Stepping out of Our Comfort Zones

[Note: This is the text I used when making a keynote speech on October 16, 2016, as part of a “Building and Crossing Bridges Together” event sponsored by nine human rights-related organizations in Iowa City, Iowa.]

It is a great pleasure to be here today, and especially to share the stage with former Congressman Jim Leach.

This event seeks to focus on ways to combat hate speech and fear-mongering tactics and rhetoric, perhaps by promoting dialogue and listening to voices that are often silent or silenced.

Let me begin with free speech. Timothy Garton Ash (2016) offers four familiar arguments for it in a recent book entitled Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. “First, unless we can express ourselves freely, we will never know ourselves; we’ll barely have selves to know. Selves are formed and found through give and take with others. Second, no-holds-barred discussion is the best way to find the truth, and limiting such discussion may prevent the emergence of truths. Third, free speech is essential to good government, by criticizing the government, by exposing official misconduct, and by enlisting the wisdom of the multitude. Fourth, hearing all voices teaches us to live with diversity in our cosmopolitan world” (cited in Luban, 2016, p. 36).

Free speech is under attack in much of the world. And yet, at the same time, vile, violent, and deceitful speech has never been more prevalent. All of this, Ash emphasizes, is complicated and exacerbated by the internet and social media. “[T]he internet is”, he claims, “…history’s largest sewer” (cited in Luban, p. 36) Terrorist incitements are frequent; lies and disinformation abound; trolls and haters are everywhere.

According to David Luban, who recently reviewed Ash’s book in The New York Review of Books, “offensive speech” constitutes a crucial test case for advocates of free speech. Ash insists we have no right not to be offended, and his advice is blunt: grow a thicker skin. (As Jim Leach probably knows far better than I, elected officials need to grow pretty thick skins simply in order to remain sane.)

But what about “hate speech”?” “Unlike personal insults or mockery of cherished ideas,” Luban writes (p. 38), “hate speech…incites hatred of people on the basis of group membership—race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexuality.…The aim of laws against hate speech,” he writes, “is to ward off what Garton Ash calls ‘a constant drip-drip of dehumanizing abuse of a particular group of human beings.’ Such abuse, he warns, ‘can eventually incline people to violence against that group.’”

Ash would ban such speech only when violence associated with it is “‘intended and likely and imminent’” (quoted in Luban, p. 40). On this point, he identifies several factors that would increase the likelihood free speech will incite violent action: an influential speaker, a susceptible audience with grievances, a recognizable call to violence, a social setting conducive to violence, and an influential medium.

In my own work, both as a scholar and as a public official, I have long believed it is important to use one’s First Amendment right to advocate for what one values or believes to be true. But I don’t just blather away. I begin by learning before I start talking about any particular topic. Beyond that, years of experience have taught me it is not possible to know what I truly think or value about the topic without testing my ideas against what other people think and value. Likewise, I strongly believe that, in a well-functioning democracy, proposed policies and actions must be vetted through public debate. Done well, public debate gives us the opportunity to invent a better course of action than any one participant could imagine by her or himself.

But I am very cautious about how I use the internet and social media as a means of debating in public. I distribute information about major topics coming before the Council. I report events in which I participate as mayor (such as this one). And I praise individuals and organizations for the good and important work they do. But I do not engage in public debate on line. As Garton Ash states, the internet is full of incitements, lies, disinformation, and hate. If I dive too deeply into that rabbit hole, and if I linger there too long, I risk becoming ignorant, immersed in anger and hate, and deeply sad.

When debating public issues, I strive to inspire people, treat everyone with respect, and open gateways or build bridges that connect rather than divide people. My own personal strategy for doing this is dialogical: I talk with people who seemingly are on the other side, listen actively to what they say, ask questions, try to understand the story that underpins their beliefs and actions, seek the “emotional truth” of any factually-suspect claims they make, look for interests and experiences we share, express my own views, hear the others’ response, restate my views in a way that takes their views and “emotional truths” into account, and be open to self-transformation after fully engaging the other person’s point of view.

I don’t want to sound naïve. Almost 40 years ago, I found myself flying in close quarters next to a man who had a swastika-shaped earring. I see you have a swastika on your ear, I said. Why do you wear it? I was horrified to hear his response.

Let me make my general comments a little more real by connecting them to one of the several controversial topics Iowa City’s City Council has confronted over the over the past 5 years.

A little over six months ago, the new owner of a 410-unit lower income housing complex named Rose Oaks informed its tenants, many of whom were people of color, that the owners would be renovating the deteriorated complex substantially. The tenants would have to vacate their apartments NLT the expiration dates on their leases. The announcement caught residents by surprise. In some cases, they would have to move within a few days; others had more time. But they all had to move. And it was very difficult for any of them to know where they could go in a context where the vacancy rate for rental units is less than 2%. The situation quickly blossomed into a contentious political issue. Hyperbolic rhetoric abounded, especially at our Council meeting in early April.

During our meeting on June 5, a Congolese man who lives at Rose Oaks described his family’s situation. He spoke French, so we scurried to find someone who could translate for him. Luckily, someone in the audience volunteered. The Congolese man told us that he and his family are refugees and that he works at one of the industrial facilities just across Hwy 6. Although he is employed, his family’s income is quite low. Their children attend a nearby elementary school. But now they’ve been told they must move. He has no idea where they will live, whether they’ll be able to afford the rent, how he will get to his job, and where his children will go to school. Like other residents, he asked City government to help. They need public housing, he said.

I tell you this story to highlight a few key points.

First, the population of Iowa City is far more diverse than it was 20 years ago, and far more diverse than the State of Iowa as a whole. Roughly 12,000 of Iowa City’s ~68,000 residents are either Hispanic, black, Chinese, Korean, or subcontinental Indian. We also have large and growing populations of Sudanese and Congolese refugees. For many of these new Iowa Citians, language and cultural barriers can be formidable. Moreover, if they are African-American, Muslim, Hispanic, or recently arrived refugees from Africa or the Middle East, they know that people like them have been the subject of virulent verbal attacks and are at great risk of being arrested and deported. Many of them feel threatened and silenced as a result.

Second, the Council is also very aware of the need to respond effectively to tensions between the police and black residents. There have been several major public demonstrations in Iowa City over the past 4 ½ years, including: the protest against the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida; the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and most recently the fatal shooting of Keith Scott, by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer.

Although Iowa City has not been the site of any such shootings recently, their occurrences have elevated the significance of other police-community interactions here. Thus when an Iowa City police officer was filmed forcing a black teenager to the ground in the Lee Recreation Center last June, or when an African-American student reported he had been the victim of a hate crime in late April, protests ensued almost immediately.

Third, recognition of this increased diversity and heightened tension are two key reasons why the City Council adopted a new Strategic Plan in March. That new Plan intends to foster a more inclusive, just, and sustainable Iowa City. And one of its key priorities is to advance social justice and racial equity. If you are interested, I would be happy to provide you with details.[1]

Last, many of the City’s long-standing policies and procedures were designed for conditions that differ substantially from the ones we face now. Constructed with white Iowans, professionals, and property owners in mind, many of those policies and procedures are poorly designed to facilitate the involvement of lower-income people, people who speak a language other than English, or people who come from another culture. We’ve made many important changes in City government over the past couple years, but more remains to be done.

Let me sum up. Protecting free speech and engaging in dialogue are necessary, but they are not sufficient. What can free speech mean when you are not yet able to speak or understand English? What can it mean when you do not yet understand the structure and processes of local government? What can it mean when those governmental processes treat renters differently than property owners? What can it mean when expressing your views in public puts loved ones at risk of being deported as undocumented residents?

If we want to combat hate speech and fear-mongering, to build and cross bridges together, and “to live with diversity in our cosmopolitan world,” we need to step out of our comfort zones, talk with people who differ from ourselves, change some of our long-standing procedures, and be open to becoming something new.

Thank you. I look forward to responding to any questions you might have.


Ash, Timothy Garton. 2016. Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Luban, David. 2016. “Say What You Will?” The New York Review of Books 63, 14 (September 29): 36-40.

[1] For information about the City’s progress toward achieving the goals expressed in the Strategic Plan, see the October 2016 Strategic Plan Update. Also, for detailed information about actions the City has taken to promote racial equity over the past 2-3 years, see the City’s quarterly Diversity Initiative updates and annual Equity Reports.

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