Another week, another controversy about freedom of speech and the ‘need’ to be exposed to ideas that differ from our own. This time, it’s Steve Bannon, a former adviser to Donald Trump, who is openly a white nationalist.
ABC’s Four Corners decided to interview Bannon, giving him a platform to claim that he wanted his style of right wing politics to come to Australia. There are two issues here. First, what do Australians get out of Australian journalists reporting on American politics that we don’t already get from American journalists? More than ever before, we have easy access to the very best journalism from around the world. Paying Australian journos to cover American politics seems weirdly redundant, especially when we have an actual need for more coverage of our local region (and even some parts of Australia). Second — and more importantly for what I’m going to write in this glorious blog post — what do we get out of giving Bannon yet another platform to engage with Australian audiences?
The second issue above is the one that people intuit the most easily, but I want to take it in a slightly different direction. The ordinary intuition (and it’s entirely correct) is that giving these people a platform is bad because of the harm it does to society both generally and specifically to members of our community. Increasing the profile of hatemongers normalises the view that antipathy towards vulnerable minorities is acceptable; the lack of consequences for expressing these antisocial views also tells vulnerable minorities that we condone these statements. This is the harm in hate speech: it fosters the atmosphere that certain groups of people are not equal and not as free to exercise their political rights as other members of the community.
The other direction (and this is more controversial) is that there is something correct in the view that we should be ‘exposed’ to alternative viewpoints, but that we incorrectly generalise it to mean ‘all alternative viewpoints’.
We see examples of this reasoning frequently espoused by journalists and political commentators. The New Yorker decided to invite Bannon to an ideas festival, causing almost instant controversy and condemnation.
When the New Yorker correctly decided to cancel the event with Bannon:
Katherine Murphy: ‘Good grief. Journalism is about resisting a retreat to enclaves. It’s about getting people out of them, and debating ideas, in civil and rational fashion. If it’s all enclaves, we might as well give it away. We aren’t helping. We are making things worse.‘
There are a few of the regular tropes on display, such as the idea that any collective negative response to something is ‘bullying’. But it’s also odd to see the complete disregard for the society that ideas festivals and journalism are supposed to serve, as if people should be grateful for the opportunity to hear from Bannon because it will make us all better.
A few months back, the US National Academy of Sciences published a paper that did a study of how Republicans and Democrats respond to news from ‘outside’ their ‘bubble’.
Social media sites are often blamed for exacerbating political polarization by creating “echo chambers” that prevent people from being exposed to information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. We conducted a field experiment that offered a large group of Democrats and Republicans financial compensation to follow bots that retweeted messages by elected officials and opinion leaders with opposing political views. Republican participants expressed substantially more conservative views after following a liberal Twitter bot, whereas Democrats’ attitudes became slightly more liberal after following a conservative Twitter bot—although this effect was not statistically significant. Despite several limitations, this study has important implications for the emerging field of computational social science and ongoing efforts to reduce political polarization online.
Chris Said, a data scientist, gives an extremely good insight about the paper:
Does anybody really think that Democrats will become more conservative if only they could hear more from Tucker Carlson? Or that conservatives will become more liberal if only they saw more content from the Planned Parenthood Twitter account?
I think that there is something right about the idea that people need to be exposed to a wide range of views with which they disagree. Two morally good, equally rational, and perfectly informed people can disagree on a topic. But this does not mean that two morally good, equally rational, and perfectly informed people can disagree about every topic. For example, racial superiority is not open to debate. The idea that members of our community should be exposed to physical violence simply for being LGBTQ is not open to debate. There are thresholds. If you want to participate in political debate where we govern through collective debate and respect, certain views which threaten political debate don’t get a platform.
Framed differently, the idea that we need to be exposed to a wide range of views seems to entail that we should be exposed to bad, controversial views rather than intellectually serious views. Serious intellectual disagreement is not something that we regularly see in the media, ideas festivals, or writers festivals. If we think that rational, civil debate is good for society, then those with the power to do so should give a platform to rational, civil debate instead of merely courting controversy.
To pull this into sharpest focus: imagine that you were trying to convince a conservative using only tweets from @DameFrightBat1950. You know full well that there are people on your own side of politics who simply are not the full biscuit. They can’t argue rationally and they’re not able to engage in serious, civil debate. The problem for conservatives is that our equivalent of @DameFrightBat1950 are given newspaper columns and television shows on Sky After Dark. We are already given too much exposure to bad ideas; we need to be exposed to the best ideas of our own side as well as the best of other sides.