Before I published my first academic article in March, I had never understood the problem with online debate. I expected comments disagreeing with my thesis or my stance on birth control. However, the comments I received were something of a different nature entirely. For example, one user wrote, “Satan uses people like Callie to mainstream reprobate behavior while decrying its fringes and suggesting that Christians are just like everyone else.” Another believed I had no right to speak at all, because women “are driving the USA bankrupt… [they] should be yanked from the voting polls.” After spending entirely too much time reading these ‘arguments,’ I began to wonder if civil disagreement is possible in the social media age or if it has been ‘deleted’ by over-zealous Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram users.
From a distance, this might seem like free speech at its most American: the ability to express an opinion freely despite race, gender, or social status. However, a closer look reveals that much online debate is merely a new brand of social repression in the guise of healthy political dialogue. It is neither civil disagreement, nor even a legitimate exchange of ideas. In fact, civility has no place in these debates. Anonymity allows users to be particularly vicious, and those who disagree with the majority find themselves crucified online.
The most important divide created by this online culture, however, is not between majority and minority, but between that which contemporary society deems “right” and “wrong.” Instead of quietly discouraging controversial speech, many modern Americans attempt to extinguish speech deemed unpopular or discriminatory. They do so by shaming dissenters in screaming matches held in the corners of the comment sections of social media websites. The “arguments” are filled with ad hominem attacks and aggressive, uncivilized quips in what appears to be a fight to see who can create the new social norm by screaming the loudest. The trophy is thus handed to the side with the best clickbait and the cruelest commenters.
We have, it seems, traded one set of destructive social mores for another. Instead of coercion by polite society to avoid subjects like religion and politics, we are now subject to “a new normal” of coercion by a mob of faceless usernames. If we disagree with the socially accepted opinions we feel great pressure to stay silent. Our culture is ablaze with the fire of constant, uncontrollable squabbling.
This mob rule is not unique to the 21st century. Alexis de Tocqueville described a similar phenomenon in Democracy in America. He explained that the right to dissent is constricted by the majority’s drawing of a “formidable circle around thought.” While a dissenter’s First Amendment rights remain firmly intact and his opinions are not silenced by means of law, the dissenter himself is tormented for holding those opinions and expressing them aloud. According to Tocqueville, Americans have a unique tendency to pin scarlet letters to those who express unpopular beliefs:
Before publishing his opinions, [one might have] believed he had some partisans, it seems to him that he has them no longer, now that he has revealed himself to all; for those who censure him speak openly, and those who think as he does, without having his courage, keep quiet and distance themselves. He gives in; finally, under the daily effort, he yields and returns to silence, as though he felt remorse for having told the truth.
While Tocqueville recognized the tendency of the majority to impose its beliefs on the minority, today’s culture allows this imposition of thought to occur with any beliefs that are deemed socially acceptable, whether or not a majority of citizens hold them.
New York Times bestselling author and journalist Jon Ronson describes this phenomenon as a ‘renaissance’ of public shaming: “After a lull of almost 180 years, it[’s] back in a big way. When we deploy… shame, we [are] utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It is coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence.” But this practice has both nasty and significant consequences. Most importantly, injurious speech becomes equivalent to injurious action. J.S. Mill well understood this excessive sensitivity of the American majority to “consider… an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for.”
This new definition of “injury” weaponizes speech. Someone who does not believe in the sanctity or legality of same-sex marriage is called a bigot. A person who argues in favor of abortion is a murderer. Political and social groups already on opposite sides become heroes and villains. This, then, is the real problem. But is this problem merely the natural and unavoidable outcome of controversial dialogue coming out into the public? Theologian Henri Nouwen argues that publicity “standardizes, hardens, and… suffocates what it exposes,” because “what is precious and sacred in hiddenness… become[s] cheap and even vulgar when exposed to the public at large by the mass media.”
Yet the American judicial system offers a quite different, and more positive, way of understanding public disagreement. The model of judicial dissent reminds us that dialogue on divisive issues does not require demonizing the opposite side. Rather, the significance of dissent is realized and even celebrated because the pursuit of free speech requires the freedom not only to disagree, but to share that disagreement. All of us, of course, are often wrong. And Justice Harlan’s now-famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson reminds us that yesterday’s dissent could become tomorrow’s orthodoxy.
Furthermore, even people with radically discrepant political views can at times become acquaintances, colleagues, and even good friends. To mention a famous example, Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were self-proclaimed “best buddies” who appreciated their significant political and judicial disagreements for what they were: differences of opinion.
In a moving tribute to her friend, Ginsburg wrote that Scalia’s “opinion ultimately [was] often notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots — the ‘applesauce’ and ‘argle bargle’ — and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion.” Here, Ginsburg emphasizes the nature of dissent described by Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes in 1928, who vociferously opposed unanimity “recorded at the expense of strong, conflicting views… [because] what must ultimately sustain the court in public confidence is the character and independence of the judges.”
Not only do courts not require unanimity, they publish dissents, creating a space for dialogue and legitimizing the dissent as a valid part of political and social discourse. Liberty of the individual, free speech, and the very essence of honest political and intellectual conversation depend on this right to dissent.
This right is not only necessary in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court, but also (and perhaps more so) in the halls of public schools, the local Starbucks, and in the comment sections of the Instagram photos and Facebook posts that pepper our newsfeeds. Americans must learn to disagree civilly, thus legitimizing the dissents of minorities. Legitimization does not require agreement; it merely requires respectful acknowledgement that the belief itself matters. As Americans, we ought to dedicate ourselves to perpetuating the inherent human right to disagree, the choice to veer left when the majority turns right. One party with one voice that shames the remaining voices into silence with threats of ‘bigotry’ or ‘sinfulness’ is not pluralism, but tyranny.
Guest Writer: Callie Hyde is a first year law student at Georgetown University Law Center, hoping to pursue a career in the public interest. She works as a research assistant on the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. She is an avid fan of half-price bookstores and her alma mater, Baylor University, where she was a member of the Honors College and a Crane Scholar. She hopes to work as a lawyer protecting international human rights and religious freedom.