Why Conversations Matter

Last week we had a parliamentary debate at our academy, LBSNAA. The motion of the debate was: Right to equality implies preferential treatment for the disadvantaged. It was a highly combustible topic, yet brilliantly argued by both sides based on logic, reason and evidence, and never ad-hominem. To watch the teams not pull any punches and mock, denigrate and rip apart the other team’s arguments was absolute fun. As the debate grew on, I wasn’t so much interested in guessing which team was going to win, because the discussion in itself was more enjoyable. What held my attention was something more fundamental: the power of conversations.

A parliamentary debate at the House of Commons, London

Let me ask you a question. When was the last time you were compelled to change your mind about a topic? If you are unable to recollect, then probably you are not being challenged enough by contrarian views. If you do recollect, think about what exactly made you change. I’d guess it to be one of these: a movie, a book, an article, a speech, a debate or a casual conversation with a friend. Words and conversations have the power to change our world-view. It is our course-correcting mechanism that helps us constantly align with what’s true and not what’s popular.

This is why it pains me to see even reasonable, educated people calling for the restriction of speech based on flimsy reasons. Two recent examples come to mind. Recently, for the New Yorker magazine ideas festival, its editor in chief David Remnick had invited Steve Bannon (one of the most influential conservative thinkers in the US) for an interview. The reaction from the Left was immediate and vicious. The Twitter mob came howling, New Yorker’s own staff criticised the decision, and other reputed invitees began to drop out in protest against Bannon’s invitation. The backlash forced New Yorker to chicken out and rescind their invitation.

And thus, a wonderful opportunity to combat Bannon and to expose the shallowness of his views had given way to moral panic and political correctness. An influential person like Steve Bannon, who has a massive reach and influence, is exactly the kind of person you’d want to challenge in public and destroy his dangerous arguments for others to see. But when you ban him or disinvite him, you make him a martyr, embolden his followers and legitimise his views. Those on the fence will be drawn to him because they see people like Bannon as the only alternative to stifling political correctness.

Last year, James Damore an ex-Google employee was fired for circulating an internal memo criticising the company’s diversity programme. In the memo, Damore cited a number of studies relating to the differences between men and women to argue that Google’s diversity programme is destined to fail. Google claimed the content of the memo “advanced harmful gender stereotypes at the workplace”, when in fact, most of what he said in the memo was scientifically accurate. Of course, the company had the right to fire him. But what message does it send when a reputed company like Google fires an employee for publishing a factually accurate article just because it hurt some ideological sentiments?

If we don’t provide space for speech that tramples on our carefully constructed world-view, how do we ever come out of our bubble? In fact, if history taught us anything, it’s that our most sacred beliefs can turn out to be most embarrassing for our descendants.

Consider medieval Europe, a society that was steeped in crime and cruelty. Back then, the state and its people were convinced that the only way to combat crime is to inflict a punishment so egregious and repugnant that the perpetrators would have strong deterrence. People and governments took great pleasure in torture, mutilation and witch-burning. For all kinds of crime, the punishment meted out was brutal. It was legal to amputate ears, noses, hands, tongues, and gouge eyes of the accused. Boiling and burning a living body, disembowelment and impalement of the head on a spike were commonplace. This logic of strong deterrence sounds intuitive to our primitive brains, doesn’t it?

In 1764, Cesare Beccaria, a social scientist from Italy, wrote a seminal book titled On Crimes and Punishments challenging this popular opinion. He made a simple yet powerful argument: if the punishment for all the crimes— from a petty theft to a gruesome murder— is of the same degree, then the perpetrator would be incentivised to commit a crime that’s more grave. He advocated for punishment in proportion to the crime.

Unsurprisingly, Beccaria’s essay was met with ferocious opposition. It was burned and banned in many places. He was disparaged for his ignorant views, while others even rooted for burning him at the stake. Yet decades later, his work influenced Thomas Jefferson and Jeremy Bentham, convincing them of the irrationality and barbarity of their criminal justice system. Slowly and subsequently, Beccaria’s logic was widely accepted, giving birth to the cardinal principle of our current criminal justice system: punishment must fit the crime and that only the worst crimes deserve the worst punishment. Today, we abhor barbaric practices such as torture and impalement, but back then it was the norm. Today, we take this dictum of punishment must fit the crime for granted, but back then, his speech was seen as offensive and worthy of banning.

This is why conversations, including those that we find controversial and repugnant, are important. But what about speech that is deliberately offensive, that which hurts the sentiments of others, you may ask. Danish author Flemming Rose once wrote, “the price we pay for living in a liberal society is that from time to time, we must tolerate speech that we find deeply offensive.” All of us have a right to get offended. But our right to get offended does not give us a right to silence others.

If someone wants to broadcast his racist, sexist, and bigoted views, the solution is not to suppress that speech. Let offensive, repugnant ideas and their illogical proponents come out in public. Let such people destroy their reputations and make a fool out of themselves in full public glare. Sunlight is always the best disinfectant.

If you don’t agree with an idea, then you must use the same public platform as an opportunity to expose them. But instead of conversing, if you ban or make an idea taboo to discuss, it only emboldens them and reflects on your inability to come up with a counter-argument that’s more compelling.

Before you accuse me of being a free speech fundamentalist, I’ll concede that speech cannot be unfettered all the time, and in some exceptional cases, it needs to be excised. I’ve always wondered how to discern dangerous speech until I found this fantastic graphic.

Limits to free speech

In the graphic, the position of the legal line may be arguable, but not the moral line. It’s amazing to me that most of our controversies surround speech that criticises an idea— either a religion or a nation or a political ideology. But we must clearly distinguish the fact that if you criticise an idea, you are not attacking the believers of that idea. If you criticise smoking, it doesn’t mean you hate smokers. Mocking a faith doesn’t mean you hate the adherents of that faith. We must always be mindful that no idea is sacrosanct, no belief beyond criticism and no individual above ridicule.

The exceptions to speech are those that incite violence or present a threat of imminent violence. To prevent governments from misusing it, each of these exceptions must be legally circumscribed and individually justified.

A society that has no place for conversations or debates is a place ripe for violence, coercion and intimidation that force others into believing in a dogma, faith or a revelation. Throughout history, political and religious zealots used these methods to silence its detractors. If history teaches us any lesson, it’s that our loyalty should not be to an idea or a belief, but to evidence and reason.

As a society, we are in never-ending pursuit of truth. It’s a case of presentism that makes us believe that what we hold sacred now will always remain so. But what we take for granted today, may turn out to be utterly false in the future. We constantly calibrate and course-correct our direction in the light of new evidence. And the only way in which we can discover that evidence and truth it is through conversations and civil debate. Thus for a society to progress, free speech is fundamental.

In the debate we had at the academy, the team that opposed the motion won. They argued, rationally and passionately, that the disadvantaged deserve no special treatment and that a government must strive to empower all citizens equally.

If you are enraged at their argument or upset at how could they have won the debate, remember that it is through conversation and debate that you argue, challenge, and dislodge them off their position, and it is your right to free speech that allows you to do so. We must always remind ourselves that criticism is not persecution, argument is not assault, and words are not violence. Let speech be free and may conversations flourish.