Political Speech in Divided Times

Jenna Silber Storey & Benjamin Storey

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It’s always hard to listen to opinions with which one disagrees, but it seems especially difficult for Americans today. Two contrary approaches have emerged to deal with this problem: One argues that the boundaries of speech should be wider; the other argues that the parameters should be narrower. Neither, however, addresses the main reason it’s so difficult for us to engage with different opinions today: our widespread anxiety in the face of social divisions that are profound and ever deepening.

Those who call for stronger protections for free speech often draw on English philosopher John Stuart Mill to remind us that, since no one knows the whole truth of things, we should encourage engagement with dramatically different points of view and ways of living. Princeton professor Keith Whittington, for instance, appeals to Mill to argue that free speech is crucial to the "boisterous and freewheeling" debates that "reflect the chaos of American democracy." The Supreme Court endorses a version of this argument, safeguarding freedom of expression on the grounds that "one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric." But insisting on free speech alone can paradoxically breed echo chambers, as human beings use their liberty to seek out the like-minded and affirm their biases. This makes it harder to listen to divergent opinions and deepens our social divisions.

Recognizing that simply protecting speech can bring about these results, others argue for authoritative limits on public debate. Left-leaning University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter proposes that public-policy debates be governed by an "epistemic arbiter" that would authoritatively declare the facts regarding issues like climate change. Similarly, the "common-good constitutionalism" of right-leaning Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule would accord judges and administrative officials the power to restrict speech they deem corrupt or noxious, even if that authority is exercised "against the subjects' own perceptions of what is best for them." But elites who attempt to impose their understanding on others tend to produce alienation and distrust rather than openness to other points of view, thereby aggravating the sense of division from which our society already suffers.

At a time when negotiation between left and right, elites and populists, the religious and the secular, can appear impossible; when opinions from across the aisle seem to pose existential threats to which we are helplessly subject; and when the specter of civil war is invoked with alarming nonchalance, we should recognize that our difficulty in listening to people with whom we disagree is most fundamentally a symptom of what Yuval Levin calls our "pathologies of passivity": fears of action that paralyze both private and public life. Fortunately, we have a particular mode of speech that was developed to address such paralysis: political speech.

Such speech is not just any kind of talk about politics. It asks and answers a specific question: "What shall we do?" Its aim is not speculative inquiry or self-expression, but the proposal of a possible course of action in which all might plausibly join. It addresses itself to the community, and assumes that its other members will have a say — that they are fellow citizens who must be persuaded to act. In so doing, it opens the speaker to the response of his auditor, summoning all parties forth from their passivity and engaging them in common work that often transforms their self-understanding.

This form of speech is characteristic of politics, correctly understood as a distinctive form of human association not found in all times and places. As Aristotle argued long ago, politics is a mean between complete freedom and unquestioned authority, and exists only when citizens possess the capacity to "rule and be ruled in turn."

The citizen is therefore a distinct kind of human being — someone who possesses both the capacity to lead and the willingness to follow the lead of others. As a leader, the citizen cultivates the capacity to rule others through persuasive speech, projecting a vision of potential action and its consequences that convinces the minds, inspires the imaginations, and animates the wills of his listeners. As someone willing to be led, the citizen cultivates the capacity to weigh arguments and accept a good one when he hears it, training himself to identify and act on those proposals most likely to advance the common good. Through political life, citizens develop architectonic intelligence, an awareness of the limits of their own understanding, and the ability to act in ways that bring about a new state of affairs, whether in obedience to their own logic or that of someone else.

Rather than fighting about whether the boundaries of speech should be broader or narrower, we should be considering how to cultivate the disposition of the citizen who is able to lead and to follow, who is able to speak and to listen, and who understands that political speech is designed to propose a common course of action to people who are not disposed to agree.

THE PARADIGM OF POLITICAL SPEECH

Political speech is a product of divided times. It does its characteristic work in moments of deep social fracturing, when people do not see eye to eye. As legal theorist Jeremy Waldron points out, the opportunity for political life arises when there is both a need to make a common decision and a disagreement about what to do. By summoning us to engage in unified action in the face of such dilemmas, political speech can initiate what the French political philosopher Pierre Manent calls the "production of the common."

The "production of the common" overcomes, if only in part, the divisions from which it springs. It thereby brings political community into existence. Manent, who understands the common as a political product rather than a political given, and who defines political speech as the medium through which the common is produced, is a uniquely helpful thinker for a divided moment such as our own, for he can help us discover the form of speech we must cultivate to summon the common into being.

Politics for Manent presupposes a heterogeneous community — in contrast to societies governed by tribal custom or religious law, which lean heavily on common experience or like-minded beliefs. As Manent argues, politics is "rooted in...social division and strives to overcome it, although always imperfectly." For without genuine and entrenched diversity, there would be no opportunity to "rule and be ruled in turn." Social division, which threatens to destroy political community, is thus also its principle of life.

To illustrate the emergence of political activity from social division, Manent examines the original experience of political life — the birth of the city, or polis, in ancient Athens. In that paradigmatic example, one can see clearly how political speech helps produce the common before the subsequent history of the West adds layers of complexity that obscure this fundamental experience.

The political life of Athens began in a time of civil war, or stasis, with social groups locked in an unproductive, deadly struggle. At the time, as Plutarch writes, Athens was not yet a true city, but a great village dominated by a few noble families that held everyone else in a condition of serfdom or debt-slavery. In the early sixth century B.C., the people revolted with a violence and effectiveness that could not be ignored.

Solon, a man of noble extraction but middling means, stepped in to mediate between the contending parties. Crucially, Solon drew forth a certain kind of speech from the two sides, helping transform the antagonists'warring passions into contending arguments. As a poet, Solon was especially suited to this task — he possessed a poet’s capacity for articulating the inarticulate. The vigorous political life for which Athens later became famous was prepared by Solon’s work of insisting that the two parties in the emergent civil war express their positions not as cries of grievance, but as claims about justice.

What differentiates a claim about justice from the expression of a grievance? Grievances are exclamations about injuries suffered — laments that aim, at most, to bring attention to a problem that one wishes someone would address. Claims, on the other hand, are speeches that presage action; they specify something that should be done. It is possible to lay out one’s complaints in a soliloquy, rehearsing them before the sympathetic audience of oneself. One can only meaningfully state a claim about justice, by contrast, in the presence of those who could potentially accept that claim and cooperate in the proposed remedy.

Making a claim about justice requires that one take one’s audience seriously, and implicitly accord it the authority to judge. By admitting the legitimacy of the other party’s perspective, claims force an appeal to an interest the two parties might hold in common. Harvey Mansfield put it this way in these pages: "All speech comes from the self, but...rises above the self when one has to give a reason." Speech that articulates a claim ceases to be the mere expression of self-interest. Although the contending parties might prefer it otherwise, reason, as Mansfield wrote, "requires the winner to make himself acceptable" by appealing to grounds he shares in common with the loser. Every political victory thus entails a concession.

The practice of this kind of political speech transforms the parties involved. Articulating assertions that must appeal to those with whom we disagree pressures each side to think of itself as part of a larger whole, which helps imagine that larger whole into being. As Manent puts it, nobles forced to articulate why they deserve to be preeminent become patricians, who defend their privilege by asserting that they do distinctive service to the city. The patrician’s claim to superiority thus rests on an appeal to the common good. Similarly, when servants cease to simply resist their masters and instead make claims about justice, they begin to think of themselves as citizens, who must appeal to an argument about what is best for all. Political argument therefore begets changes in one’s self-conception as one learns to imagine oneself in light of a larger whole.

By cajoling the contending parties of his country to transform their grievances into claims, and thereby to accept their counterparts as legitimate judges of their arguments, Solon initiated the "production of the common," which emerges as a compelling reference point in an argument and eventually becomes the orienting point of action. Those who learn to speak the language of the whole on behalf of a part help bring the common into being, regardless of whether they intend to do so. The common is thus not a presupposition of political life, but its product.

POLITICAL SPEECH IN A DIVIDED FRANCE

In the face of the despair that tempts us when we contemplate the magnitude of our divisions, Manent reminds us that extreme and even potentially violent social division is a precondition of the production of the common. In his 2015 pamphlet The Situation of France, he seeks to make this historical observation operative in the present by addressing the problems of his own country.

The "situation" Manent’s title refers to was one of increasing tension between France’s growing and restive Muslim minority and its uneasy non-Muslim majority. For decades, France had welcomed large numbers of Muslim immigrants into the country without stipulating meaningful conditions for their reception. Many thought no such conditions were necessary, assuming that secular pluralism and the experience of affluence would automatically transform Muslims into liberal individuals who accept the basic tenets of life in modern France. That did not happen, as demonstrated by a series of terrorist attacks directed at perceived violations of Sharia law, including nightclub life, the practice of Judaism, cartoons blaspheming the prophet, and the like. As a result, France came to host a population composed of groups with profoundly different convictions living warily side by side.

As Manent notes, the divided situation of France had produced plenty of speech — in the wake of the 2015 attacks, talk of the "Muslim question" abounded — but little of it was properly political. Instead of a public conversation, there had been a "tearful quarrel" consisting of angry nostalgia, the airing of grievances, and moralizing about the dangers of "Islamophobia." Such "national conversations" may invite people to say what they wish, but they do not oblige anyone to make a claim, addressed to the nation as a whole, about what France might plausibly do. While such effusions of speech allow many the opportunity to be heard, they give no one an incentive to listen.

In such a climate, enhancing free-speech protections would not produce a more meaningful exchange of views. At the same time, attempts by authorities to silence certain speech (by, for example, labeling rhetoric "Islamophobic") would encourage the problem to fester in silence.

Manent’s effort to begin a political debate presses the contending parties to recognize one another and to present themselves as groups making distinctive claims about how France as a whole should structure its common life. He argues that the non-Muslim French should take the lead here and recognize Muslims as Muslims. Too often, Manent writes, the French cast Muslims as bit players in their own political psychodrama, treating them as "a test of [France’s] post-political resolve" to prove that their country is "empty of any national or religious substance." Indeed, according to Manent, many French welcome the Muslim presence in the country as a particularly dramatic way to display their own openness. This self-referential openness, however, denies the significance of Muslims'most serious commitments, and fails to consider those commitments as proposals for how the French, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, should conduct their common life.

The religious devotions of France’s Muslim citizens, Manent insists, must not be wished away, but instead recognized as claims concerning potential common actions — claims that should be raised and debated by the French people as a whole. To demonstrate the earnestness with which a truly political French people would take the claims of its Muslim citizens, Manent argues that France should alter its laws and customs to make the country more hospitable to Muslims, offering pork-free lunch options in public schools and single-sex bathing hours at public pools. Accommodating Islamic practices in the public square in this way would require a significant transformation of the regnant French interpretation of laïcité, or "secularism," which is often understood to require that religion make itself invisible in the public square. Such a transformation would be an instance of the production of a new common.

Since political life entails ruling and being ruled in turn, Manent seeks to persuade the non-Muslim French not only to allow Muslims to have a say in "ruling" by influencing public practices in a way that would alter the meaning of laïcité, but also to articulate their own desires and fears as claims about what the country as a whole should do. To prompt this part of the debate, Manent argues that the French should identify certain practices that are essential to their way of life and ask Muslim citizens to adopt them. Manent suggests, for example, that Muslims be asked to forswear the burqa and appear in public as recognizable and accountable individuals, to renounce dependence on the foreign funding and staffing of mosques so as to demonstrate allegiance to France over other governments, and to repudiate violence as a response to offensive speech and art, embracing instead the understanding that disagreement about ideas can coexist with respect for persons.

In his effort to prompt debate between the non-Muslim French and Muslim immigrants, Manent’s writings offer us an example of how to engage in political speech that has the hope of overcoming a situation of stasis induced by a divided population. Were Manent’s intervention successful, it would produce a class of truly French Muslims — Muslims who would honor republican citizenship in that Western country as a crucial element of their identity.

At the same time, it would transform the self-understanding of the non-Muslim French. As Manent puts it, regaining their political capacity would encourage the French to abandon the vision of their country as a culturally empty human-rights machine. True political engagement with Muslim citizens would prompt the French to realize that they in fact possess a "nation of a Christian mark with a strong and enduring Jewish presence," and prepare them to add another significant element to that definition. Such transformed self-understanding by both parties would assist France in seeing itself as a political whole: a nation constituted by old and new elements and animated by ongoing divisions that it would, at last, properly recognize.

POLITICAL SPEECH IN OUR DIVIDED MOMENT

Political speech, with its diplomatic character, can seem high minded or weak willed, prone to concede too much in the search for common ground. Many on both sides today prefer fighting words — ad hominem attacks on allies who seem insufficiently hardline, or systemic critiques of our political order that depict a deck hopelessly stacked against justice and the common good.

But neither Aristotle nor Manent suppose that people would be motivated to produce the common primarily through a principled appreciation of the diverse contributions of different social classes. Instead, people are usually driven to this form of political action by a sober assessment of the potent interests in a particular community. In a country where profound social division is an undeniable reality, one might ask: What are the real alternatives?

Free-speech absolutists lodge their hopes in an epistemic "invisible hand," suggesting that some working consensus on what constitutes progress will be generated by opening the public square to every kind of argument and sentiment. Such a vision leads us to imagine it possible to be part of a political community while renouncing the duties of governance. The error of this view has been demonstrated in these pages by William Haun, who showed how Supreme Court jurisprudence based on the absolutist conception of free expression has paradoxically operated to enhance the power of the Court to determine what constitutes prohibited speech. In the name of preserving a free marketplace of ideas, Haun argues, the Court has made itself a powerful arbiter of the parameters of protected speech, thereby adopting what is more properly considered a political function. Its attempt to evade making political decisions about speech has unintentionally demonstrated that political decisions cannot be avoided.

Those who advocate authoritative elite control of public discourse assume it possible to exert significant sway over the public mind without concern for popular support. Such notions collide with the reality of human freedom, even in its most basic form of recalcitrance. When one tries to alter people’s lives on the basis of narrow political coalitions or top-down impositions of elite scientific or moral views, people often resist — sometimes in long-simmering political movements such as the pro-life coalition, and sometimes in violent outbursts. One has no choice but to deal with them.

While political speech is rooted in a realistic assessment of our divided situation, it is not without hope. As Aristotle and Manent remind us, social division can destroy communities, but it can also generate political life. This transformation is accomplished through the cultivation of political speech. When we exercise our capacity to speak the proper language of politics, our divisions seem less menacing, our resources for meeting them less paltry. If we can resist the human tendencies toward passivity and arrogance, we can train ourselves to speak and listen with the measured confidence of citizens.

JENNA SILBER STOREY and BENJAMIN STOREY are senior fellows in the Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies division of the American Enterprise Institute, and research professors at Furman University.


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