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Democratic Speech in Divided Times



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Lepoutre, Maxime Charles  ORCID logo


Democratic theorists have influentially argued that inclusive deliberation, where citizens voice their concerns and exchange justifications, is crucial to democracy. However, this deliberative ideal has come under sustained attack for being excessively utopian. As a result, to make this ideal more relevant and action-guiding, the present thesis investigates what norms should govern deliberation in political settings marked by severe social divisions.

After motivating this project (Chapter 1), I defend the following account of deliberation. Although the requirement that deliberators appeal to shared reasons is morally attractive, even the weakest variant of this norm risks excluding too many considerations from the public deliberation of divided societies. To offset these exclusionary tendencies, I argue that public deliberation should give a greater role to emotionally-charged forms of speech, such as narrative (Chapter 2). Now, this last suggestion might seem overly inclusive, by opening the door for intensely angry narratives and for narratives expressing degrading or disrespectful views. In response to this ‘overinclusiveness’ concern, I argue 1) that degrading or disrespectful public speech is best countered through state-backed counterspeech, rather than through coercive legal norms that forcibly eliminate it from public discourse (Chapter 3) and 2) that narratives expressing anger in fact have a crucial epistemic role to play in divided societies, by enhancing our understanding of persisting injustices (Chapter 4).

The final two chapters address a pressing worry: that the deliberative norms I advance demand too much of actual citizens. One might think that if citizens distrust each other and are highly ignorant about politics, they will be unable to deliberate fruitfully. But these problems are not decisive against my account. Chapter 5 investigates how the kind of public dialogue I defend offers important resources for rebuilding trust and goodwill in divided societies. As for political ignorance, Chapter 6 demonstrates that it is equally problematic for other political systems, democratic and non-democratic. Since this ignorance threatens all accounts, the solution is not to abandon inclusive deliberation, but rather to tackle political ignorance itself.





Chambers, Clare
Langton, Rae


Democracy, Deliberation, Justice, Domination, Anger, Hate Speech, Narrative, Distrust, Ignorance


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
I received AHRC funding for this research. Grant number: AH/L503897/1