Forced examination: How the free speech of others benefits us all
Americans say we value free speech, but recent surveys suggest we love the ideal more than practice, a division that will harm more than it protects.
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- A majority of Americans believe we should protect people from deleterious ideas and speech.
- This belief may harm us, both as individuals and as a society, by ironically strengthening the very ideas that do us harm.
- Forced examination provides a means by which we can strengthen our own ideas while weeding the harmful ones from society, but it only works with free expression for everyone.
In a recent interview with Big Think, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that children are "anti-fragile." By this, he means that they won't necessarily be damaged irreparably by unpleasantness, insults, exclusion and the like. They are instead strengthened by adversities, a process Haidt likens to how the immune system strengthens itself, not from avoiding pathogens but by overcoming them. In fact, an immune system kept in a sterile environment is one rendered ineffective.
Haidt's argument has implications beyond children. Our ideas and ideologies also require adversarial forces to thrive. But counterarguments like these are only possible in a society that values free expression for all people, and some evidence suggests that America may be backsliding on our tolerance for free speech.
How the free expression of others benefits us
Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU, called the process by which we strengthen our ideas through the opposition of others "forced examination."
"I wouldn't have enriched my own understanding of my long-standing position had I not been forced to grapple with the exact opposition contention," Strossen told Big Think. "So, one possibility is that we will realize that our original ideas were wrong or at least could be improved, refined. And another possibility is that we will be reaffirmed in our adherence to our pre-existing ideas, but we will do so, we will understand them and appreciate them and articulate them with much more depth and vibrancy."
As we improve our ideas through forced examination, we in turn improve ourselves by forming self-identities that are anti-fragile and stronger bonds with those who grow with us.
Many democratic institutions, such as universities, are designed around this principle. Students enter the university with worldviews learned at mother's knee, but through reading history's great thinkers, discussing difficult subjects with their classmates, and exploring new ideas through writing, they put their beliefs to the test, break them, and reforge them.
According to a survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation: "Majorities of [college] students believe in protecting free speech rights (56%) and promoting a diverse and inclusive society (52%) are extremely important for democracy." That's great news, not only for democracy but also their own growth during their college years.
Free expression in practice
Unfortunately, the survey's authors wonder if students may favor free expression more as an ideal than in practice. Sixty-one percent of students surveyed agreed with the statement that "the climate on their campus prevents some students from expressing their views because others might take offense" and 57 percent believe this has pushed discussion of social and political issues off campus and on to social media.
Another survey, conducted by the Cato Institute, found that 58 percent of Americans believe "the political climate prevents them from sharing their own political beliefs." When people are unable to express their ideas, they are unable to engage in forced examination, which can have some unpleasant social impacts.
Consider the alt-right. Harvard professor Steven Pinker connects the movement's rise in part due to the lack of free expression in public forums such as universities. (Note: Pinker is referring to the alt-right in the sense of tech-savvy youths who found each other online to form far-right ideological groups, though the term has significantly broadened.)
"Many of [these young people] are highly intelligent, highly analytic but felt that they were ostracized, kept from certain truths by the taboos and conventions of mainstream intellectual life, particularly in universities," Pinker examines. "And when they stumbled across scientific or statistical facts that were undiscussable in the universities, they felt this enormous sense of empowerment that they discovered a truth that the mainstream couldn't handle. […] And because they then were able to share these facts in their own discussion groups without any kind of push back or debate or refutation from the rest of intellectual life, they could develop into toxic forms."
Pinker's argument aligns with what the surveys found about youths feeling unable to express themselves in public forums. Taking their ideas online, echo chambers and personalized search algorithms prevented the intrusion of corrective counterarguments. In their more pernicious forms, these echo chambers resulted in social networks like Gab, an online home for identitarians that WIRED called the "ultimate filter bubble."
Free speech is the cure for bad ideas
Some may worry free expression merely provides a veiled cover for those who hold noxious beliefs. In a survey on American tribalism from More in Common, 67 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement, "We need to protect people from dangerous and hateful speech." The result is various policies designed to protect people against deleterious concepts, such as campus speech codes. The Gallup/Knight Foundation survey found that nearly two-thirds of students support such policies.
But as Pinker's argument illuminates, speech codes do not expunge these ideas. Rather, they push them to the fringes where their acrimony can quietly grow. The combination of free expression and forced examination may be a bitter pill, but its medicine is far more robust than the alternative.
"A more effective response to any idea we hate, or consider hateful or dangerous is not to silence it, but to refute it, to explain why," Strossen told the Atlantic. She points out that while social media disseminates hate speech easily, it easily spreads counterarguments, too.
Sarah Ruger, the director of free expression at the Charles Koch Institute, agrees. As she told Big Think, "So often when people are rejecting speech or rejecting ideas, they're rejecting things that don't have a place in society like bigotry and prejudice […]. Unfortunately, censoring the ideas just moves them to the basement, to the dark corners of the internet where they fester, where they mobilize with like-minded thinkers and erupt later in uglier ways.
"So, I believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant and the best thing that we can be doing is [to] teach students in a safe productive environment how to deal with those difficult encounters, to deal with them productivity, to deal with them safely and in a way that doesn't cause a catastrophic moment if they encounter it in real life later."
Ruger's view synthesizes those of Pinker, Strossen, and Haidt. By preserving free expression, we not only disinfect our society of poor ideas; we also strengthen our resolve against them, growing as individuals and creating a type of conceptual herd immunity. Censorship, like the sterile environment Haidt mentions, merely ensures we will not have the intellectual antibodies to fight such ideas when they inevitably fester in our cultural wounds.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
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Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.
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