided to ignore it? A nation that isn’t strong enough to withstand a little quiet non-patriotism isn’t a nation that deserves to live.

That’s not to say that we should never respond to things that outrage us. But our threshold for doing so should be set to “urinating on national monuments on live television,” not “said something dumb to a student group.” And here we fall seamlessly into my next point:

Principle No. 6: Don’t go looking for reasons to get mad.

I happened to be talking recently to a doctor who specializes in addiction, and he noted the similarities between people who spend their days cruising the internet, looking for things to be mad about, and stimulant addicts. Both of them are seeking a quick adrenaline rush. Both of them are doing something that’s literally unhealthy (adrenaline, a key part of your “fight or flight” reflex, takes a long-term toll on your body).

But oh, rage is intoxicating. It suppresses your anxieties and your petty concerns so that you can focus everything on the main threat. And sometimes rage is necessary to combat some dire threat. But really, not nearly as often as rageful people think. Rage is only good for fighting, never good for boring old democratic tasks such as achieving consensus and compromise. Also, it doesn’t do great things for your judgment.

But more broadly than that, rage makes a really poor substitute for the ingredients of a good life: joy, meaning, love. Unfortunately, rage is quicker and more reliable than those things. You can get angry in an instant; you need years to build a great marriage. It’s easy, in the moment, to always opt for the quick fix and never get around to the things that make us happier, better people.

Just how common that short-term thinking is becomes clear when you look at what does well on social media. Feeds skew heavily toward stuff that makes people angry, and we now have a whole media ecosystem designed to feed those algorithms by finding ever more stuff for readers to be mad about. We’re becoming a nation of rage junkies, endlessly seeking our next fix. Like all junkies, we should break the habit.

Principle No. 7: Try very hard not to punish people for their speech.

Free speech doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean consequence-free speech. But a healthy society allows for as much free expression as possible, and that means allowing people very wide latitude for holding and expressing opinions we really don’t like. (I mean really, really don’t like. Whatever terrible opinion you are imagining, I mean that one, too.)

No, your employer doesn’t have to let you harangue the customers with political tirades during working hours, but also, no, your employer shouldn’t go around finding out what you do on your spare time. If people do find out and react badly, said employer doesn’t have to keep you on, but they should anyway if the cost to the institution isn’t too great. There’s no principle that can cover every eventuality, but this one should usually do the trick: Err on the side of giving people freedom of conscience wherever possible.

Principle No. 8: Try to leave politics at home sometimes.

You’ve decided to support Donald Trump in the 2016 election? Well, I disagree with you, friend, rather vehemently, but I’m sure you have your reasons. And I’m interested in hearing about those reasons. Only please, not during my sister’s wedding.

There’s a place and time for political arguments. But that is not all places and all times. Your message is less apt to be instantly rejected if you deliver it in an appropriate place, and without competing with other stuff that’s really important, like major life events.

Some places are so dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, such as college campuses and newsrooms, that it’s basically always the right time to say what you think. If you’re in one of those places, opine away. In other places, before you act, ask yourself one question: “How would I feel if someone who held the opposite views did exactly the same thing in the same place?” If your answer is “I’d be outraged!” then you’re being a jerk. Don’t be a jerk.

Principle No. 9: Don’t engage with anything for the purposes of mindlessly dismissing it.

The retweet of a political opponent with the single remark “LOL.” The Facebook post that begins “I literally can’t understand how anyone could believe this.” The blog post that consists of saying “Can you believe someone actually said this?” This juvenilia is beneath you. For your own sake, eschew it.

These epigramettes are supposed to imply that this argument is too stupid for you to engage with it. The message that you are actually sending is that you are too stupid to engage with this argument. After all, if you had an actual rebuttal, you’d presumably make it.

Principle No. 10: Read charitably. Speak charitably.

Two of the worst features of academic writing are wild overcitation and abundant restatements of the obvious. This combination is not simply some odd quirk of the academic mind; academics are writing in a defensive crouch, trying to ward off all possible criticisms that could ever be made of their work.

Alas, most of us cannot write or speak for an audience composed mostly of a few dozen other people who are getting paid to wade through acres of barren defensive verbiage. So we have some things unsaid and others moderately ambiguous. Which in turn means that a motivated lunatic can go into your essay about reforming Amtrak and come out the other end saying, “So, what you really mean is, Hitler was right?”

Are you a lunatic? No? Then don’t do this. Assume that the speaker is a good person who, just like you, wants good things for the world. Seek to understand their motives and thinking, not condemn them. Your aim should always be to pass Bryan Caplan’s “ideological Turing test” — to be able to state your opponents’ argument so charitably that they would believe that one of their own was speaking. Only when you really understand an argument can you really reject it, or persuade others to. The same holds when you’re writing or speaking about their ideas. Don’t give in to the temptation to make out your opponents as worse than they really are. Engage with their best motives and arguments, not the worst you can imagine.

Principle No. 11: Never go full-frontal jerk on the internet.

In the early years of blogging, a whole lot of people — including me — made the same mistake: They wrote a lengthy screed about how someone was a total idiot who knew nothing about some topic ... only to discover that they had misread the purported idiot, or misunderstood one of the central facts.

This is a terrible position to be in. If you write, “Here’s where I think X is wrong,” then when X replies, “Actually, I think you’ve misread me,” it’s not too embarrassing to respond, “Ah! Now I understand the source of our disagreement. Thank you!”

On the other hand, if you attack them as hapless half-wits of notoriously low moral character, and then it turns out you made a mistake ... well, now you have an ugly dilemma. You can continue to insist that you’re right, in which case, everyone, including you, will know that you’ve made a royal fool of yourself. Or you can deliver an abject, groveling apology, in which case, you will still have made a fool of yourself, but you will have at least proved you’re capable of reform.

The best way to avoid this situation is not to go full jerk in the first place. More broadly: Never choose any tactic which will, in the event of failure, tempt you to cling to a mistake rather than issue a humiliating apology. Which brings us home round the bend to:

Principle No. 12: Prepare to be wrong.

If you’re going to speak, you’re going to make mistakes. If you write on the internet, those mistakes will be around to haunt you for decades. If you don’t want to have to deal with your mistakes, you’d better stay home and argue with the walls.

The rest of us need a procedure for acknowledging we’ve made a mistake. That procedure starts by recognizing that everyone makes mistakes, and that having made one is not some catastrophic stain that must be hidden from the rest of humanity at all costs. Mistakes are how you learn stuff. Not our favorite way of learning, to be sure, but alas, one of the most effective.

So prepare to make mistakes and acknowledge that you’ve made them. Do so freely and generously. Apologize to anyone you’ve accidentally slandered, insulted or offended. Resolve to never make that mistake again. Then move onward in your journey of discovery so that you can find out what your next mistake will be.

And while you should always strive to avoid error, try not to worry about it too much. The rest of us are on exactly the same voyage as you, and hey, maybe we’ll discover something great by mistake, like America.

Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist and the author of The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.