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National View: There is no free speech without 'bothsidesism'

Bothsidesism refers to the journalistic practice of presenting both sides of an argument.

Aaron Alexander Zubia.jpg
Aaron Alexander Zubia
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Eighty-four percent of American adults say it is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that Americans are refraining from speaking freely because of “fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.”

The New York Times Editorial Board cited this study, commissioned with Siena College, along with a statement defending freedom of speech as “vital” for the “search for truth and knowledge.” When the board did so, critics balked. Several journalists condemned the New York Times for endorsing “bothsidesism.”

What is “bothsidesism”? The word is a recent addition to our cultural lexicon. It refers to the journalistic practice of presenting both sides of an argument. The alleged problem with this practice is that it tends to bestow on controversial views an intellectual or moral credibility they otherwise would not have.

According to one writer in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the “ disease of bothsidesism ” is evident in the Times case because it advertises a false equivalence. It places equal blame on both the political left and on the political right for promoting an environment hostile to open discourse.

In other words, progressive critics of “bothsidesism” argue that cancel culture on the left poses far less of a danger to free speech than attempts in right-leaning state legislatures to determine, by law, what can and cannot be taught in K-12 classrooms and public universities. A City University of New York professor calls this bothsidesism “appalling” because “ it equates the left criticizing hate and the right burning books .”

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The opposite of bothsidesism, of course, is onesideism. And that is what journalists are doing when they habitually exculpate one political party and charge another with all that ails the country.

It is certainly easier to congregate with like-minded people to dwell within, and speak within, our own echo chambers, so that our favored views go unchallenged.

There is, however, no free speech without bothsidesism. There is no genuine public political discourse without bothsidesism.

If we want to cultivate healthy civil discourse and make strides toward truth, we must practice bothsidesism. The ancient skeptics can help us understand why this is the case.

The academic skeptics, who were followers of Socrates, did not shy away from the hard work of engaging in for-and-against argumentation for the sake of finding views that, if not true, at least resemble truth and serve as suitable guides for thought and action.

The academic skeptics practiced bothsidesism for the sake of intellectual integrity and freedom from falsehood.

“It is our practice to say what we think against every position,” the Roman philosopher Cicero maintained. And the reason for this is simple: “We want to discover truth.”

The early modern French skeptic Pierre Bayle differentiated between philosophers who acted as reporters and those who acted as advocates. The advocate hides the weakness of his view and the strength of his opponents view. The reporter, meanwhile, represents “the strong and the weak arguments of the two opposite parties faithfully, and without any partiality.”

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Bayle thought the philosopher, like the historian, should act as a reporter. And this would seem to apply to journalists, too.

To the extent that the reporter advocates a cause, it should occur after one has laid out the arguments for the reader and sided with the one that seems most persuasive. This method, while not guaranteeing impartiality, at least promotes the kind of intellectual modesty and integrity necessary for good-faith public deliberation.

The 18th-century British philosopher David Hume was an admirer of both Bayle and Cicero. He weighed pros and cons of the party positions of the Whigs and the Tories — the parties of his day. He thought this approach would “teach us a lesson of moderation in all our political controversies.”

Through the practice of for-and-against argumentation, we might improve our own thinking and cultivate the art of discernment. That is one advantage of the liberal arts, which Hume argued “softens and humanizes the temper.” As the ancient Roman poet Ovid remarked: “A faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be cruel.”

The attempt to silence political opponents has an element of cruelty about it and it certainly dehumanizes ourselves and our political enemies. Universities, formerly bastions for the study of liberal arts, now tend to prioritize political advocacy over sound political judgment. And this has produced the kind of self-righteous zeal that has flooded journalistic outlets and that has damaged the quality of public political debate.

In the Tocqueville Program at Furman University, we strive, as Tocqueville did, “to see, not differently, but further than the parties.” This calls for the practice of bothsidesism, a prerequisite of citizenship in a democratic republic, no matter how unpopular it may seem at the moment. Onesideism, on the other hand, is a formula for stifling speech, not encouraging it.

Aaron Alexander Zubia is a postdoctoral fellow in the Tocqueville Program at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

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