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  • Tom Sgouros

Paul Pelosi, Jen Lima, and Oliver Wendell Holmes

This week I forced myself to watch some of an appalling video of an attack on Paul Pelosi, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband. I couldn't get through it, but I was never a fan of snuff films. Then-speaker Pelosi has been a target of inflammatory right-wing rhetoric for several years — with prominent voices in the Republican party amplifying and repeating it. She has a long catalog of previous threats to show for this, and it's astonishing only that it took so long for one of those threats to materialize in a terrible attack. Also astonishing that nobody died as a result, though I don't want to minimize the injury delivered to an 82-year-old man.

Here in North Kingstown, school committee member Jen Lima has been an outspoken advocate of addressing racism and discrimination and that has made her the target of harassment, and even a death threat involving a picture of a noose. Others of our elected officials have felt similarly targeted, by rhetorical turns of phrase that those making them attempt to laugh off, but as we saw at the Pelosi's house, have a way of escalating right up to real actions.

The mere fact that these threats in our town have not become action — yet — is no reason for complacency, for three reasons. The first is obvious: do we wait until someone is hurt before we condemn this kind of speech? No, just on a human level, these kinds of threats and dehumanizing rhetoric are disgraceful and, as we saw at the Pelosi's, obviously dangerous.

Second, threats come from the people who are losing the argument, but that can make them more dangerous. Jennifer Lima’s only power in the school committee, and in town, is the power of persuasion. That's all. She has no power beyond that to make anyone do anything. She speaks hard lessons to our schools and our town about race and systemic bias, and yet in 2020, she was elected to office with more votes than any other local elected official. Now on the School Committee, she is only one of five votes. That she has persuaded both voters and her colleagues of the value of her proposals is to her everlasting credit and a cause for the admiration I feel for her work and accomplishments. By contrast, can one feel anything but contempt for those losers too weak to compete with her in the public square and who resort instead to slithering anonymity?

But third is vital, too. You often hear, from people claiming the microphone at School Committee meetings, or from those who would defend caustic social media posts, about the importance of Free Speech or the First Amendment. So let me re-introduce you to one of America's most ardent and articulate defenders of free speech, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. In his dissent in Abrams v. US (1919), he was the guy who wrote stirring words about the importance of protecting speech you do not like, even if earlier that same year he was also the guy who wrote about how the First Amendment does not protect people shouting fire in a crowded theatre. (That was Schenck v. US.)

People mistake him, though, when they think the only limits he would put on free speech have to do with whether or not there is a "clear and present danger," the requirement his decision put on the legal limits to free speech, illustrated by that call of "Fire!" Sure, that is the legal standard he created for allowable limits to speech, but Holmes was a man of ideas, not just of the law. He was a charter member of the "Metaphysical Club" back in the 1870s, with philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, psychologist William James, education reformer John Dewey, and more. That is, he was among the most important of those American Pragmatist movement philosophers, and certainly the one whose contributions to our intellectual life have had the longest and deepest impact on our nation.

In their search for enlightenment, the Pragmatists confessed uncertainty about any absolutes of religion and philosophy, except for one: the value of discussion and experiment. To them, an honest search for truth was impossible to imagine without free conversation and exchange of ideas. But a crucial component of any discussion is mutual respect and good faith. I hear your contribution and respond to it, and you hear mine. When we corrupt that exchange with ad hominem attacks or the imputation of corrupt motives, when we seek to tarnish our adversaries as tools and traitors, as "groomers" or "pedophiles", we create impossible barriers to the exchange of ideas Holmes and his buddies thought essential to the search for truth. Tactics like these might win an election, but at the loss of the good that would come from real conversation. This is where the nut of his Abrams dissent goes in a famous quote:

"...the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out."

Again, no school committee member or town councilor in North Kingstown has anything at their disposal to achieve and hold on to their seats besides the quality of their ideas and the vigor with which they promote them. If you think you can do better, go ahead and try. As they say, it's a free country.

There are moral dimensions to any public policy advocacy, whether it be state tax policy, town development policy, or school library policy. The obvious dimension is the morality of the subject of the advocacy, of course. Are we talking about policy to make the lives of disadvantaged people easier? Or are you promoting policy to ignore obvious inequities? This can be a point of debate, but debate is also a point because another vital dimension is how we conduct ourselves in it.

Are you actually interested in the actual outcomes for our children, our town, or our state? Then you will listen as much as you talk, respect your opposition, and show good faith by being rigorously honest about what the evidence says. You must allow yourself to be persuaded when you hear argument you cannot refute. (You can even be rigorous about the names you call; there is no shame in correctly labeling a traitor, for example.) But seeking to shut down opposing viewpoints by mob action, calling adversaries inflammatory names, or unleashing threats of violence are all indications that you are not actually honest in the aims you claim to pursue.

In his Abrams dissent, Holmes also wrote this:

"I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe"

The opinion was about legal oppression, but his writings and history insist that he would have said the same about any kind of measure that checks the conversation, whether applied by the government or by any participant in the debate. Honesty is honesty and the subversion of an honest exchange of ideas is not that.

This essay has already gone too long, but I will close by paraphrasing Holmes's closing of the same Abrams dissent, where he regretted the limitations of his language. In the same way, my words are inadequate to describe the passion behind my belief that peaceful coexistence with our neighbors and fellow citizens demands respect for their contributions and respect for the conduct of the ongoing conversation that is our public life. And I regret immensely that I cannot put into more impressive words my contempt and scorn for those who seek to derail our public conversation with bad faith and inflammatory language, or worse to shut it down entirely with the filth of violent threats.


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