Over the past several weeks I’ve heard numerous discussions about why the political climate in Wisconsin and the nation has become so contentious.

One explanation comes up over and over again: “The main reason,” someone will say,” is that Citizens United allows outside interest groups to spend huge sums of money on political attack ads.”

The explanation refers to the U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election commission, a 5-4 ruling that declared certain provisions of the McCain-Feingold Act unconstitutional. In the year since the decision, there has been a noticeable increase in TV and radio ads just before elections, funded by special interest groups, most of them negative in content and tone.

But is this really why the political climate is so contentious?

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the majority opinion in Citizens United, wrote that curtailing campaign ads would run the “serious risk of chilling protected speech ...” and, quoting Chief Justice John Roberts, argued that First Amendment standards “must give the benefit of any doubt to protecting rather than stifling speech.”

The majority opinion is certainly correct in noting that the First Amendment was intended to protect political speech. And whatever one thinks about the societal effects of unregulated campaign ads, one must admit that they constitute political speech.

But it is important to note that campaign ads are a mode of speech that proves more effective at tearing down than building up.

For any issue, whether it is global climate change, economic reform, education funding or agricultural policies, to make one’s position seem reasonable takes careful and detailed explanation. But to make the same position seem ridiculous can generally be done with just one artfully crafted phrase.

This is the case not just with political issues but with almost anything we do: “Golf is the sport of chasing a little white ball;” “Fishing is just sitting in a boat waving a stick;” “Bankers steal from the poor and give to the rich;” “Farming is the art of harvesting subsidies from taxpayers;” “Those who can’t do, teach.”

The problem with using words to ridicule people and activities is that it is possible to make anything we do — anything we care about — appear foolish.

We saw the outcome of the politics of ridicule in the recent debt-limit negotiations on Capitol Hill. When politicians are elected by belittling their opposition, the result is that any compromise implies a willingness to make concessions to fools. Yet, compromise is the heart of politics. It is the only way democracies get things done.

To engage in compromise requires that one see the possibility of merit in the opposition’s view. That such merit is always a possibility is actually the justification for free speech in the first place.

Consider the words of Learned Hand, a staunch defender of free speech and widely regarded as one of America’s greatest jurists: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias ...”

James Madison, who penned the Bill of Rights, understood that free speech should be a constitutional right, not because all speech is morally permissible, but because government should not be the sole arbiter of moral permissibility.

Madison believed that citizens themselves must take seriously the obligation to monitor their own speech. He wrote: “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks — no form of government can render us secure. To suppose liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

If negative campaign ads are having a corrosive effect on our nation’s politics, it is not because the Supreme Court protects them.

It is because we citizens are not vigorously defending true freedom, by supporting the organizations that fund corrosive speech and electing the politicians that benefit from it.

Corrosive speech is part of what is protected by the First Amendment. But that doesn’t mean it is ethically defensible. It doesn’t mean we should meekly accept it as something worth listening to.

The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.

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