Aaron Alexander Zubia — No Free Speech Without “Both Sides”

Eighty-four percent of American adults say it’s a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that Americans refrain from speaking out for “fear of reprisal or harsh criticism.”

The New York Times editorial board cited the study, commissioned by Siena College, along with a statement defending free speech as “vital” to the “search for truth and knowledge.” When the council did, critics balked. Several journalists condemned the New York Times for endorsing bothsidesism.


What is “bossidesism”? The word is a recent addition to our cultural lexicon. It refers to the journalistic practice of presenting both sides of an argument. The alleged problem with this practice is that it tends to give controversial viewpoints an intellectual or moral credibility that they otherwise would not have.

According to an author from the Philadelphia Inquirer, the “disease of bilateralism” is evident in the Times affair, as it heralds a false equivalence. He blames both the political left and the political right for promoting an environment hostile to open discourse.

In other words, progressive critics of “bothsidesism” argue that left-wing cancel culture poses far less danger to free speech than right-wing state legislatures’ attempts to determine, by law , which can and cannot be taught in K-12 classrooms and public universities. A professor from the City University of New York calls this bilateralism “appalling” because “it equates the hate-criticizing left with the book-burning right.”

The opposite of bilateralism, of course, is unilateralism. And that’s what journalists do when they have the habit of exculpating one political party and accusing another of everything that afflicts the country.

It’s certainly easier to come together with like-minded people to dwell and speak in our own echo chambers, so that our preferred opinions go unchallenged.

However, there is no freedom of expression without two sides. There is no real public political discourse without dualism.

If we want to cultivate healthy civil discourse and make progress toward the truth, we must practice both sides. Former skeptics can help us understand why this is the case.

Academic skeptics, who were followers of Socrates, did not hesitate to engage in pro and con argument in an effort to find viewpoints that, if not true, at least resembled the truth and served as guides. suitable for thought. and act.

Academic skeptics practiced both sides for reasons of intellectual integrity and freedom from lies.

“It is our practice to say what we think against every position,” argued the Roman philosopher Cicero. And the reason is simple: “We want to find out the truth.

The early modern French skeptic Pierre Bayle distinguished between philosophers who acted as journalists and those who acted as lawyers. The lawyer hides the weakness of his point of view and the strength of his opponents’ point of view. The journalist, on the other hand, represents “the strong arguments and the weak arguments of the two opposing sides faithfully and without any bias”.

Bayle thought that the philosopher, like the historian, should act as a reporter. And that also seems to apply to journalists.

Insofar as the journalist is making a case, this should happen after laying out the case for the reader and taking the side of whoever seems most convincing. This method, while not guaranteeing impartiality, at least fosters the kind of intellectual modesty and integrity necessary for good faith public deliberation.

The 18th century British philosopher David Hume was an admirer of Bayle and Cicero. He weighed the pros and cons of the positions of the Whigs and Conservatives – the parties of his time. He thought this approach would “teach us a lesson in moderation in all our political controversies.”

Through the practice of pro and con argumentation, we can improve our own thinking and cultivate the art of discernment. This is one of the benefits of the liberal arts, which, according to Hume, “softens and humanizes the temperament”. As the ancient Roman poet Ovid observed, “A faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes the character and enables it not to be cruel.

The attempt to silence political opponents has an element of cruelty and it certainly dehumanizes us and our political enemies. Universities, once bastions for liberal arts study, now tend to prioritize political advocacy over sound political judgment. And it produced the kind of self-righteous zeal that flooded the journalistic media and damaged the quality of public political debate.

In Furman University’s Tocqueville program, we strive, as Tocqueville did, “to see, not differently, but beyond parties.” This calls for the practice of bilateralism, a prerequisite for citizenship in a democratic republic, however unpopular it may be at present. Onesideism, on the other hand, is a formula for stifling speech, not for encouraging it.

Aaron Alexander Zubia is a postdoctoral fellow in the Tocqueville program at Furman University. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

Comments are closed.