There have recently been numerous controversies regarding alleged breaches of freedoms of speech and expression in the public sphere, in American college campuses of all places. The loudest of these events, of course, have been the media-free safe zones and reporting of hateful speech proposed by some protesters affiliated with the Concernedstudent1950 movement at the University of Missouri, as well as the controversy over Erika Christakis’ email at Yale University. These and other events clearly challenge the principle of free inquiry that American universities have traditionally nurtured, and at least in the case of Yale, explicitly championed. It looks like these groups are ,deliberately or otherwise, weakening the very same principle that allows them to freely voice their concerns and express their opinions. Are they aware of the dangers of challenging academic freedom? Wait… am I even aware of them? Why should dissenting, polemical, and –yes, even offensive— ideas be allowed to air publicly?
Freedom of Speech: Establishing First Principles
In philosophy, to establish first principles –sometimes called a priori terms– is to provide the foundational axioms from which further arguments can be inferred and developed. When we talk about the concept of freedom of speech, I think no one has established first principles more clearly and elegantly than John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty (1859). In chapter two of Mill’s philosophical work he lays out the following three reasons we should unequivocally defend free expression: 1. I May Be Wrong, 2.You May Be Right and 3. Process and Understanding of Truth.
1. I May Be Wrong
“ If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility” (pg50)
Milton argues that to attempt to silence someone’s opinion is to assume one’s infallibility, to believe to be the possessor of absolute truth. But what could be more evidently wrong than the assumption of infallibility? The whole history of human progress, especially since the Scientific Revolution (which Dr. Yuval Harari aptly calls the “Discovery of Ignorance”) has been founded on the fact that our tendency to be wrong is the only certainty we can lay claim to. Consider the scientific method. In order for a hypothesis to leave the realm of the conjectural, it must be subjected to strict experimentation. Following that, experiments are to be meticulously examined and repeatedly reproduced. And even after this whole process is successfully accomplished, the scientist always knows that their theory could, at any moment, be unrecognizably changed and improved upon.
If this acknowledgment of fallibility is necessary to answer even the simplest scientific question, how much more is it to answer complex ethical questions?
2. You May Be Right
“Though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied” (pg51)
Mill’s second point is the natural continuation of the first. Once you assume that you can never be absolutely right (because people are prone to make mistakes), it is easy to see that the only way to form accurate beliefs is by listening to differing opinions aware of the possibility that they might have something to offer. For example, Newtonian mechanics has helped us understand many things. Using its simple set of ideas, we can explain the movements of objects and the forces underlying them with elegant reasoning and mathematical validity. The theories seemed very complete, indeed in their time the amount of phenomena they could explain was unprecedented. However, despite its apparent coherence, Newtonian mechanics was questioned and out of its limitations arose what is called quantum mechanics. Imagine how much poorer we would be if we had tried to stop Einstein just because we thought of Newtonian mechanics as being absolutely right.
On this point, Mill also warns against finding shelter in the false security of consensus. Some feel justified to silence the types of speech that seem obviously wrong just because said opinion is held by an overwhelming majority. However, I think that not only sets a dangerous precedent against dissent, but also exhibits the worst kind of intellectual and moral arrogance. Let’s never forget that one of humanity’s most shameful mistakes was socially accepted, politically endorsed, and religiously justified. Indeed, in Frederick Douglass’s famous words, “slavery was preached from the pulpits” and the first steps of its eradication were radical opinions and dissenting literature.
3. The Process and Understanding of Truth
“Even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds”(pg50)
So far two of the three the examples that I have provided to try to explain Mill’s points have been scientific. I do this under the assumption that arriving at a scientific truth is similar to arriving at an ethical one in that the process has to include some sort of conflict of ideas (what is usually called a dialectical notion of truth). Scientific examples are usually better because they do not carry the political and ideological baggage that ethical examples often do. But I do want to address a point that can only be explained through ethical examples.
It seems like people are tempted to silence an opinion because it is offensive, hateful, or insensitive.In 2005 there were attempts to censor some cartoons because they were offensive towards Muslims. A few years late, Charlie Hebdo was victim of mass disapproval under the same grounds. And just very recently there was a petition signed attempting to ban Donald Trump from the UK. I believe that by trying to censor these people on the grounds of offense, we lose the value of defending our opinions (whatever they may be).
For example, there is no doubt that Trump has been in the habit of saying some very xenophobic, racist, sexist, and overall unintelligent things. It is perfectly reasonable that people would rather not hear him except for the fact that they lose the opportunity to figure out why what he is saying is so horribly wrong. I think no one has put it best than Thomas Paine than when he wrote in his introduction to the Age of Reason ,“The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.” That is the thought I want to leave you with.
Now, I am weary to end without a forceful clearing of the throat. My disapproval of the student protesters and other groups is limited to the actions that have undermined freedom of expression, not of any of their particular arguments (except, of course, in the case of Trump). For instance, I am glad students and faculty members are convening to challenge what they consider to be systemic racism in their universities. I encourage them to continue to do so and hope they’ll remember that if there be any legitimacy in their arguments, it will be unearthed through open dialogue, not censorship.