‘Freedom’s Fray’: Democracy at Work

Crowd of people talking illustrates Speech in the marketplace of ideas

I’ll admit at the outset that I encountered the phrase “freedom’s fray” in an opinion piece by Hugh Hewitt*. Hewitt was commenting on the furious objections to the nomination of Neera Tanden to be OMB Director. Her offense was to have posted severe criticisms of those who now sat in judgment of her.

Everyone draws the line at threats. But Tanden has just clobbered people the good old-fashioned way: with words. By 19th-century standards she is actually tame. More to the point, it’s the 21st century; online and television and radio barbs are part of freedom’s fray.

— Hugh Hewitt, Washington Post, February 20, 2021

Hewitt is right – and that’s not something I say frequently or freely. But public criticism of public figures, whether they are in power or just wannabes, is a hallmark of the freedom we enjoy as a democratic society. Our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people” – and the people are common folk, for the most part. They take on the tasks of living daily lives, at work, at home, at play, at school, with friends and foes alike. We compete in small things and large, even competing at watching others – professionals – compete. We celebrate when our team vanquishes our rivals, we wallow in despair and blame when our team fails.

And in all of this push and pull of daily life, we sometimes criticize others. Sometimes. For some of us, that means frequently, even habitually, and for others it’s on rare occasion or reluctantly or apologetically.

In the semi-anonymity of the internet and social media platforms, criticism comes easily. We toss words out like tacks in the road. Some are intentionally cruel and hurtful. Some are mocking and light-hearted. Some are embellished with an emoji – a laughing face or an angry one – to try to clarify our intent when words don’t suffice.

But they are words. And, although the words are sharp, as the targets of sharply critical words, we should be able to absorb them, or deflect them, or respond to them. At minimum, we can ignore them.

We can always take heed of these words – our democracy doesn’t just permit you to speak freely, but it requires it. It’s through the freedoms of speech and press that our democracy defends itself, strengthens itself, and grows itself. When Justice Douglas enshrined the importance of speech, he wrote of the “market place of ideas”, a metaphorical reference to the value of openly sharing ideas, through speech and writings. All ideas, good or bad, are placed into the open market, freely traded and exchanged, and those that attract the most adherents will emerge as truth. The others will fall by the wayside and be discarded.

Crowd of people talking illustrates Speech in the marketplace of ideas

The modern market place of ideas is the internet. There’s nothing special about the internet. It is, for our purposes, a very large, open space, largely unregulated, where anyone can mount a soapbox and shout out their opinions. And they do. Just as in a real-life market place, there is a crazy mix of voices and a crazier mix of words.

Should we give all of them equal weight, equal importance? Of course not. That’s what a “crazy mix” means, isn’t it? It’s a mix of humor and anger, of truth and fable, of entertainment and fear, of charlatan and expert. The burden is on us to sort them out, to discard what has no value and embrace what adds to our lives.

It’s a heavy burden, and most of us probably fail at it most of the time. Like democracy itself, and like the freedoms which undergird democracy, there’s work to be done, by everyone, at every moment. Democracy doesn’t thrive unattended, nor does freedom protect itself. They are both subject to harm from active threats or negligent disregard.

Here we are, then, in the modern market place, the internet, a chaotic, obnoxious, offensive, enlightening, instructive, distracting mix of words – freedom’s fray. Rather than shut it off, rather than run from it, we serve ourselves and our country best by listening, considering, selecting, and building from what we hear. Then we can add to the fray ourselves. It’s what democracy expects of us.

* Hugh Hewitt, “Opinion: The GOP should forgive Neera Tanden”, Washington Post, February 20, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/02/20/gop-should-forgive-neera-tanden/