Free Speech As A Point-Of-View Sharpener
Princeton professor Robert P. George and Harvard prof Cornel West have posted a petition in defense of freedom of speech, notes the WSJ:
For years, Professors George and West, the former a conservative and the latter a socialist, together taught a class at Princeton on how to listen to contrary points of view. Middlebury's violence drove home what many in academia have come to see more clearly now--that the most basic tenets of free inquiry and exchange are under unprecedented pressure in the U.S., not least at universities.
The George-West statement stands as a forceful rebuttal to the all-too-frequent attempt to stigmatize opponents into silence. We hope it gains the national support it deserves.
In the petition, George and West write something I have long believed -- that free speech, including the speech of people we disagree with, serves to enlighten and even improve each of us in a number of ways:
The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one's willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one's beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.
That's why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree--especially on college and university campuses. As John Stuart Mill taught, a recognition of the possibility that we may be in error is a good reason to listen to and honestly consider--and not merely to tolerate grudgingly--points of view that we do not share, and even perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous. What's more, as Mill noted, even if one happens to be right about this or that disputed matter, seriously and respectfully engaging people who disagree will deepen one's understanding of the truth and sharpen one's ability to defend it.
None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. Nor does it mean that you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either. So someone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations--evidence, reasons, arguments--led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.
They wind up with a note referencing the ugly speaker-siliencing that's going on on campuses these days -- most recently at Middlebury:
It is all-too-common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities. Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions; or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campus or, if they have already been invited, disinvited. Sometimes students and faculty members turn their backs on speakers whose opinions they don't like or simply walk out and refuse to listen to those whose convictions offend their values. Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?
Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.
This site is a free speech site because I believe in free speech. But the free speech here has also been personally good for me -- because, over the years, the challenges to my thinking by commenters here have made me a sharper and more carefully logical thinker. I also learn a lot and have changed my mind on a number of issues, after being driven to look into others' points of view (and sometimes getting mocked into doing that -- but that's okay).
After a lifetime of valuing free speech -- and seeing speaking freely but also listening to others modeled by my mother -- the idea that hurt feelz should be prioritized over free speech...well, it's a bit like suggesting we stop breathing because there might be a little pollen in the air.