“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”
– John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty” (1859)
I posted last week on my other blog about Internet Discussion Boards and the way it appears to me that the country is moving more and more toward Newspeak.
But the reason I was so bothered last week by boards that won’t allow argument (and I mean argument in the sense of intelligent people swapping views, not in the sense of a bunch of idiots calling each other names) is that the boards in question are boards for writers.
Sure, writers have very strong opinions. And they write because they love to share their opinions. And it’s true than when a bunch of writers on a board all start sharing, you sometimes end up with flame wars.
Yes, it’s ugly.
But here’s the thing that bothers me when we don’t allow free discussion—when we won’t risk flame wars: Writers need to talk about a whole lot more than craft and road-to-publication issues. We’re trying to move people with our writing. We’re trying to affect change in our society. We’re writing about suicide and cutting and eating disorders. We’re writing about standing up to religious, over-bearing parents bent on beating us into submission, we’re talking about rape and slavery. And, yes, some of us are talking about God and about the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for sinners.
But on most of the writing loops and boards I’ve been on, talking about religion and politics aren’t allowed.
Yikes. Two of the most important things in the world and we can’t discuss them.
One of my favorite writing board ever was a board run by Dave Long, a brilliant editor at Bethany. The board was called Faith in Fiction, and it died when everyone left it to blog. I think a bunch of us had been on it long enough that we were beginning to repeat topics. So we drifted off. I made some good real life friends off that board, though. We still get together for coffee and writing retreats.
The thing that made that writing board perfect, I thought, was that no one shut down discussions. I can’t remember Dave ever coming and in and telling us to cease in our arguments. We got pretty heated at times, too.
After years of watching human beings fight, here’s my theory: If we are allowed to speak we are less frustrated—less likely to pick up a gun and shoot someone, less likely to file for divorce. If we are allowed to speak and if the other guy says, “I hear you, but I don’t agree with you,” we feel better than if the other guy just sticks his fingers in his ears and ignores us. If we are treated like adults and expected to treat each other with respect, we will often live up to that expectation.
Yeah, clamping down on all possibly offensive posts is another way of keeping the peace, but at what cost? Who grows without hearing what others, who believe differently, have to say?
I am a firm believer in free speech. I think we should all speak and trust that the readers are smart enough to decide which arguments they agree with.
I am also a firm believer that we should be allowed to belong to exclusive clubs. I think if a club wants to exclude blacks and women they should be allowed to, and if a church wants to exclude gay employees or members they should be allowed to, and if an internet discussion board wants to exclude any talk of religion or politics they should be allowed to.
I don’t want to force people to let me into their club and let me say whatever I want even if I’m offending them.
But thank God for blogs where we are free to say whatever we want. Some agents curse heavily on their blogs. Some editors promote gay rights on their blogs. Some writers talk about their faith—Jewish or Christian or Hindu or what have you—on their blogs. I hope this continues. I hope we will all feel free to discuss, to argue, to interact. It’s the only way to have a healthy country, I think.