Yale. UC-Berkeley. Evergreen State. College campuses have been the site of recent disagreements concerning the freedom of speech. Some argue that millennial snowflakes need to toughen up if they want to be able to survive and succeed in the real world. Others advocate for safe spaces, in which freedom of speech is limited by particular harms to some.
My aim here is not to enter into these specific controversies, but rather to step back and offer a larger perspective that can help inform how we deal with these sorts of issues.
As a philosopher, I live in a strange environment compared to many others. For us, it is commonplace to argue about religion, the existence of God, the ethics of abortion, and many other hot-button topics. We are comfortable doing these things, as it is a part of our field of study. In the culture, these topics can often generate more heat than light. Yet I think that whatever one’s views are concerning politics, ethics, and religion, we should agree to engage in discussion, dialogue, and debate about these issues, especially when we disagree!
Consider what John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), arguably the most influential English-language philosopher of the 19th Century, wrote about this. Mill argued that we ought to engage in a frequent and full discussion of the truth, for several reasons.
First, dialogue and debate can supply the remainder of the truth. We rarely have the whole truth. Even false viewpoints may contain nuggets of truth that help us move closer to the whole truth. A position can be false overall, but nevertheless contain some truth. We would do well to listen and learn, so that we can discern such truth when it is present.
Second, discussion and debate can help us know why we believe what we do. Without knowing why we believe what we do, we might happen to believe the truth, but it’s still mere prejudice and groundless opinion. This is because in such a situation, we don’t know why it is true. To avoid this, people should be able to defend their beliefs from at least the common objections.
Third, discussion and debate keeps the truth alive. Without it, a view that is true can nevertheless become dead dogma. Instead of this, we should engage in discussion and debate. This helps the truth have an impact on our character and conduct. This is how the truth, even a dogmatic one, can be living and have a positive impact on our individual and social lives.
There are some who are seeking to foster viewpoint diversity on campus, in the spirit of what John Stuart Mill believed. The Heterodox Academy, of which I’m a member, is an example of one group that values freedom of thought and speech. It is
“a politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged. To reverse this process, we have come together to advocate for a more intellectually diverse and heterodox academy.”
If we cannot discuss and debate controversial ideas at the university, if there is little to no viewpoint diversity on campus, then this is a serious problem. We should be able to discuss and debate controversial issues in the college classroom and on campus. This helps the leaders of tomorrow develop the skills and the character to continue to do this after they leave. If there is no genuine marketplace of ideas at the university, then we shouldn’t be surprised that no genuine marketplace of ideas is operating in society.
There are risks with robust protections of freedom of speech. But those risks pale in comparison to the risks of unduly limiting such speech. One of these risks is that good ideas will either fail to impact our character, or that bad ones will do so. We must avoid both of these possibilities. One way to do so is to attempt to defeat those we disagree with in a debate, rather than to silence them.
Photo Simon Gibbs, Flickr, CCL
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