Responsible Speech

Mark Pottenger


Americans spend a lot of time and energy on the issue of Free Speech, but I think our society would greatly benefit from devoting more time and energy to Responsible Speech. I am suggesting the term Responsible Speech for two different meanings.

The first kind of Responsible Speech is personal—one way in which people talk about things in their own lives. It is speaking about events in a way that acknowledges that our decisions and actions can affect our lives, and accepting personal responsibility for life events that happened at least partly because of our own decisions and actions. A person who never uses this kind of Responsible Speech describes each thing that happens in their life as something the world does to them. They are locked into the victim side of 1st Reality, always powerless in the face of a world that affects them. A person who uses this kind of Responsible Speech is spending at least some time in 2nd Reality.

The second kind of Responsible Speech is social—one way in which people talk to other people. This kind of Responsible Speech recognizes that what we say to other people matters—that linguistic interactions among people are a major component of our lives and realities. Socially Responsible Speech can be described as self-censored. We take responsibility to do our best to only spread true / useful / helpful speech. If we hear or read a known lie, we don't uncritically pass it on to more people. If we hear or read something we suspect may be false, we investigate it, and we don't pass it on if we confirm that it is false. If we discover that qualifiers or cautionary notes are needed, we add them.

Most people aren't very good at checking the validity of assertions they hear or read, in large part because training in that skill is nearly non-existent in our culture. One of the things to look for is networks of facts vs. networks of lies. Facts and lies are usually parts of networks that reinforce their individual components. Anyone seeking to evaluate unfamiliar assertions needs to have a solidly grounded network of factual knowledge to start from—if you don't already know which networks match reality and which don't, you can't judge the validity of anything new to you by seeing which networks it fits. False balance, presenting an issue as if both sides have equal weight and equal validity even if the presenter knows that one side has 1,000 time more evidence than the other or that one side is known to be based on lies, is unfortunately widely prevalent in modern culture. False equivalence, treating things as equivalent even if they only have some characteristics in common or differ by orders of magnitude in important characteristics, is another too-prevalent modern problem. Always check your sources, and, if needed, the sources of your sources.

As an example of trust in sources, vaccines are a very important topic currently subject to a lot of misinformation.  This is an article about COVID-19 vaccines in a recent issue of Science News, a magazine I have subscribed to and trusted for more than 4 decades.

I've used the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle in past philosophical discussions. It is useful in discussing the "Your world is your reflection of your understanding" slogan that used to be on LA-CCRS stationery, and in discussing the concept of growing apart. In this case, jigsaw images came to mind for knowledge networks. A network of facts or a network of lies fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, but a lie won't fit in the jigsaw of facts.

Regarding lies, I don't know enough about U. S. laws to know when lies rise to the level of civil fraud or criminal fraud, or when a liar is considered culpable or becomes liable. It just seems sensible to me to always strive not to propagate any lies other than the sort that consumes most of my leisure time: stories that are clearly labeled as fiction.

All communication with other people includes a component of influence. The influence can range from negligible to significant. People with larger communication networks have the potential to influence larger numbers of other people. People in positions of authority have the potential to influence larger numbers of other people more strongly than people without authority. Because of these potentials to influence more people more strongly, people in positions of authority and/or with large contact networks have a greater responsibility to monitor and moderate their speech. That is part of why presidency 45 was such a disaster for humanity—a person in a position of great authority with a large network of listeners spent 4 years indulging in grossly Irresponsible Speech, spewing multiple lies per day, among other consequences greatly increasing the U. S. death toll from COVID-19 by downplaying the reality of the pandemic and by encouraging ignorance and irresponsibility.

Copyright © 2021 Mark Pottenger

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