I was going to call this post something boring like, “The Value of Freedom of Speech,” but I decided to go with the present, more click-baity title. It’s not entirely click bait. What I really want to talk about this post is not just the value of freedom of speech and expression, but the value I see in some of that speech and expression being wrong or muddle-headed. I had to title the post carefully because I don’t see value in the wrong or muddle-headed ideas themselves. The value they hold, as far as I can see, is strictly in their expression.
For a long time now, I’ve been feeling pretty Pilate-ish. “What is truth?” I imagine him sneering cynically with a shrug. I hope I don’t get to where I imagine he got: throwing in the towel of the pursuit of truth, deciding that the pursuit is hopeless, believing that it doesn’t matter what you believe, anyway. So maybe I’m not really very Pilate-ish. I still scream the question at the sky (metaphorically, not literally). But it’s really been bugging me lately.
“What is truth?” Sometimes, the truth seems so clear and obvious to me. And then life knocks the certainty out of me. Or I meet someone to whom the opposite of what seems so clear and obvious to me seems to clear and obvious to him or her. How is this possible?
I’ve found myself getting angry about it lately (or maybe I always have). I don’t want us, as a society, to have a bunch of diverse opinions all over the map on every single issue, running around, wreaking havoc. Maybe it’s because I’m rapidly turning into an irascible old lady (but then I remember that I was an irascible young lady, and before there was the Internet to shout back at, I would shout back at the TV or radio when someone was saying something I considered plainly stupid. The difference is, when you shout back at the Internet through the comment section, someone might end up hearing you.). Anyway, I find myself wanting to shut out dissenting voices. I find myself wanting to surround myself with others who think exactly like me. On every matter. Every single one. So, in other words, I find myself wanting to move to the top of mountain somewhere with only myself for company. That’s the only way I’ll avoid the discomfort of people who disagree with me. And with whom I disagree. That’s the only way I’ll avoid stupid ideas. (Except for the ones I take with me.)
And that’s bugging me, too. How do I know which of my own ideas are stupid ones? Other plainly stupid ideas look clear and obvious to their thinkers. Odds are, some of my ideas that look clear and obvious to me look plainly stupid to someone else. And some of them, no doubt, are. But I can’t know which ones. It’s quite the quagmire, this being-human stuff.
Why can’t we just be like perfectly-programmed robot-thinkers who all know the truth about everything we need to know? The only answer is, “Because we’re not perfectly-programmed robot-thinkers who know all the truth about everything we need to know.” We’re free, fallen, imperfect, unprogrammed non-robots. That’s why. So we don’t all know the truth about everything we need to know. And I acknowledge that the way things are is superior to the dystopian AI world I described. There would be no real worth in knowing truth through perfect programming. Perfection without freedom would be of no value in any kind of real way. I don’t know how to explain what I mean in five hundred words or less by that statement, so just examine your own gut to tell me if you don’t know I’m right (or is that one of those ideas that look clear and obvious to me, and … not so much to everyone else?).
So, perhaps the possibility for error had to be part and parcel of freedom, and the possibility is very much an actuality in our world. So where do we go from there?
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about truth and why it matters and how we know things and how we can trust what we know. And I haven’t come to many solid conclusions.
I mean, I sometimes know what I think is true. I have my little, central core of firm beliefs and my outer fringes of my negotiables orbiting those, and beyond those planets is a whole, vast, floating universe of all the stuff I don’t think it’s important for me to know or that I don’t think I can know. I’m always willing to capture a few of those bits of cosmic flotsam and jetsam and pull them into my knowledge orbit if I can be convinced of them, but I don’t worry too much about all the stuff I don’t think it’s important for me to know.
But how did I arrive at my core set that I do believe to be very important? How did I set about choosing the sun for my solar system?
Probably the way anyone does. I listened to what other people told me. Past the age of young childhood, I didn’t accept everything everyone told me. But I grabbed hold of my core beliefs by first hearing them somewhere. I may have some negotiable beliefs that I invented right out of my own fertile, little imagination, but by and large, the stuff I think is important is stuff someone else communicated to me.
But how did I pick and choose between what I accepted as true and what I rejected as false? Hopefully, the way anyone does. I reasoned about it. (I say “hopefully,” but that might be a forlorn hope. I’m not sure that’s where we are as a culture anymore.) I either listened to the reasons the communicator of the idea was telling me for it, or I formulated some on my own.
But this brings me back to the old frustration that my reason isn’t perfect, nor is anyone else’s. Why should I trust my reason? Why should I throw my weight down on one idea over another?
And we all must. There’s no other way to get through life. We all must hold some kind of core beliefs that we use for guiding our behaviours and decisions. It’s impossible to make any decision without referring to a belief of some kind or other back of it, even if it’s a simple belief like, “So-and-so will be mad at me if I don’t do such-and-such, so I’ll decide to do such-and-such.” The decision was made based on the belief about So-and-so’s reaction to one’s decision. Just one silly example. But if you’ll think about it, you’ll find a belief back of every decision.
So, I guess I’ve done what we all do. I listened to other people’s ideas. I reasoned about them. And then I just held my nose and jumped. I took the plunge and decided to believe one idea and reject another. It’s called faith, and we all exercise it. We must, seeing we all hold beliefs of some kind and none of us are perfectly-programmed robot-thinkers. Reason can take us to the edge of cliff, and then faith must push us over. All of us believe what we believe without 100% certainty. We may reach conclusions we believe to beyond reasonable doubt, but no beliefs can be entirely beyond the reach of unreasonable doubts.
So… that’s my conclusion on why I believe what I believe and why someone else believes the diametric opposite belief. We heard differently, or we reasoned differently, or we just, plain decided differently. In the end, that’s what it comes down to. We decided differently.
And this preamble is slowly but surely bringing me around to the value of expressing stupid ideas. Again, I don’t see any value in the stupid idea itself. In fact, I wish we were all perfect thinkers, though I’ve come around to seeing the wisdom of us not having been made as perfectly-programmed robot-thinkers. But I think the goal is one of perfect unanimity of thought where everyone knows all the truth we need to know and error is a thing of the past. (As a Christian, I’m not describing some sort of mind-control dystopia. I just mean that I believe in a life after this one where what we chose to believe in this one can land us in a perfect one as perfect beings where we’ll all think about things perfectly. And because that sounds kind of crazy to the general public, I will, one of these days, have to write a post about why I decided that the reasons for believing the Bible is true and for becoming a Christian were better than the reasons against. But not today.)
Here’s the value I see in the expression of stupid ideas: aka, free speech. Their expression moves us in the direction (just slightly) toward that state where we’re all perfect thinkers. I think the free expression of all ideas, even (maybe especially) the stupid ones, makes us all better thinkers, moving closer to truth. And unlike Pilate, I still see the pursuit of truth as a worthy goal and a necessary one.
And when I reference “stupid ideas” here, please don’t hear me saying, “Ideas I have magisterially deemed to be stupid.” I mean, ideas (and I don’t know which ones they are) that if I were that all-knowing, perfect thinker, I would deem to be stupid. Objectively stupid ideas. Even though I don’t know which ideas are objectively stupid, if there is such a thing as a real right and wrong–an absolute truth–then some ideas are objectively stupid. At least, wrong. Muddle-headed. Erroneous. There must be actual error if there is actual truth. That’s just the cold, hard nature of logic and truth.
But why do I think that the expression of stupid ideas makes us better thinkers and moves us closer to believing truth? For one thing, for the sake of the one holding the stupid idea; the one who can’t see where the idea is wrong.
Free speech — the rough and tumble give-and-take of discussion and disagreement — can occasionally help knock the stupid out of its owner’s head. Ideas of any kind are hard to shake loose from a person’s head, I’ve noticed. But if it ever happens, it only happens because the person holding one idea heard a different idea. And maybe heard some of the reasons behind the different idea.
Then, I think hearing different ideas, even the stupid ones, sharpens the good ideas. An exposure to other ways of thinking strengthens our grip on the truth. I may be holding a right and true belief in some area without knowing why I believe what I believe. If I’ve latched onto the idea simply because it was what I was told, I may toss it aside for the first stupid idea that comes along to contradict it, if I happen to be the type of person who believes whatever she’s told without questioning. But the more I’m exposed to opposing stupid ideas, the more it will occur to me, “Now, wait a minute. They can’t all be right. They contradict each other. I’m going to have to think about what I believe. I’m going to have to examine the reasons for holding any of these ideas.” The desired result would be that I explore all the ideas and their reasons and come away closer to the truth for having thought through all the conflicting ideas I’ve been exposed to.
Now, let me describe what I’m seeing in our collective cultural mindset at present which is moving in the direction of us trying to insulate ourselves against ideas we’ve deemed stupid. We put up barriers against opposing ideas like we’re trying to keep out the cold, Canadian winter. And I think there is a danger in this behaviour. I’ve seen the results, and they’re not pretty. Yes, stupid ideas (truly stupid ideas) are dangerous and damaging like those cold, Canadian winter winds. But we still need exposure to them.
For those of us on “the right,” we’ve watched in horror as “the left” launches one air strike after another against free speech. We’ve seen legislations in Canada like Bill C-16 (the infamous anti-discrimination-against-“gender-expression” bill — the “pronoun bill”) and M-103 (the anti-Islamophobia motion). We as Canadians have seen not only an erosion of our Charter-guaranteed freedom of speech and expression but the outright contravention of it. Its assassination. “The Charter is dead. Long live the police state.”
And yes, we needed exposure to the stupid idea that we should decimate our constitutional rights to freedom of speech. And then we needed to see the stupid idea for what it was and reject it. Not pass it into law.
We’ve seen UK citizens prosecuted for mean tweets or fined and threatened with jailtime for edgy YouTube jokes involving Nazi pugs. We’ve seen Tommy Robinson actually serving jailtime for exercising freedom of speech.
We’ve seen any prominent conservative speaker invited to any university campus shouted down or drowned out by fire alarms and cow bells.
We’ve seen conservative protests attacked with physical violence in the streets.
We’ve seen every social media giant demonetize, deplatform, ban, and just generally silence speech it doesn’t like (always conservative speech somehow).
It’s become a theme for the “progressive” left. It’s become a goal. A modus operandum. Ideas it deems stupid must not be heard. They must not only not be heard; they must not be expressed. They are “hate speech.” And hate speech must be made illegal. Or at least, censored in every other way possible. People must not have their feelings hurt by being exposed to someone’s stupid idea. (And that’s certainly one problem with trying to keep stupid ideas from seeing the light of day: Who gets to say which ideas are the stupid ones?)
The right is staunchly united in our agreement that silencing speech is the stupid idea. We’re clear on the necessity for freedom of speech. But I’m noticing problems in our camp, too. I’m seeings our online communities on the right devolve into echo chambers of tribalism. We may stand by a person’s right to express their stupid opinion, but we’ll exercise our own right to freedom of speech by piling all over them for it. And we might not take the time to listen or reason to see if the opinion really is a stupid one. We just know that it’s not the party line. It’s a hill we’ve already decided to die on, and so we don’t have to listen to the dissenting viewpoint. We may not know why it’s a hill we’ve decided to die on, but it just is! We want generals to fight our battles for us that we can get behind, and these are the people we’ve made our heroes, the more militant the better. We’ve stopped admiring those who are amenable to reason, to discussion, to giving the other side a hearing. We’re just out for blood. We’ve stopped valuing the reasonable person and started valuing the pugnacious person.
(This is not true of everyone on the left or the right, of course. I’m speaking in generalities.)
I do blame it on the left (of course. I’m a conservative, so of course it’s the left’s fault.) We need them and their stupid ideas. We need them for balance, for the natural push and pull of discussion and debate, for the honing of our good ideas against the iron of their stupid ones. But they’ve left us. They won’t talk to us anymore. They won’t listen to us, and they won’t talk to us, either.
Don’t you think we’re all worse off for the polarization? Don’t you think it was a superior world when we could all express our stupid ideas freely? I do. And that’s why I’m making this appeal to bring back the expression of stupid ideas. Including hate speech. Actual hate speech, not just the conservative ideas that the left labels as hate speech (because it stopped listening to us a long time ago and has no idea what our ideas are anymore. Therefore, they’re all hate speech.). But actual hate speech should be free to be expressed by those who hold hateful ideas. If we want actual hate speech, actual far-right, alt-right, ethnonationalist, racist ideas to grow, the best way we can grow them is to censor them. Bad ideas are like mushrooms, I’ve noticed. They grow best in the dark. If we want stupid ideas (and hateful ones) to fade and fall out of fashion, they have to be let out into the light. Only through exposure will they wither and die.
Since I’ve rejected my mountainttop-solo-hermitage idea as one of my stupider ideas, I’ve decided instead that I just want us to keep talking to each other. Stupid ideas or not, we have to hear each other out. It’s the only way to learn and grow and move toward greater truth.