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Public Speech and Democracy

We have reached a critical juncture in our democracy. The violence yesterday on Capitol Hill and throughout the summer is evidence of something gone terribly amiss. It is time we collectively accept responsibility for our gross failures of leadership. 

Certainly, there is plenty of blame to go around for this failure. Those who have advocated for or sanctioned violence, yesterday and throughout the summer, failed to lead. Those who followed without opposing calls for violence also failed to lead.  

As the Dean of University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies — the world’s first institution of its kind, where multidisciplinary faculty are dedicated to the pursuit of new insights into the complexities and challenges of leadership — yesterday’s events have escalated my worst fears. 

Our leaders have used—or sanctioned the use of—speech as a weapon.

I am reminded of the words of John Stuart Mill, a 19th-century philosopher who was a great advocate for speech. But he did not advocate speech without rules. He denounced in the harshest terms ad hominem attacks on character that masquerade as arguments. He allowed that speech that incites physical harm can be restricted, providing a famous example of inciting violence against the corn dealers of his time. He wrote that public claims stating that corn dealers were “starvers of the poor” reasonably could be expected to cause harm and, therefore, were subject to “active interference” and punishment.

Public speech that incites riot is not to be sanctioned as free speech. 

For Mill, the importance of speech derived from its use as a learning device, a way for people to make better, more tolerant, and more informed choices, especially in the case of political choices. Unlike thoughts and beliefs that are not expressed in public, Mill argued that speech is primarily a social act. Through speech, we learn to understand, and hopefully, tolerate each other.

And as a social act, speech influences others, and its ability to influence comes with a level of accountability. Those in authority, such as politicians, or professors like myself, have a responsibility to speak truthfully and listen to counterarguments. Such limitations and restrictions attempt to balance the potential harms of speech against the potential benefits.

This is particularly important in a democracy.

Speech is an important indication of whether people are ready for democracy. Despite his radical support for widening the suffrage, Mill held that not all people were ready for self-governance.

Yesterday’s events demonstrate the salience of his worries. Mill wrote that people must be willing to make democracy work, “to do what is necessary to keep it standing,” and exercise the “self-restraint” to prevent factionalized violence between opposing groups in the polity. Absent this, Mill held that people are unready for self-governance.

In his time, he worried about “backward states” where people were divided into violent factions unwilling to listen to or speak with one another. Especially in light of his connection to the East India Company, Mill opened himself up to considerable criticism for this position. But he provided a partial answer to the question of when a group is ready for freedom: when people who are able to discuss and discriminate amongst ideas without descending into factional violence are sufficiently “advanced” for democracy.

After yesterday, I can’t help but wonder if we have become like the “backward states” that concerned Mill.

One thing is certain. All levels of the polity urgently require leadership that publicly and unequivocally advocates for nonviolent listening and respect across our differences and denounces calls for violence.

Our leaders must understand the responsibility associated with the public act of speech and the need for opposing groups to be sufficiently respectful and to listen without violence. This will provide us with a path forward.