There’s another word for allowing free speech: empathy
In this article, I will explain why true empathy means allowing freedom of speech.
When we practise empathy, we allow people to say whatever is on their minds. We listen carefully. We try to get a real sense of where they are coming from and we sincerely consider their viewpoint. We try not to judge them before fully hearing them out or even afterwards. We try to be as fair to them as possible and we try to relate to whatever we can in their viewpoint, even if we do not agree with it.
Although empathy is normally considered a virtue, in politics it is sometimes treated as a crime. Just allowing the “wrong” person to speak may be judged as a terrible mistake. According to some people, we should never provide a “platform” for opinions which are “harmful” or “dangerous”. In those situations, we are asked to stop empathising and if possible to avoid listening altogether.
The problem is that controlling people’s speech is also a form of oppression. Being empathic means allowing people to express themselves however they like. It means allowing them to be crazy, offensive and unpredictable if they really want to be that kind of person. Rather than protecting others from hearing anything that might upset them, it may be better to help them develop a thicker skin.
There are many ways to take what people say less seriously. Over the years, I have realised that taking offence can be viewed as a choice. And it is a choice that is more likely to make us weak than strong. I am not blaming anyone who feels hurt by the harsh remarks of others but I do think that the best solution is to develop a healthy sense of detachment and to take insensitive remarks less personally.
How to detach rather than control
When we are upset by mere words, there is an opportunity to cultivate a deeper sense of self-respect that does not depend on the complex requirement of nobody ever saying anything stupid. There are many ways to feel good about myself but controlling someone else’s words is not one of them. I can either avoid that person or treat their remarks as no different from the yapping of a small, fluffy dog.
When it comes to taking offence, I believe that I have a responsibility to assume the best of others. If someone sounds like they “might” be saying something offensive then I will assume that they do not mean it badly or are just ignorant about what they are saying in a way that is innocent and blameless. There is usually no need to jump to the conclusion that their intention is genuinely malicious.
If someone is genuinely offensive then that is their problem and it says much more about them than about me. I do not have to make it my problem by agreeing with their remarks or giving them importance which they do not deserve. Even if they yelled at me, to what extent could that really “harm” me? It would just mean that I met an interesting lunatic and have a cool story to tell.
Most organisations would discipline or fire someone if their remarks were so incredibly and intentionally rude that almost nobody would disagree that they were wrong. That is only fair in extreme cases. However, I do not believe that simply being an “A-hole” can be considered a legal crime. It should not be impossible for someone to express their views just because we disagree.
Opinions are just points of view. People are free to disagree with my views and I am free to disagree with theirs. Nobody needs to agree with me about anything. If someone has a different opinion, that does not “threaten” mine in the slightest. The only thing that threatens my view is not being allowed to express it. Freedom of speech protects everyone’s right to maintain their diversity of thought.
Opinions about “sensitive” topics such as politics and religion do not necessarily have to be treated any differently from opinions about music. If you think that my preferred music, religion or politics “sucks” then I am okay with that. Maybe it shows you have no taste in music, religion or politics! We all have our preferences and we can stand by those preferences even when someone criticises them.
Instead of trying to “protect” yourself from criticism, learn to stand up for yourself. Learn to respond calmly to those who might have a problem with you and say “I am proud of who I am, where I come from and what I believe. And nothing you say can cause me to feel ashamed of myself”. Most people who worry about feeling hurt simply need to develop more self-respect and better assertiveness.
There are clearly many ways to tolerate speech that we do not like so that other people can feel free around us. However, in this article I intend to focus more on the political reasons why freedom of speech is important and why controlling other people’s speech is dangerous. Before I get to all that, I wish to spend a few minutes exploring the nature of empathy from the perspective of psychology.
The problem of one-sided empathy
One way to explore empathy is to think about its opposite. When we think of evil, we might think of a sociopath or psychopath, such as a sadistic serial killer who tortures complete strangers. A psychopath is someone who is incapable of empathy. They may be able to fake empathy but real empathy of any kind is alien to their nature. Empathy is just not something that sociopaths and psychopaths do.
Surprisingly perhaps, some of the people who caused the most suffering in the world may not have been psychopaths or sociopaths in a clinical sense, even though we might be tempted to use such labels for them. A good example is everybody’s favourite “go to” historical bad guy, Adolf Hitler. Hitler was deranged in some ways but that does not automatically mean that he had no empathy.
Although Hitler increasingly behaved like a psychopath, I personally doubt that he was a psychopath in the strict definitional sense. He arguably demonstrated great empathy for the plight of his own people, genuinely sympathising with what many of his fellow citizens had to endure after the first world war. Adolf Hitler demonstrated what was likely to be real empathy for “Germanic” people.
The problem was that his empathy was very selective. He empathised so much with what Germans and Austrians had been through that he effectively ruled out empathising with other groups, such as Jews. I would say that his problem was not a lack of empathy but rather one-sided empathy. And I would go further by saying that one-sided empathy lies at the heart of all ideological extremism.
All ideological extremists are empathic towards the “right” group and sociopathic towards the “wrong” group. They often want to control what the “wrong” group says and to limit their freedom of speech. But this can also become a form of oppression in itself. Persecuting a group of people on the grounds that you see them as wrongdoers or oppressors can become tyrannically controlling behaviour.
Hitler demonised the Jews because he was not willing to empathise with them by considering what they were going through in a fair and understanding manner. Even though he demonstrated empathy towards Germans, his empathy did not extend to “outsiders”. His empathy was clearly inconsistent and selective. One-sided empathy is when you empathise so much with one group of people that you end up dismissing or demonising others to whom you could never imagine extending such empathy.
Even an incredibly understanding, kind and empathic person can adopt a sociopathic attitude towards another group without necessarily realising how selectively they practise or act upon their capacity for empathy. Any of us can act like empaths some of the time and sociopaths on other occasions and we do not always have the self-awareness to realise if we are demonstrating such one-sided empathy.
What is so dangerous about one-sided empathy is that those who demonstrate it come across to their own people as kind, virtuous, just and sympathetic. And they really are kind to a large extent because they may be willing to empathise very deeply and genuinely with one group. We are inclined to agree with kind people but they can still be controlling, oppressive and tyrannical towards others.
They may tell everyone how much they care about their preferred group or insist that only a deeply uncaring person would disagree with their deeply caring viewpoint. But their empathy is nevertheless dangerously one-sided. As soon as they feel that their preferred group is slightly threatened by a different group they may react like a sociopath towards other people without even realising it.
One-sided empathy typically occurs as a response to being wronged in some way. We feel so hurt or threatened by someone’s actions that we forget that they are also a human being with whom we could still empathise to some extent. That is an understandable response to a perceived or real injustice but it leads to an extreme attitude where we rule out the possibility of empathising with them.
We react against the wrongdoers so strongly or resist what they say so much that we are no longer treating them as real human beings. In other words, the other side of the coin of one-sided empathy is one-sided sociopathy. The more you care about the victim, the more you develop an attitude towards the perceived oppressor which is unreasonable, controlling, unfair and lacking in empathy of any kind.
How the narrative of oppression leads to demonisation
People often demonstrate one-sided empathy when acting on behalf of minorities and victims that they feel strongly about protecting. Even Hitler was not wrong to empathise with the Germans because many of them had been through terrible experiences including war, disadvantage and extreme poverty. In a way Hitler was a kind of social justice warrior for the oppressed German people.
But the more we focus on empathising with the victim, the more tempting it may be to ignore, dismiss, dehumanise or demonise whoever we think of as the wrongdoer or oppressor. This is particularly dangerous if the perceived wrongdoer or oppressor is a whole group that we get used to demonising, even though many of its individual members are not necessarily responsible for any wrongdoing.
Another problem with demonising “the enemy” is that we might get it wrong, just as Hitler did with the Jews. Hitler was convinced that Jews were the wrongdoers or oppressors. And so if we learned anything from that, it is that demonisation itself is something incredible dangerous. Even if we fully perceive someone’s actions to be wrong, it still important never to forget that they are a human being.
All human beings are entitled to a fair hearing and fair consideration of their views. Of course, if we see someone as “the enemy” then we may not wish to empathise with them so much that we ignore the wrongness of their actions or fail to stand up for those we wish to protect. We may need to keep some healthy distance from the wrongdoer but there is never any need to censor or demonise.
Even if we think of someone as part of a group that has been known to behave wrongly, they are still a person and we should never forget that. Historical oppression begins with an acceptance that it is okay to demonise some group and so it is vital never to allow such demonisation in our hearts. If we start thinking of any group as “awful” then we should be more worried about our own abusiveness.
Political ideology is a terrain in which demonisation thrives and even the most virtuous ideology can be corrupted by it. There is nothing wrong with being a passionate feminist but if you start believing that men are “the enemy” then that is demonisation. You may be a great champion for black rights but if you start imagining that white people are “the problem” then that is demonisation.
However noble your views may be, it is wrong to demonise someone just because they take a different view or belong to a group some of whom may have acted badly in the past. One-sided empathy is an understandable response to injustice but that does not make it right. It is completely at odds with universal empathy or true compassion, which counts every individual as a human being.
How free speech protects us from political narcissists
The problem with politics is that it attracts narcissists who seek to divide people. We may tell ourselves that only one political party is narcissistic and that another is virtuous but this is exactly what every political narcissist wants us to believe. There are often more than a few narcissists in every political party. And one of the most effective political tools of narcissism is demonisation.
Narcissists often try to polarise political discussion by speaking against empathy. They try to get you to see their opponents as terrible people whose views need to be dismissed, punished and resisted rather than allowed and understood in a spirit of empathy. They do not want us to understand the other side because such understanding gets in the way of their quest for political power.
Even if we completely disagree with someone’s position, we can still empathise with it. There may be elements of their viewpoint which make sense. Or we may discover that their viewpoint stems from intentions that are benign in surprising ways that we can only discover by giving them a fair hearing.
A political narcissist typically empathises very greatly with one group of people but thinks of the other side as “awful”, “terrible” or “evil” rather than human. They label whatever their political opponents say as “nonsense”, “biased”, “dangerous”, “hate speech”, “ignorant”, “bigoted”, “treasonous”, “stupid”, “far right”, “far left” and so on, whatever stops those people from being heard fairly.
When they successfully persuade us to dismiss what the other side has to say and get us to avoid considering other people’s reasons for taking a very different view then we have fallen for a very cheap trick. When we go along with the narcissist’s plan of demonising whoever they say is the wrongdoer or oppressor, we forget that everybody occasionally deserves a fair hearing even when we disagree.
Extending empathy to all human beings, including those whose views we regard as wrong, is the best antidote to ideological narcissism. Free speech is all that anyone has to protect themselves from political oppression. The problem with people who oppose freedom of speech is that they trust their politicians too much and so they naively go along with their plans to control their opponents.
What history has taught us is that there are more important worries than hearing something offensive. We never know what can happen or what the next political threat might be. Freedom of speech is always the first line of defence when it comes to any kind of concern we might wish to voice. If we want a society free of oppression, we need to ensure that people can speak out in case they feel threatened in any way, even if someone else finds what they are saying offensive.
If we are to have a free society based on open-mindedness, we should always be willing to listen to what other people want to say, especially if they have done some research on an issue and feel strongly about it. We do not have to agree with anyone but when we open our minds to completely different and even opposing perspectives, this demonstrates a commitment to universal compassion.
A classic sign of one-sided empathy is refusing to listen to the “wrong” group. An even worse sign is trying to stop them from expressing their view by shouting at them or being violent. This is commonly known as bullying but some narcissists misleadingly call it “political protest”. Aggressive censorship is the primary resort of a totalitarian dictatorship and it is the exact opposite of empathy.
Although I believe there are many narcissists in politics, it is worth noting that calling someone a narcissist just to silence them is also part of the problem. Labelling someone can be a very dangerous way of trying to get you to ignore, dismiss or see no validity in what they are saying. The most simple and elegant solution is learning to tolerate different views, even if we do not like them.
It is easy to make excuses for censorship but one day someone may think they have an equally good excuse to censor us. That is why free speech is the only way to protect everyone’s right to speak their minds. We may not like what someone wants to say but allowing them to say it is the only way to guarantee that we will never be censored by the government when we feel strongly about an issue.
When we make a sincere effort to understand someone’s view, we are acknowledging that they are a human being with a right to express what they really think and how they feel. Empathy does require some effort especially when we disagree with someone’s views. But it is the only fair way to have a discussion which acknowledges that even a bad view could have something genuinely valid in it.
You can often tell narcissists by their tactics because they love manipulating people. The classic manipulator is the abusive husband who says “Shut up or I’ll hit you”. The political version of that is “Shut up or I’ll accuse you of being a bad person”. The tactic of telling people who have not said anything obviously terrible that they are racist, sexist or homophobic could be manipulative.
There is nothing wrong with saying that to them if we have a good reason for it. But when we shout such accusations over what they are saying then we are more likely to look unreasonable than they do. It certainly looks more reasonable, more mature and more persuasive to let them say what they want, to write a few notes and then calmly explain why we believe they have said something wrong.
When we try and shut down discussion by throwing an ideological tantrum, we are behaving exactly as the political narcissists would prefer. If they succeed in getting us to demonise their opponents under the disguise of social justice then we have become nothing more than pawns in their power game.
Whoever we think of as our “enemy” is still a human being whose perspective we can try to understand. It can be hard to empathise with someone whose actions seem threatening. But when we give into the deliberate silencing, dehumanisation or demonisation of those we perceive as wrongdoers or oppressors, we have become ideological extremists and people then need to be protected from us.