The “marketplace of ideas” concept of freedom of expression has been around since 1859 and the American philosopher John Stuart Mill. It is based on the same theory of economics that superior products sell better than inferior products: thus, spurious speech will be filtered out while the most worthy ideas rise to the top. It was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who, in a 1919 Supreme Court case, introduced the “marketplace” idea into judicial analysis and, since then, it has been repeated by the Supreme Court to oppose censorship and support freedom of thought and expression. It is a powerful idea.

Suffice to say: technology and society have evolved since Mill and Justice Holmes so purely preached that the free competition of ideas is the best way to separate falsehood from fact. Is it still relevant? Was it ever a reliable theory?

In recent years, “fake news” has become a pervading paradox to dismiss facts that are disliked over prurient opinion – which then is tweeted and followed and elevated to a point of muting objective fact. Certainly some false information is a product of misinformation posted by regular folks and spread through the blogosphere. But it’s also a new business model: entrepreneurs seek to make money by contriving false information and garnering advertising. Even more disconcerting is the increasingly predominant paradigm of opinions equating to facts with the art of dialectical discourse fading like a watermark on The Bill of Rights, and disrupting our personal lives, negotiations and conflict scenarios.

Has the “marketplace” of ideas crashed, with free speech running amok? Could it simply not withstand the relentless demagoguery of social media, which Mill and Holmes could never have imagined? Founding Father James Madison believed that the First Amendment was the triumph of reason and humanity, over error and oppression. But reason only carries humanity so far and Mr. Madison never signed up for Instagram.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson teaches three categories of truths: objective truth, personal truth and political truth. He warns against asserting a truth before making sure it’s not just an opinion you desperately want to be true. But I have to ask: if the post by the boy crying wolf surpasses one million views, does the wolf evolve from fiction to fact?

And now to challenge Dr. Tyson: is there such a thing as objective truth? And what happens when the marketplace of ideas crashes in our own back yard, threatening our job, family status, business venture, or peaceful relationship with a neighbor? As a mediator, my long-standing refrain is that there are not two sides to a story. There are actually two different stories. For each party their story is real, valid and “fact.” Philosophers throughout the ages have grappled with the question of objective fact, with varying perspectives. Plato is known for a distinctive view of objective reality. He asserted roughly that the greatest reality was not in the ordinary physical objects we perceive around us, but in what he calls Forms, or Ideas. While Nietzsche did not plainly reject truth and objectivity, he did reject the notions of absolute truth, external facts, and non-perspectival objectivity.

As individuals navigating our own stories, and as a mediator observing, listening and learning the stories (and attitudes about “facts”) of parties breaking through conflict, it is useful to bear in mind that we are not fully in control of our own story. We are interwoven with each  other forming and being reformed as we move through the world. As the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has proffered, our actions are constantly woven into the web of others.  Embracing this realization can neutralize some of the insidious loneliness (and arrogance) of the singular perspective (fueled also by Confirmation Bias – see June 2016 post on this blog) of our subjective narrative . But it requires curiosity – or at least some unfulfilled need to move forward (e.g. “If I can’t negotiate the cost of COBRA coverage and a positive reference, I risk future job opportunities and replenishing my child’s medication, which is essential to my the livelihood of my family.”).

The fact that one is engaged in conflict (and the untangling of it – through mediation or negotiation) at all, while uncomfortable for many people, is very promising because conflict is a signal that something  must change. The best advice I can offer when absorbed in a negotiation with another party whose facts differ from yours is to not place too much importance on them.


Yes, I repeat: Do not place too much importance on facts in a negotiation.

Peace-making strategies based solely on rationality and logic are limited. And remember that memory is faulty (including yours); we edit and adjust past events to fit the current situation. Instead, find out what emotionally matters to the other side, and how your stories are interwoven and informing one another. Ask what you each might lose if you don’t reach a deal.

Our nation’s “marketplace” of ideas may be in crises. But like our own individual (or organizational) conflict, I choose to believe the disruption is not only productive, but necessary for progress – which takes time, is not neat and linear, and happens in increments. When you find yourself mired in mess, it’s time to get excited because you are a player in a process that is ripe for a breakthrough.

Lucia Kanter St. Amour, Pactum Factum Principal