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How To Rescue The Marketplace Of Ideas From The Culture Wars Before It’s Too Late


As the crusade to classify more and more points of view as “hate speech” marches apace—including the view that it is wrong to exclude individuals because of the color of their skin— First Amendment supporters are resorting to a familiar rhetorical defense: The solution to bad speech is more speech.

The position appears commonsensical on both philosophical and practical grounds. John Stuart Mill, the classical defender of free speech, argued that the best way to understand your own position is to understand the intricacies of your opponents’.

This mutual intellectual engagement not only benefits individuals by refining their own thinking, the process of give and take also benefits everyone by enabling the best ideas to float to the top, producing authentic moral, political, and economic progress over time.

Get Ya Truth Here!

This embrace of the fray has taken the colloquial form “the marketplace of ideas.” It evokes an energetic scene in which soap-box-perched defenders of diverse viewpoints compete for the loyalty of discerning listeners based on the strength of their arguments alone. It is a form of old-school inclusion: no idea is denied entry prima facie because the marketplace has faith in the virtue of civic and cultural patience, recognizing that ideas that may be considered inconceivable today may end up being celebrated tomorrow—and vice versa.

Of course some of the barkers in the square are selling ideological snake oil, peddling viewpoints that should end up in the dust bin of history. But the reason the public can know when it’s being sold a bill of goods is because it can critically weigh the seductive, curly moustached claims against the positions of their soberer competitors. There may not be a winner every time in the exchange, but the vision assures us that, in the long arc of history, that capital-T Truth will always emerge as victor.

Whether the West has ever fully lived up to this ideal, it certainly looks quaint nowadays, if not dangerously naïve. Whatever once existed of a shared space for good-faith ideological engagement has now been carved into territorial plots, each encircled with hyper-vigilant guardians of purity ready to prevent any potential heresies. The shared pursuit of a common truth, premised on an implicit social contract that recognizes the possibility that “they” might be right and “I” might be wrong from time to time, appears to have been abandoned, leaving even toleration itself as an intolerable option.

One of the epistemological and cultural transformations that has enabled this devolution takes the form of the claim that arguments cannot be evaluated independently of the person making them. The moral and political question is no longer “What is being said?” but rather, “Who is saying it?”

Ad hominem assessments of a position—that is, either condemning or praising a viewpoint based upon the identity of the speaker rather than the soundness of the argument—used to be considered a logical fallacy. Now character deification or assassination, which becomes alarmingly less metaphorical by the day, determines both the victor and the spoils. Rallies engage in hero worship. Protesters in equally religious acts of demonization. And all of us get swept towards an ever-greater vulgar sophistry, one that has a major political party launching rhetorical attacks on the back of the F-bomb while its target gleefully troll-tweets like a teenager.

The upshot? Eighth graders—14-year-olds—have been weaponized.

Imagine All the People Debating. It’s Really Hard If You Try

As the skirmishes blunder closer to total war, perhaps we can hope that a silent majority between the battle lines will rise up and demand a return to a Millian principle of free civil discourse as a way back to sanity. It is an encouraging thought. But it is also a credulous one.

The problem with the culture wars isn’t that we aren’t talking to each other enough. It’s that we are not talking to each other at all. In short, the greatest casualty of the relentless ideological tit-for-tat of the past decade has been the very grammar of moral argumentation itself, that which makes debate possible.

For a marketplace of ideas to function both as means of supplying diverse viewpoints and as a space that enables consumers to make educated decisions among them, there must be some set of shared rules and conviction that make the market itself possible. Indeed, it is these very rules that allow for the concept of comparative value at all: if we do not have a shared pricing structure, then all ideas are equally worthless and brand-loyalty can only be determined by arbitrarily grabbing whatever beliefs advance our interests.

Let’s Consider a Few Ground Rules, Then

What might some of these basic rules look like? Let me suggest a few.

A shared commitment to the search for truth as truth. Every vendor and consumer in the marketplace should recognize that what they are ultimately after is the “truth”; even those who come to the conclusion that there “is no universal truth” have, as any introductory philosophy course will highlight, embraced a belief they believe to be universally true. It is impossible to debate any point of view that refuses to acknowledge that it is a truth claim.

A shared commitment to demonstrating how your beliefs can and should be universalized. Merely asserting a position, without explaining how and why others could possibly assent to it, makes the position impossible to evaluate. For example, claiming that a belief, by definition, can only pertain to an individual or a community (e.g., “only a man can understand this”) is to admit, up front, that those outside the group have no reason to assent to anything you say.

A shared commitment to coherence. Saying, for example, “truth is always perspectival” or “judging others is always wrong” then proceeding to lament that someone is evil and must be resisted signals to others that the foundation of your beliefs lies in some form of emotivism—i.e., “I believe/feel it; therefore it is true, independent of any other logical consideration.” Emotivist positions, especially those that are unapologetically incoherent, also cannot be evaluated or debated.

A shared commitment to methodological transparency and consistency. If you wear a shirt that says “Dude, Do You Even Science?” and cite Bill Nye as one of your intellectual heroes while also saying things like “all human beings have an equal voice and should be respected” or “abortion is morally acceptable” based on your scientific beliefs, you are engaged in methodological inconsistency, and it is likely that you are also embracing some form of emotivism. Science can certainly be a tool in moral reasoning, but it cannot, by itself, generate moral norms. This kind of methodological incoherence also prevents a position from being evaluated or debated.

A shared commitment to live according to your own beliefs and their implications. A sine qua non of any moral position is that those who espouse it both can and are willing to live according to its precepts. If, for example, you believe that all politicians who engage in sexually inappropriate behavior should be deemed unfit for office, then you should call for the ouster of everyone who engages in such behavior—not only those from opposing political parties. Debating someone who wants to profess one ideal and live according to another makes it hard to pinpoint what exactly they think and why they think it, which makes the evaluation of the position exceedingly difficult.

A shared commitment to factual accuracy and to recognizing the limitations of “facts” as a basis for moral reasoning. If you choose to live by fact, you should also be willing to die by the fact, no matter what narrative you want to advance. Likewise, you should recognize that facts, including polls, can certainly tell us empirically what is the case, but they can never tell us what should be the case. This means that non-empirical arguments, including “religious” arguments, must be part of the debate. The marketplace cannot function without them.

A shared commitment to listen carefully to each position, an openness to being wrong, and a rejection of ad hominen attacks. It pointless to enter a debate if the base starting point for all those involved in it is: “There is no way you are right, and no way I am wrong.” A marketplace implies that allegiances can change. Absent this possibility, the exchange of ideas is a purely academic exercise with no moral or civic value.

Speaking? Or Making Noise?

While these rules are not self-evident, they are necessary for any marketplace of ideas to exist and function. If we can’t agree on the pursuit of truth as truth, universalization, coherence, consistency, and a commitment to abide by our own principles and listen to each other as the necessary “buy ins” to create and enter the market, it’s not clear a) how anyone could engage in “debate” if there are no fixed rules to what counts as an argument, and b) how anyone could possibly make a rationally defensible choice among the ideas in the marketplace.

The problem, however, is that we live during a reign of epistemological paradigms and political platforms that deliberately reject these foundational principles. Whatever other consequences that entails, it ultimately renders the claim “the best solution to bad speech is more speech” as completely meaningless. It doesn’t matter how long or how much we talk if there is no shared basis for what constitutes rational speech. If this trend continues unchecked, it will eventually kill what remains of the marketplace. And when civil means of exchange collapse, it’s only natural for people to start fighting with weapons rather than words.