A cool look at heated discussion


Views expressed not necessarily those of the Free Speech and Secular Society

Anyone who has been in a heated argument knows that people seldom change their minds. Indeed, politics sometimes seems to be reduced to appeals to our baser emotions of either nurturing or fearing. While emotions are essential motivators to start thinking about a topic, I will try to make the case that when evaluating proposition we should aim for cold rationality, the live-long-and-prosper kind. As a die-hard liberal I will propose classical liberalism as a framework for rational evaluation.

A recent post on Facebook exemplified many of the confusions that have gripped the debate about free speech on campuses and in public more generally. The notion that holding an opinion is equivalent to violently enforcing it.

Such a distinction often seems academic. Indeed, being surround by people who think you are a lesser human for some characteristic feels very close to being surround by people who would do you harm if the law would allow it. However, let us take a hyper-rational approach.

As a starting consideration, let us just recall that all people in human history have believed the positions they hold to be the right ones. The vast majority turned out to be wrong. Additionally, none of us has the time or energy to look at the factual basis of all our opinions. Therefore, it is best to approach all our opinions with the knowledge that they have a good chance of being wrong (ironically, that of course includes this idea as well).

Take a moment to read the following Facebook post:


People are of course not wholly rational and we don’t clearly distinguish between rational thought and emotions. Considering the everyday ostracism faced for one’s mere existence, it is undoubtedly an unpleasant experience. The question is, how can we change society for the better, i.e. improve the lived experience. Meeting emotional indignation with emotional indignation seems unlikely to change anyone’s mind. Indeed, when people are relaxed, they are most likely to be open to new points of view. A survey in America found that there has been a massive shift in Americans view of same-sex marriage. This is because people across all ages changed their views to be supportive of the idea. The most cited reason for this change in opinion -they know someone who is homosexual. Shutting people out of your lives may not be the quickest way to change society.

Considering this emotional topic in a dryer manner: one can hold an opinion, express it and try to implement but that are three independent things. Take the example given: you may hold the view that gay marriage should not be allowed, you might say so and if you are quite extreme you might try to stop gay weddings from taking place. However, none of these things are implied by each other.

Furthermore, the poster immediately makes the link to “hating gay people”, which is a distinct opinion from opposing gay marriage. Take for example this debate between two gay men, one for and one against gay marriage. Clearly, being against gay marriage does not mean that one hates gay people. If gay people should be allowed to depart from the consensus definition of marriage of a wider hetrosexual society then surely a minority of gay people should be allowed to depart from the consensus within the gay community on the same issue.

What principles to follow?

A more general observation is that our gut instinct seems to be rather arbitrary. Vast numbers of people have supported things that appear morally abhorrent nowadays. Recall attitudes to race and witches in centuries past. A healthy scepticism towards our own gut feeling of morality is appropriate, no matter how “right” it feels. We therefore need an alternative way to evaluate propositions on morality: opposing the person against gay marriage to protect gays becomes a frace when the person is gay himself.

A answer to this question is classical liberalism. In contemporary discourse “liberal” has come to mean everything and hence nothing but it goes back to a simple idea: to maximize freedoms.

While the general principle is clear, what is meant with liberty is crucial and disputed. Generally, one can distinguish between positive and negative liberty. Negative liberty means that no-one stops you from doing something while positive liberty means you have the capacity to act upon your free will. (A good discussion can be found here.)

Following the school of thought of negative liberty, the only justification to limit someone’s freedoms is to protect the freedoms of others. In this view, we cannot know or be certain what is right or good for person and so are in no better position to decide than the person himself. Actions which only affect oneself are no-one else’s business. Only behaviors that infringe someone else’s freedoms should be restricted.

Most people would like to see some limitations beyond that. Take for example the example of alcohol and tobacco. In a society with a universal health system, the ill-health of people who choose to consume such products imposes costs on everyone. At the same time, bans of alcohol and smoking can be seen as limiting smokers and drinkers ability to enact their free will. Some restrictions hence may be placed on such products. However, I hope you will agree with me, once we have no longer a clear and direct harm the burden of proof should be higher and on the side of those that would impose the restrictions.

This principle would indicate that people be free to marry and free to oppose same-sex marriage. It also implies that people should be free to voice their opposition to such freedom. It is crucial to distinguish between the communication of ideas about the world and intention to harm someone. While this view doesn’t come natural to anyone, especially during heated debate, I think all our lives would be improved if we strove to get a rational, Spok-ian, cool.