I am a strong believer in Free Speech. In all its uncomfortable, messy, hurtful, poorly constructed, ugly glory. That doesn’t mean I don’t think if the goal is progress, or living well together, there aren’t better ways of communicating than throwing away your filter. I think it is a problem that much of our training in debate is ‘seeing two sides of the argument’. It castes the search for a better way as a fight. It forces the picking of sides. It can be fun, and can feed our animal instincts, but I don’t think it is the best way to chip away at ignorance.
In most heated debates, whether on social media or in person, very few people I know of are consciously trying to understand the views of people they are engaged with. They are looking for holes. Each and every time a single point doesn’t make sense, they hold on to that. They look for chinks.
Daniel Dennett suggests four steps to being able to criticise. Starting with being able to clearly, vividly, and fairly express their position in a way they would be happy to agree with. Not one of those loaded jibes where you restate their view in a way that obviously makes them look like a critter, ‘So what you are saying is we should throw all babies into flames?’
The second step is to find some sort of common ground. Points of agreement. Ideally not obvious tokens, but an area where you have clearly both thought about something and come to a similar point of view. If there is nothing where you have a similar point of view, what are the chances of you working your way to a solution that works for both parties? Most of us have something important in common. As Sting said, 'the Russians love their children too.' It takes some effort to find it. If we aren’t willing to do that, why bother arguing?
The third point is to identify what you have learnt from the other person’s position. If there is nothing, there is again no point in pushing forward with criticism. Rather wait. Try understand why they would think what they think. What could have led them there? If you can’t do that, then it is time to work on your empathy.
After all those steps, which take time and willingness… then you get to criticise. A little. Our views tend to morph rather than spontaneously combust and spring from the ashes into a completely different form. That sounds like a lot more effort than Free Speech where you can just reshare articles, throw gas on the fire, or play devil’s advocate by lighting a few matches. Another word for the devil's advocate is trolling. The reason I believe in Free Speech is we know where our crazies are. Both in the sense of other people, and our own crazy views.