“Source?”: The Lost Art of Argument
Warning: I am about to present an essay that’s mostly based on my observation and anecdotes. I do not have a source for some of my claims. Read on to learn why that doesn’t matter.
The First Amendment is a powerful shield of self-affirmation. Want to make Sweeping Generalizations about a group of people you don’t like? Invoke the First Amendment. Want to express an Unpopular Opinion about the latest episode of Game of Thrones? Hey, you’re entitled to your opinion! Want to smear your car with bumper stickers to communicate your political views to strangers? That’s the American way!
Thing is, the First Amendment goes both ways. People can call you out for your Sweeping Generalizing. People can disagree with your Unpopular Opinion. People can yell at you over your bumper stickers. That’s because the First Amendment does not provide immunity from criticism. It only provides protection from government censorship. And yet, especially on the Internet, when faced with a response that they don’t like, the original poster (“OP” in Internet parlance) often shrieks that their “freedom of speech” is being interfered with or shut down. When controversial speakers or comedians can’t get booked, they claim the same. All these people confuse disagreement with censorship, and they believe that any threat to their “right-ness” is an attack on their freedoms. The American stain of entitlement is on people both left and right, young and old.
How to Do or Say Pretty Much Anything
The First Amendment packs a lot of punch. It’s really short yet confers a lot of freedoms. And yet it’s vague, hopefully a deliberate choice by the Founding Fathers, who sadly could not see into the future and therefore left us no directions on how to use it in the modern world.
Here’s what it says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
I’m no legal scholar, although I did take some law courses, but really, you just need to understand English to understand the amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
Basically, Congress can’t require you to practice a certain religion, and it also can’t prohibit you from practicing whatever religion you want.
“or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;”
In legal parlance, “abridge” means “restrict.” Congress can’t make a law restricting what you say a la 1984’s Newspeak, nor can it restrict the press.
“or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”
People can make whatever groups they want, protest whatever they want, and speak at government meetings about things they’re unhappy about. As long as they do it peaceably.
That’s it. You can do and say whatever you want — as long as you’re doing it “peaceably,” and the government really doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on if it wants to restrict you. The Freedom Forum Institute has conducted an annual survey about Americans’ opinions about, ahem, the right to an opinion since 1997. The latest survey from 2018 found that “Only one respondent out of the 1,009 people surveyed was able to correctly name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.” Indeed, there seems to be a general, perhaps wilful ignorance of what the First Amendment provides. Two-thirds of Americans agree that people should be able to say whatever they want, even if offensive. (Check out that link for full results, including discussion of generational differences, and for further reading, check out this survey about American attitudes toward hate speech and censorship.) The key is that the First Amendment doesn’t protect you from the consequences of saying and doing whatever you want. Conveniently, many people act as though the First Amendment says this:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, but any person may require their religion to be practiced by their neighbors; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, and persons may not criticize their neighbors or otherwise penalize them by declining to participate in activities therewith; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble without threat or retaliation or avoidance by neighbors and private business, and to petition the government or private businesses for a redress of grievances without fear of circumstances that might inhibit future requests.”
So, if you throw a fit in a store because they don’t accept your coupon, you can legally get banned. If you wear a MAGA hat in your Tinder profile pic and don’t get a date, you can’t claim that the First Amendment requires someone to give you a chance. And you’re never guaranteed a platform or an audience for your opinions, even if legally you can’t be denied the opportunity.
By the same token that guarantees broad freedoms for Americans — and this is where it gets sticky — private businesses can pretty much do what they want. They can refuse service to people on the basis of their opinions and behavior. According to a 2017 report from the CATO Institute, the majority of Americans agree with penalization for being offensive. Among the survey respondents, 58 percent of Democrats were okay with employers punishing employees for offensive social media posts, and 65 percent of Republicans said that NFL players should be fired for refusing to stand for the national anthem, an act which is very offensive to many people.
However, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 limits businesses from refusing service on the basis of certain protected characteristics: namely, sex and gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, religious beliefs, and disability status. In a nutshell, someone wearing a MAGA hat can be denied service on the basis of their political affiliation. Someone who is black cannot be denied service on the basis of the color of their skin. One thing can be changed; the other cannot.
If this bothers you, consider why. I think a lot of it comes down to an aversion to debate. You can’t debate someone’s existence, but you can debate someone’s opinion. If you want someone to agree with your beliefs, you have to convince them, and respectful, proper debate is a lost art form.
How to Be Right on the Internet
Most people who regularly comment online know that they are expected to provide a source if they make a claim. Newbies are quickly skewered if they make a bold statement like “The wage gap is a myth” or “George Bush was behind 9/11” and don’t have a source. They’re advised to check Google or Wikipedia, leading to the unfortunate and arrogant habit of some to post a link of Google results or the Wikipedia page as the source. More often, though, people happily embrace confirmation bias, searching until they find an article or chart that matches their opinion and posting that.
Unfortunately, the Internet rule of “Have a source” is sometimes blindly followed without an understanding of what a good source is or how to use it. A link to Google search results is not a source, and the source must be appropriate to the claim. For example, one can’t present a claim of a measurable “fact” and then offer a random blog discussing that same claim as verification. That is, you can’t say that “95 percent of Game of Thrones fans are white,” and then link to a blog that has that sentence with no source. You would need to link to a survey done by a legitimate researcher or research institution with a sufficient sample size and appropriate methods that shows the data point you’re talking about. You’re more than welcome to post blogs and news articles as “sources” if they elaborate on your points, as I did above for non-measurable claims, and qualify limitations and bias, as I did above for measurable claims.
Yet some people seem to think that slapping a link on something immediately makes it verifiable and immune from scrutiny. I have seen frustrated commentators berate those who disagree because, “I made my argument. I had a source! Now you’re just refusing to listen.” If one source were enough to change opinions, everyone’s minds would be spinning. This perception that one’s “source” validates their opinion shows that arguments are typically emotional, not logical. Proper debate rules fly out the window, despite many commentators’ pleas for others to avoid the classic fallacies of ad hominem attacks and red herrings.
Let’s be honest, everyone cherry-picks sources to suit their argument. And that’s okay. It’s acceptable to choose sources that support your argument, as long as they’re verifiable, legitimate sources. Shocking, I know, but different research studies may come up with different results, depending on the sampling method and size, the scope and bias, demographics, and simple luck of the draw. Thus, it’s possible for people on both sides of an issue to bring sourced, valid arguments to the table. That’s where debate comes in: it’s the skill to present an argument, back it up, and then respond to any rebuttal. In formal debate, civility is crucial and fallacious argument tactics will disqualify you. The key to creating a body of scientific knowledge is to continue studying, verifying previous results, and finding new questions to ask. Over time, supported hypotheses lend themselves to a theory, and the theory is then either upheld by further research, or abandoned in favor of a better explanation. Notwithstanding debate about what’s real in a “post-truth” world, anything that can be repeatedly verified is a fact. When you think about it, there’s an infinite range of what we produce and think about. It can’t all be fact. And if it’s not fact, it’s a hypothesis or an opinion.
The reason fake news is so insidious is that it isn’t created to add to humanity’s shared knowledge. It’s created to make money for its producers and then eagerly shared by those who happily use the bare-bones requirements for a “source” to legitimize their views. And fake news is designed to provide fodder for people to share sources that affirm their identity and beliefs. It’s hard to say whether people knowingly share fake news — or whether they’d admit it if they did.
To be clear: it’s your First Amendment right to share fake news, but the First Amendment does not protect you from others rebutting your claims or calling you out for a fake or inappropriate source. And the First Amendment does not mean that your opinion must be considered on equal footing with all other opinions. If you want to be considered an authoritative source on a topic, you must work for it. You don’t get it by virtue of being an American with constitutional rights. You can’t claim censorship if someone points out flaws in your argument or refuses to have you weigh in on an expert panel. In other words, while you can say anything you want, it’s not a First Amendment violation for others to refuse to listen to you. Don’t confuse losing an argument with losing the right to argue.
As Americans, we enjoy a lot of freedoms. But we shortchange ourselves when we pretend that the First Amendment allows us carte blanche to live and speak without consequence. It cheapens our identity to rely upon superficial affirmations of our beliefs rather than thoughtful defenses, to dump a frivolous or fake source in our argument and then whine about “censorship” when people disagree with us. In a nation and age when information is so freely at our fingertips, it’s frankly ridiculous to exercise our freedom of speech and press without using all the tools at our disposal. The First Amendment empowers debate, so we should not define our “free speech” as defensive claims of “I’m entitled to my opinion, so you must listen to me.” When you have the opportunity to study, read, and write pretty much whatever you want, these self-imposed limitations on free speech are far more likely than any other restrictions you might encounter.
That’s my opinion.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.