We do not have to like or agree with one another’s ideas or beliefs but the challenge is to find ways to tolerate one another, and to manage conflicts without resorting to violence

I imagine the impulse to define and enforce the boundaries of the unsayable kicked in shortly after a remote ancestor drew something crude or insulting on the wall of a cave. The impulse has manifested itself ever since through religious and state censorship, social ostracism (“calling out”), and shunning (“cancelling”).

Much of the focus now is on the internet and social media as societies puzzle over how to respond to “hate speech”, misinformation and disinformation (including by political actors), and a censorious authoritarianism of the left that meets disagreement and dissent with ad hominem arguments (for example, labelling opponents as racist or misogynist), accusations of bad faith, and othering (“they are not us”).

I turned my mind to this during a research fellowship at the Center for Advanced Internet Studies in Bochum, Germany, in 2020-21. In relation to the Christchurch Call to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online”, and the recommendations on “hate speech” and “hate crime” in the report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the 2019 terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques, I asked two questions.

The first question was practical. What can governments and digital platforms do to regulate online content, given the nature of the online communication, the business models of big tech, challenges in moderating content, and limits to the practicality and effectiveness of de-platforming?

The second question was moral and concerns principles that govern our life together in a liberal democracy. What should governments, the private sector, civil society, and citizens do (or not do) to minimise harm from the abuse of free speech and digital communication? And what, in any case, can we reasonably expect of one another in free and open societies where people want and value different things?

If we want to … invoke the coercive power of the state to protect us from criticism, insult, offence or hurt feelings, we should be careful what we wish for. It is only a short step to the state as the sole source of truth that brooks no disagreement or dissent.

We do not have the privilege, or boredom, of living in a homogeneous society. We live with pluralism and the conflict this generates. As Karl Popper put it in his intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest (1976): “There can be no human society without conflict: such a society would be a society not of friends but of ants.”

In a free and open society, we do not have to like, agree with, affirm or otherwise approve of one another’s ideas, beliefs, attitudes, values, practices or ways of life. The challenge is to find ways to tolerate and live with what we dislike in one another, and to manage the inevitable conflicts politically, institutionally, under the rule of law, without resorting to violence or inciting others to violence.

Freedom of expression is a qualified right and there is a bottom line. Provided restrictions on the right to freedom of expression are lawful, necessary, and proportionate, the state can and should prohibit public communication that intends or is imminently likely to incite discrimination, active hostility or violence.

New Zealand law provides this protection, in accordance with international human rights standards. But if we want to go further and invoke the coercive power of the state to protect us from criticism, insult, offence or hurt feelings, we should be careful what we wish for. It is only a short step to the state as the sole source of truth that brooks no disagreement or dissent.

How, then, might we live non-violently with diversity and the conflict it generates while protecting the right to freedom of expression? An agonistic politics of difference (advanced by political theorists such as Iris Young and Chantal Mouffe) offers an alternative to censorship, calling-out and cancelling.

“Agonistic” originally referred to athletic contests in ancient Greece. An agonistic politics of difference takes pluralism and conflict seriously and wrangles this out in local contexts by negotiating priorities and trade-offs through an exchange of public reasons. The struggle and the contest are real, but we engage as opponents rather than enemies. We might not like one another, but we do not exclude. We maintain a “togetherness of strangers” (to quote Iris Young), calling in instead of calling out. Recognising our differences, we nevertheless affirm that they are us and there is no one who is not us.

In the contest of ideas in public argument, there are certain rules of engagement to observe. Informed by my reading of Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors (1993) and The Constitution of Knowledge (2021), I offer seven rules for contesting what is true and what to do in a free and open society:

1. No default – if you make a public claim that is contested, you must withdraw it or engage in the contest.

2. No guarantees – you may lose this round and have to concede you are wrong. (In a democracy, no one is infallible or wins all the time.)

3. No trumps – specialist professional expertise may be relevant when making or assessing a claim, but you may not appeal to personal authority or a privileged role for your identity, social group or lived experience.

4. No bullshitting – do not misrepresent facts or data, withhold relevant information or smokescreen the intent and implications of the claim you defend.

5. No shouting down – competing ideas are our best protection against groupthink and confirmation bias (remember, you may be wrong – rule 2).

6. No dirty fighting – engage in reasoned argument, not emotional outbursts; refrain from performative outrage and personal attack; practise civility as the art of disagreeing agreeably.

7. No final truths – even if you win this round, every claim remains open to question, criticism, and falsification.

None of this is easy, but the alternative, remember, is an authoritarianism that says, whether with a sneer or a smile, “You can’t say that!”  

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