Desert Sage: Reconsidering the ‘marketplace of ideas’

are planning another “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of last summer’s mayhem in Charlottesville, Virginia – that weekend the country saw Nazi flags and other fascist emblems paraded in American streets.

A lot of factors led us here, including unexamined notions such as the so-called marketplace of ideas.

In 1969, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that struck down a state law prohibiting speech that advocated violence, and reversed the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan member who gave a speech at a Klan rally calling for “revengeance” against black people and Jews. 

The ruling laid a legal foundation. You have a first amendment right to say hateful and fearsome things, short of actual incitement, and other members of the community have a right to respond to you. 

This follows an intellectual legacy that believes if everyone is allowed an equal say, people will naturally find their way toward the truth – which, like love, always conquers all.

This mystical notion underlies what is known as the paradox of tolerance: if any speech is worthy of a prominent platform in civil society, what about speech that argues against facts and rational argument, urges followers not to engage in rational discourse, and encourage them to argue with violence instead? Does any of this sound familiar? 

This is not a call for rampant censorship, but the notion that any uninformed and toxic opinion is entitled to a platform can be examined. There is an expanse of potential responses worth exploring. 

The notion of a marketplace of ideas is pervasive in the public imagination as well as law. We even say, when expressing skepticism about a proposition, “I don’t buy it.”

For such a basic notion in American life and jurisprudence, it quickly turns humorous when we consider the implications.

Do we believe, for instance, that individuals select religion as dispassionate shoppers voluntarily entering a marketplace where all faith traditions are displayed on level ground?

How about political philosophy? Do these beliefs evolve through the influence of family, friends, mentors, in relationship with desire, virtues, life experiences and how we think about them? Or did we go to the store one day where a helpful attendant said to us, “Try on libertarianism! That looks like the best fit for you.”

Is it even possible, speaking of political philosophy, to “select” capitalism in this marketplace of ideas, or is it an invisible background impervious to thought? 

Subjecting a human mind to market principles in which thoughts are consumer goods has far-reaching implications for society, and democracy in particular. 

In a marketplace of ideas, I need only select the faith and convictions that please me or buy me membership in a social group. No other fidelity is required: an interest in truth or justice is negotiable.

The American practice of democracy only requires equality before the law and the right to vote – and in reality even these are distributed unequally and frequently breached, often violently.

We don’t want the coercive force of government to dictate thoughts, but that doesn’t mean a citizenry should not consciously evaluate its public squares and media, and make value judgments distinguishing the voices calling for the destruction of human civility from the voices upholding it.

It is a fallacy to define civility as non-judgmental politeness. Civility (from civilis in Latin) means a conscious project by which a citizenry can share a society in peace.

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