Rhetorical Rules of Engagement

Shunning those who disagree with us won’t help anyone

Close-up, abstract photo of a bolted blue door

I recently came across a Jamaica Kincaid quotation that I shared on Twitter, more out of reflex than reflection: “It’s really important to protect free speech. And it’s really important to practice the art of shunning. They can say all the horrible things they want, and I never have to speak to them again.” The quotation found its way to me via the feed of a writer I admire, and the seeming defense of free speech was what I latched onto. It struck me as some old-school wisdom my fellow millennials and the even more censorious younger cohort coming up behind us might do well to consider.

I brushed aside whatever it was about the shunning aspect that made me uneasy. It wasn’t until a philosopher, Wes Alwan, responded with John Stuart Mill quotations to reinforce his argument that I understood what was so troubling about Kincaid’s statement.

“In On Liberty,” Alwan wrote, “Mill is concerned entirely with social coercion, not government censorship. In a liberal democracy, the dangers to freedom of discussion are almost entirely social, and the use of social media to punish people amplifies them.” Alwan cited this passage from Mill:

But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.

While shunning may seem at first glance the high-minded, even tolerant approach, when it assumes large enough proportions, its power to deform the public discourse is terrifying. Who hasn’t felt such pressure while on social media? What I realized, of course, is what’s so easy to lose sight of when you see yourself as on the side of reason: Neither censorship nor shunning is as healthy a response as engagement.

Alwan is working on a book about this subject, which I look forward to reading.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.


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