Rational Speech Rules

I recognize that argument and critique touch on subjects that can be very personal. But if we can’t agree to observe basic rules of rational discourse, then opportunities to discuss important issues are missed, even obstructed. A free society depends on the free expression of ideas in the context of rational public discourse. Jürgen Habermas identifies several presuppositions necessary for rational public discourse:

  • participants use similar linguistic expression (some arguments may be about clarifying expressions);
  • participants do not exclude or suppress relevant arguments;
  • the only force in determining the outcome of the discussion is the superior validity/soundness of an argument (a goal of discussion should be that participants are motivated by a concern for better arguments);
  • no rational claim is exempt from criticism.

We would do well to adopt these standards and the rules associated with them. For example, an argument may be sound or valid despite which side of the debate a person takes. A criticism of an argument hailing from a particular community can be valid even when the arguer is prejudiced with respect to that community or there is an asymmetry of power between members of communities. The argument stands on its own; its truth is not determined by the character of the arguer. It is valid if it follows the rules of logic and sound if supported by fact. 

Another basic rule is that a relevant and rational critique may be sound or valid even it offends members of the community advancing the position being criticized. That some are offended by relevant utterance has no bearing on the truth of the utterance. It is crucial that the utterances in question are relevant and rational. An utterance that demeans persons may be justifiably excluded or suppressed; however, excluding or suppressing speech requires explicit justification. It is not enough to claim to be offended. Moreover, a person’s identity or status is no reason for blanket exclusion or suppression of speech. The question is whether the speech is rational and relevant. 

I have to interject a pragmatic point here (some advice) that actions disrupting public events make protesting look bad and hurts their cause, however much I may agree with them. The conclusion many observers of such actions reach is that the disrupters don’t have a rational counterargument and that they suffer from authoritarian desire. The second assumption is true, but the first assumption may not be, and therefore an opportunity to engage the speaker and present the counter claim is lost. Observers may also suspect that the disrupters are more interested in engaging in behavior that draws attention to them or makes them feel empowered without actually affecting anything, in essence engaging in a type of egoism and recreation, not real political action. Most people see mob action and people don’t like mobs. Disrupting public events only serves to delegitimize the cause of protest they wish to advance. 

The demand that public forums which people are free to attend or to exit should be spaces safe from observations, opinions, and arguments that some may find offensive is an expression of authoritarian desire, even if that is not the intent. This demand flips free speech on its head. Public forums should be places safe for the free expression of arguments and opinions that some may find offensive – and this means demanding spaces that are free from disruption (this is true not only for speeches, but for concerts, art shows, plays, etc.). Shutting down discussion and debate is not a legitimate exercise of free speech; it is an act violating the right of free speech.

You have no right to silence a speaker because the speaker’s utterances offend you. You may wish to live in a world where you do not have to hear points of view with which you disagree or that offend you. To the extent that you can accomplish that by not interfering with the freedom of others to hear those points of view, have at it. But when you act to prevent others from hearing the expressions of others, you’re out of bounds.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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