Courteous Conversations: Destroying our own freedom of speech


It was not easy to find people like Dan and Jonathan.

The first thing to know is that Dan and Jonathan are both Mormons, a generally conservative group, and yet they disagree over whether homosexual marriage should have been legalized. Dan is strong, confident, and has a beard while Jonathan is clean shaven and skinny.

David explains the rules of Courteous Conversations and then pauses. The camera is already rolling, but as David is about to ask Jonathan to state his beliefs about homosexuality, he second guesses himself, fumbles a little, and then says, “you’re on camera, so we understand if you don’t want to say something.”

Johnathan nods his head, but seems unashamed. He’s a lawyer with pedigree. His father has been involved in several big gay rights cases. And when I say big, I mean the biggest ones like Proposition 8. It seems Jonathan is used to defending his opinion, even though he knows it has fallen out of favor:

He doesn’t think gay marriage should be legal.

He explains the process which has made gay marriage legal and believes the judiciary overstepped their bounds—it should have been left to the people. And that’s where the conversation gets tricky. “It’s easy to say it should be left to the people,” Jonathan explains. “But if it’s left to the people, then where do you stand?” That’s a hard question for people like Jonathan to answer out loud, in public.

It’s the question we’ve struggled to get anyone to talk about—any conservatives that is. They all worried what would happen if something “got out.” The first man we asked was a new business owner, and with the anxiety of unpaid loans hanging over him, he feared he might lose customers. For whatever reason, whether this speaks to the culture at large or not, the conservatives we contacted feared expressing their perspectives publically. And so in each of our conversations but one, the “conservative” interviewed the “liberal.”

Of course, we set it up to make this as easy as possible. We’re only asking Jonathan to state his opinion once, and remember he’s practiced at this. He doesn’t even have to defend it. It can be as bland as oats. We just want to get a basic silhouette, a parameter that makes the conversation dynamic. All the rest of the time is devoted to him interviewing Dan and trying to understand and admire Dan’s perspective. And if Jonathan reaches out to understand, others will try to understand him, right? We reap what we sow.

But when Jonathan continues, despite himself and his pedigree, he starts to stumble over his words: “Substantively, I… I…my personal view point is,” he catches his breath and finally gets it out, “I don’t think same sex marriage should be allowed.”

And that’s that. He’s said it, and we can move on to the interview. This whole conversation is about understanding Dan and why he defends gay marriage. That’s the easy part.

Dan enjoys talking. He hasn’t had a lot of chances to express his opinions, but he’s spent a lot of time thinking about it. Dan is a very smart man, a research specialist at the local university in physics and astronomy. He hasn’t slept for 24 hours because he’s submitting an article for publication later in the week. He speaks quickly, familiar with his thoughts—too familiar, even a little messy. But like a chef who may spill some flour across the counter, the mess is quickly forgotten by the splendor of the dish. Dan’s ideas are robust, substantive, and savory.

His argument, simplified, comes down to the fact that society has changed. So regardless of his personal beliefs about whether the change has been unambiguously good, it’s pretty clear that there’s a general consensus and it would be wrong for the government to deny it.

When Dan really gets going, we realize that neither liberals nor conservatives who tote the party line will be happy with his position. He believes, on the one hand, that the Supreme Court decision mandating state recognition of gay marriage was highly questionable. He agrees that children are benefited by having both male and female parents. He accepts the teaching of his religion that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful. And because of these beliefs he has asked his name to be changed in this article. Because he also worried what would happen if something “got out.”

But this is someone arguing in favor of gay marriage, just with a lot of nuances and qualifications that make his position a little more unique and thought out than most. You just never know how something will be taken. Better safe than sorry. And so we changed his name even though he spent most of his time arguing that sexual acts done behind closed doors should be unregulated by law (absent abuse); that allowing gay couples to marry is more just and more beneficial to society than requiring them either to reject a part of themselves or to engage in behaviors that are beyond the pale of social recognition. Better a stable and socially accepted couple than a series of unstable and promiscuous sexual relationships of the kind that have traditionally characterized some elements of the gay community.

This gives you a pretty good outline of Dan’s ideas. And the whole time he talks, Jonathan enjoys listening. The ideas come out very quickly, and Jonathan is often stopping Dan to clarify points. And, Jonathan explains later, in an honest attempt comprehend “I found myself making the arguments for him.”

That’s when we knew it had been a success.

At the end of the conversation, we were sure that things could not have been better. We had taken the most contentious issue of the day, and gotten people who disagree to talk frankly, openly, and productively about it.

It wasn’t until weeks later that Dan asked for his name to be changed and what had seemed like gold began to corrode. Of course, the conversation was the same as it had ever been, but it was foreign to the public sphere, and we worried that people could too easily misunderstand. But that also says something about its greatness: like most great ideas, it was full of kindling. And how do you convince people to leave behind their matches?

To us, the conversation was refreshing—ice in summer. I mean how often do you have both parties to a conversation on a divisive topic (about which they disagree) recognize the extent to which they nonetheless agree about the underlying goals and the strengths and weaknesses of particular viewpoints. And how often do you have both parties agree, as Dan and Jonathan did, that their viewpoints are a work in progress—that they remain incomplete, inadequate.

But in the public sphere, how do we let down our guard, how do we start the peace talks if it makes us vulnerable? There are a lot of people willing to take the first shot, and their comrades pat them on the back for it. It’s pretty hard to exercise freedom of speech when you’ll be crucified for it.

But if we do speak, if that basic freedom is not squelched in the public sphere, we will all have to learn to listen with humility and generosity, eager to give each other the benefit of the doubt. And we will find ourselves coming to the liberating insight that even our own viewpoints remain, like Dan’s, a work in progress—insufficient to some degree.


Go ahead and listen to Jonathan interview Dan about same-sex marriage:

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5 thoughts on “Courteous Conversations: Destroying our own freedom of speech

  1. Josh, Why are you struggling so to find individuals willing to speak on either side of your conversation? If it is fear, that in itself should be a discussion. Would a philosopher who is unafraid of consequences of free speech; perhaps someone of an older generation who does not risk loss of livelihood or credibility for speech fill your purpose? Was that generation raised in an educational environment with less absolutes and more free thought? Why are they more open to conversation–more resilient? Have they faced the kinds of risks young face now for having an opinion?

    1. That was a lot of questions. . . We did find people to talk about it (as I’ve written above), but I would be interested in finding more. Do you have anyone in mind? I’m curious, would you be hesitant to talk about this issue in a public forum? I think some people wouldn’t, but I am always a little nervous. And I think a lot of the “older” generation is also nervous. To me it has more to do with the public climate. People feel pretty passionately about the issues and that leads to harsh disagreements. But I think it’s even deeper than that. These issues go to the heart of identity, both by the issues being discussed and by the people discussing them. To many, “speaking out” is a way to show who they are and what they stand for. And when issues of identity are involved, it’s hard not to step on toes. My concern is that the current climate shuts down conversation and thus becomes counter-productive.

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