Free speech is a good thing. If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you know my opinion on free speech and the right to discussion in the public square. I think that there is great value to bringing ideas out and debating them. That is the beauty of competition at work. When bad ideas are introduced in a free marketplace of ideas, the market itself provides the mechanism for bringing evidence that discredits the bad ideas. The bad ideas fade out while the good ideas continue to survive. Debate is the mechanism that provides that filtering process as different sides of an issue are presented.
The interesting thing about debate however is that it requires a set of ground rules that I think are fading away in society today. This makes me nervous for the future of intelligent debate in our republic.
The first necessary trait for debate is to have two people willing to talk about a particular issue. This seems rather fundamental, but it would not have been very much of a presidential debate if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump didn’t show up on stage.
We live in a world of echo chambers. Think about your Facebook friends list. How many people do you have on your friends list who are diametrically opposed to you on a particular issue? Now, of those people who are diametrically opposed to you, how many have you decided to unfollow so that you do not see their posts in your timeline?
Statistically, according to Pew Research, 39% of you have taken active steps to disengage with people who post content that you disagree with.
If you shut out the other side and create an echo chamber, it is hard to have a debate and actually improve your own ideas. Again, I think that the free market of ideas has a purifying effect. If an idea is good, it is only going to get better by testing and discussion. An echo chamber does not have that experience.
Think of it this way. If you only have Facebook friends who are anarchists, you can post the ridiculous argument that the government has absolutely no value in the world. I think that most people would disagree and would be willing to engage in a discussion as to why some government is good. The evidence is pretty obvious that there are positive functions of government that are good for the thriving of humanity.
In this situation, a self-selected echo chamber has been created, and you will be able to remain in your world where no one disputes that government is a horrendous evil. You might not be confronted with alternative evidence that would show that there is a role for government in the administration of our world.
With almost two out of every five people admitting to actively shutting the door to debate on Facebook, we are even losing the ability to have a debate in the first place. There cannot be two sides to a debate if one side refuses to show up.