Here in America, we love our extremes. We love them in terms of behavior (hedonism versus asceticism, stinginess versus liberality, etc.), but we really love them most when we can solidify them into distinct social and political categories which take on a dichotomous relationship with their opposites. For example, we love being able to say that we are either liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, pro-life or pro-choice, often at the expense of any middle position.
These extreme categories are important because they give us a sense of shared identity. They have the power to tell us what we absolutely are without qualification, and the power to separate us from what we absolutely are not. They simultaneously comfort us and scare us by telling us we are the enlightened few, but that we are also at war with the unenlightened “other.”
They assure us that we hold the truth and are never wrong, and that casting even the slightest doubt on our self-proclaimed correctness or the righteousness of our group is both the greatest evil and the greatest absurdity. They give us the duty to cheer for our team and to jeer at others who do not belong to it.
Needless to say, this way of looking at the world is dangerous because it restricts our ability to think beyond the established orthodoxy of our chosen group and beyond the confines of our identity as a member. By choosing to see the world through a narrow lens of one extreme versus the other, we turn into uncritical, dogmatic ideologues instead of thoughtful and critical thinkers. Under the toxic spell of these extreme categories, we are no longer one people striving for truth, understanding, and peaceful coexistence; rather we become a separate species whose existence depends on the extinction of those who differ from us. In fact, one can see this toxicity displayed – both on the left and on the right – when it comes to conversations about free speech and political correctness.
On the one hand, an extremist on the issue of free speech will assert that free speech not only guarantees that they can write or say whatever they want, but that it also prevents them from being morality accountable for their speech – that is, if the people reading or listening to that speech should be offended or hurt by what is intentionally or unintentionally conveyed, that this is simply the fault of the audience.
On the other hand, someone who is an extremist for political correctness will assert that free speech is inherently dangerous, and that not only does one have a moral obligation to temper one’s speech so as to not offend people, but that those who speak freely and either intentionally or unintentionally harm others should be silenced by any means necessary.
Borrowing Aristotle’s method of finding the mean, we can therefore analyze both perspectives in order to see where they miss the mark. While the extremist for free speech is correct that that First Amendment guarantees their legal right to say anything (short of inciting hatred or violence), it ignores the moral aspect of speech – the fact that words and ideas have consequences for the people listening. By ignoring this second element, the free speech advocate minimizes the harm caused to people with legitimate grievances against what has been said. By putting an extreme emphasis on their right to be heard, the advocate for free speech denies their responsibility to others, and ends up demonizing all those who dare take offense. In the end, such people become dogmatic and irrational by perceiving the slightest hint of offense or negativity from their audience as a vicious attack on their person and on free speech itself. They are no longer people who can be reasoned with, but are ideologues ready to do battle against the “other” of political correctness.
Similarly, while the extremist for political correctness is right that one should take moral responsibility for one says, in their endeavor to protect others from harmful words or ideas, they go too far by attempting to silence the person speaking. Being especially sensitive to the harm words can cause, they have unjustly decided that only the chosen few whose ideas are deemed worthy or acceptable will enjoy the privilege of speaking freely. For such people, any thought, word, or idea with a hint of negativity needs to be stamped out immediately. In essence, they close themselves off to any kind of dialogue and cannot be reasoned with. Like the extremist for free speech, the advocate for political correctness also becomes an ideologue at war with the “other.”
After analyzing both perspectives, the middle position seems obvious. To avoid the pitfalls of either extremist, we simply need to allow for free speech to occur while holding each other morally responsible for the content of that speech. We must have the courage to speak freely and openly without coercion, but also the courage to answer for the consequences of what we say. We must recognize that although freedom of speech is vital to a healthy society, so too is the respect and understanding for the people that compose that society.
Of course, there will always be ideologues that make absolute statements, and such people are always simultaneously enticing and dangerous because they reduce the world to simple either/or categories, provide simple solutions to complex problems, and boldly assert a monopoly on truth. In my opinion, it is therefore the moral and intellectual duty of every thinking person to consciously resist the urge to be duped by such people, to openly challenge them, and to constantly question their statements until one can discern the kernel of truth beneath the emotionally-charged rhetoric.
Beyond the benefits of avoiding dichotomous thinking, constantly challenging these types of people and the statements they make also allows us to experience repeated contact with the reality of truth itself: namely, that the truth it isn’t always as clear-cut or simple as we’d like to believe. It is not something we can force to conform to our desires or beliefs, nor is it something that will magically fall into our lap without concerted effort. Often times the truth is messy, and requires us to wallow in the uncomfortable complexities of life before emerging with what only amounts to an educated guess – a guess we might not even like or be satisfied with.
To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, searching for the truth involves not only an objective outward examination of the world, but an internal examination of the soul, and is therefore a courageous act akin to a soldier’s decision to fight on the battlefield. The problem, however, is that most of us have forgotten what it means to be intellectually courageous, especially when we have the option to bathe in the warmth of emotional reassurance and ego-inflation, or when we risk the threat of chastisement or open ridicule from members of our own in-group.
Although it is far from fool-proof, by using Aristotle’s method of finding the mean as a general tool for truth-seeking, I believe we can begin to take the first steps toward restoring intellectual and moral sanity to what has arguably become a culture of intellectual and moral toxicity. Moreover, by learning to value the utility this tool provides, I believe we can collectively put an end to the perpetuation of false dichotomies and rigid ideologies that currently permeate our national discourse.