In a recent article in The Daily Princetonian, author Brandon Hunter offered conservative Princetonians a disingenuous, criticism-laden, pseudo-invitation to upcoming Latinx Heritage Month events. I find Hunter’s invitation to be insincere for a variety of reasons, but here I would like to focus instead on our point of agreement: that we should all be open to hearing from those who differ from ourselves. Situated in the context of an intense national debate surrounding the origins, limits, and consequences of free speech, Hunter’s call for us to listen before we speak is, frankly, refreshing. I must ask myself, though, whether he means for this to be a two-way conversation.
If Hunter means his statement that we all need to listen to one another in the most inclusive way possible, then I agree. Such a pluralistic approach would stand out in the current debate about speech, which has been dominated by a few positions. Much recent dialogue advises readers on the value of prioritizing empathy and respect over unrestricted liberty to say and do as we please. Some individuals articulate that, while the First Amendment’s promises may protect one from punitive consequences at the hand of a state actor, no such security protects individuals from the social and economic consequences of choosing to participate in harmful, but otherwise constitutionally legitimate, speech.
All of this is good and well, but it seems to me that many are missing the point that Hunter touched upon in his article: we should listen to even those ideas with which we know we disagree. The famous political philosopher John Stuart Mill expressed similar hopes for the free exchange of ideas in society, though certainly more eloquently than I can. To Mill, the greatest threat to the freedom of speech came not from the government, but from the coercive forces of society that would proscribe certain notions and prescribe others through social pressures, thus restricting individuals’ capacities to think and speak for themselves.
However, before I delve into my defense of Mill’s concern and its relevance to the current crusade on speech, I must answer the question I can hear my would-be critics asking: why is it inherently bad for society to impose pressures and expectations of conformity with regards to the way in which citizens interact with one another? Put another way, what’s wrong with societal pressures quieting the racists, the fascists, the extremists? To answer this question, one must employ a moral cost-benefit analysis.
When a true, but unpopular, opinion is silenced, society moves farther away from the truth. Now, if this opinion contains some truth, but also some falsehood, society must weigh whether the benefit gained from discerning the two is worth the risk that the two are not discernible and that the falsehood is accepted as truth. The outcome of this evaluation is certainly not obvious, but I am inclined to believe that such ideas should be at the very least permitted to enter the discussion, as I store faith in the intellectual capabilities of the masses to, eventually, discern the truth from the falsehood.
What is less obvious and more controversial, I think, is what occurs when the opinion is wrong. Without listening to and critically thinking about opinions — even when we know them to be fully, utterly wrong — we lose any reason to reexamine and reevaluate our own opinions. Without contemplation, we become complacent in our established beliefs, and eventually we simply accept them as truth. On the surface, this may seem unproblematic; what purpose could reevaluation serve when we are sure the views we hold are correct? However, once such dogmatic groupthink seeps in, we sacrifice the invaluable intellectual benefit of reflection.
Instead, when we reflect on the moral principles underlying positions we hold to be true, we are reminded of the values we hold which allowed us to reach these truths in the first place, and we may emphasize once again their importance. Upon reflection and through discussion, we may find that the same moral principles, in their most rudimentary states, can be applied in novel ways, in other places in our lives. This process of reflection, revision, and reapplication is rendered impossible when we prevent or pervert the sharing of ideas.
Certainly critics will respond with something like, “Are there not some ideas that are so egregiously wrong, like rape or slavery or the murder of an innocent child, that should be accepted as falsehoods and need no contemplation or revaluation?” My answer is this: teach a child that rape, slavery, and murder are wrong, but more than this, teach them why. We cannot do the latter without first understanding ourselves why we still hold these beliefs as truths, and we cannot understand without reflection, without facing up against those who still hold those beliefs.
I recently read a quote from Sheldon Sanford Wolin which read: “One reads past theories not because they are familiar and therefore confirmative, but because they are strange and therefore provocative.” Perhaps we should heed Wolin’s words.
Jacquelyn Thorbjornson is a politics major from South Thomaston, Maine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.