In our work, we’ve needed to consider what kinds of conversations are healthy and what are abusive bad-faith debates. We’ve come up with some ways to think about the problem and decide the best steps to take. Those steps might include continuing the discussion, adjusting the rules for conversation, or stopping things entirely as to prevent further harm.

Free speech requires each of us to choose for ourselves what we will listen to

While speakers in the U.S. use the concept of “free speech” as an excuse to share offensive, hateful, and even harmful speech, the real beauty of the right to free speech is our ability to refuse to listen. While anyone can say (almost) anything they like, they have no power to force us to listen to their words. Ultimately, everyone’s right to free speech extends only to the point where it endangers my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We choose what to listen to and what to ignore. But we have to make an actual choice where to draw the line. What speech is useful or valuable to us and our society? And what speech causes more harm than good? For myself, I draw the line at listening to speech or participating in conversations where speech can be used to harm others. A few examples of speech and debates not worth participating in include:

  • Limiting the participation of others, especially by drowning out minority groups
  • Calling for harm for other people
  • Misleading people, both overtly and subtly
  • Participating in bad faith
  • Reinforcing power imbalances
  • Relies on false equivalencies to avoid meaningful discussion

Healthy conversations are grounded in equal participation and good faith

The opposite of harmful speech is healthy debate — conversations where both sides are willing to participate in good faith (including listening to opinions they don’t agree with). There are arguments where both sides are worth listening to; we need to look for these debates, while refusing to participate in harmful speech. That means looking for key characteristics:

  • When we can be respectful and listen to each other
  • When everyone with a stake in the outcome can participate in the process as an equal
  • When everyone participates in good faith

While telling harmful and healthy debates apart isn’t as simple as referring to a spotter’s guide, reviewing the circumstances of a conversation (including who has power), as well as how participants have acted in the past, can give you an instant gut reaction. With a little practice, you can tell if a specific somebody’s speech is going to require you to schedule appointments with your therapist.

How can we put this to use?

Let’s talk about a hypothetical situation: Joe Less is a speaker covering standard alt-right talking points, like claims that women are biologically unsuited to technical work. That argument right there throws up red flags — not just because his argument runs counter to the evidence on hand, but because he’s focusing on the rights and abilities of an entire demographic group. Our hypothetical speaker is a man, with commensurate privilege and power in our society, offering another red flag: attacking groups with less power is almost always harmful.

If we research our hypothetical speaker’s background, we may have our instinctual reaction confirmed: I’d look for reactions to other talks by the same speaker, litigation against organizations dedicated to social justice, and examples of physical harm. In less hypothetical circumstances, I’ve seen that a lot of people willing to use hate speech are also willing to use physical violence.

Accepting a debate with someone like this is risky. You need to choose how much risk to expose yourself to. Depending on the circumstances, you may be faced with debates you can’t walk away from. Lots of us have that one right-wing relative who can’t wait to corner you and talk about how they want anti-immigration or anti-abortion legislation. Though it’s not comfortable, you might decide the risk of getting into a shouting match at family events is worth extending yourself.

But other situations take more consideration. You have to evaluate who you will listen to and work with. After all, there are some people who can work on issues together while holding extremely different points of view. But some people can’t: they come in refusing to act in good faith. Good faith is the litmus test when it comes to listening to both sides of an issue and to working together.

Yes, these evaluations and assessments are work. I expect the most work from people in positions of privilege and power, because people with privilege have more resources to work on these issues. And, frankly, someone in a position of power, such as the administrators of universities that our hypothetical Joe Less might speak at, have the most power to make quick changes, like shutting down a talk that could cause harm to members of the student body.

For those of us not running universities or other large organizations, there’s still work we can do. Focus on the biggest impact you can create: convince leaders in your organizations and communities to support healthy debates, rather than making space for harmful speech presented in bad faith.

Need some ideas about how to handle these conversations in your workplace?

We made you a handy guide! This includes a page you can post for others to read, and second part to support your ally efforts and self-care. Download Healthy Debates and Discussions.

Learn more tools for these conversations from our book, The Responsible Communication Style Guide.