Salvo 04.18.2023 5 minutes

Free Speech Demands Good Listening Skills

Young professionals collaborating in coffeeshop

A free society depends on a free and open exchange of ideas.

When debating the merits of free speech, it’s important to recognize what free speech does in addition to arguing what it is. While it should be enough to assert that freedom of speech is an essential right, it becomes necessary to add that free speech enables a diverse society to function, empowers citizens to participate in government, and lays the foundation for a marketplace of ideas.

To function effectively as public discourse, free speech demands that people take responsibility for what they say and what they hear, and this means that they are able to listen to arguments they might not like. As Pamela Paul observes in a recent essay in the New York Times, this capacity to listen to unwelcome arguments seems to be diminishing among the youth and threatens to tear the country further apart.

Paul recognizes that this is more a problem with the Left than the Right. With few exceptions, it’s always leftists who protest conservative speakers and refuse to even associate with conservatives. They have concluded that all conservatives, even friends and families, hold views that are undeserving of any public platform or relationship.

Citing her own experience, Paul tells the story of hearing a talk by the late Antonin Scalia at Brown University. Along with her leftist classmates, she originally relished the opportunity to ridicule his speech and take him down in the Q&A session afterward. Instead, she found herself “humbled” by Scalia. This lesson carries over to her “brief” marriage to the ostensibly conservative writer Bret Stephens, whom she was able to tolerate and even appreciate his points.

She contrasts this with the leftist activists at Stanford University shouting down Judge Kyle Duncan as well as Democrat parents discouraging their children from marrying Republicans. Rather than castigate the protesters, Paul pities them. By refusing to hear the opposing side, they denied themselves an important learning opportunity whereas she and her classmates at Brown could claim that Scalia’s speech managed to “teach us the value of listening, and motivate us to be smarter.”

But listening isn’t just a matter of playing nice and giving everyone their say so that one can ultimately prevail; it’s a humanizing experience that seeks deeper understanding and connection. Listening isn’t the same thing as quietly waiting for someone else to stop talking but is a set of skills that requires training. True listening is accurately and faithfully interpreting and internalizing another person’s speech.

As a high school English teacher, most of my work involves teaching students how to do this when students read, which is really a form of listening. I have them practice how to identify and evaluate the context, logic, and overall style of a given text. Not only does this facilitate their comprehension, but it is necessary for them to properly respond to a text. Otherwise, they end up going in circles, misconstruing the text, and arguing idiotically with a straw man—unsurprisingly, a common feature of most leftist media.

Needless to say, teaching the skills of listening/reading is not an easy task for a generation of students addicted to social media. Relatively few students have actual conversations that involve speaking and listening. Rather, they will periodically sound off their feelings to others who in turn validate these utterances with a quick acknowledgement that signals approval (i.e., clicking the “like” button and sharing the post or clapping and hooting). The goal is not to learn from others but to affirm and be affirmed by members of their tribe.

For this reason, it doesn’t surprise me that today’s college students want to protest a conservative speaker—and it shouldn’t surprise Paul either, because she wrote a whole book on how the internet has changed society. Sure, some are ideologically driven, as leftists equate speech with violence and use this as justification to aggressively silence their opponents. But probably more of this has to do with the influence of social media. Shouting profanities, demonizing dissent, and getting users banned for their political views is commonplace online. It’s only natural to apply this to people in the physical world—even if it’s unfair, unconstitutional, and utterly anti-intellectual.

But if listening is a learned skill that demands patience and concentration, many people will wonder why they should bother. If it’s easier to post and scroll in an online echo chamber and gather those regular dopamine hits of affirmation, why ruin this by tolerating arguments from the other side? Paul answers this question somewhat superficially, saying that one can learn the facts of an issue and develop ways to take on the other side. In her view, listening and the learning that comes from it is just good strategy.

At no point does Paul indicate that one might actually change their beliefs and learn something about the world and themselves. Rather, she adopts the line of the ancient sophists in Greece and today’s postmodernists who see language as a tool for exerting power. The more people listen, the more power they will have to impose their will on society.

But as Socrates and most of today’s traditional conservatives aver, listening and having a debate is about reaching the truth. The goal of a conversation should never be to “agree to disagree” but to examine each one’s views and come to a consensus that best conforms with reality. If one person is right and the other person is wrong, then the person who’s wrong needs to bring himself into alignment with the thinking of the other person who’s right.

This is not the same thing as what the human resources-industrial complex insists upon in the Maoist struggle sessions it calls sensitivity training. The Left also puts a premium on “listening,” but for them, listening is a matter of discipline and submission. What we must have is recognition that active listening from both sides is necessary for the functioning of a free and open society.

Naturally, this isn’t easy to do in a diverse culture with a wide range of views, but it’s something we should strive for if we hope to live rationally and peacefully. When people stop looking for truth, as is currently happening in so many universities, chaos and frustration ensue. Once people let go of truth, they are also letting go of the underlying structure that ties a community together. Therefore, it’s important to recover the skill of listening and reverse the inevitable decline. Even if this means being proven wrong and looking like a fool, this is still much better than being wrong and fooling others.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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