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.

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The message could be considered blasphemous and even "obscene or vulgar" as officials at the Kentucky Division of Motor Vehicles initially claimed when they rejected the plate in 2016. (The state later claimed that the plate wasn't approved because it was "not in good taste.") For Hart, a self-described atheist, it was a harmless, humorous message he had the right to display. So he filed a lawsuit.

Free Speech Rights

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The lawsuit, filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and ACLU, challenged the Transportation Cabinet's denial of Hart's plate, which it argued was based on the state's required restrictions on license plate messages that communicate religious anti-religious, or political viewpoints. Essentially, it said that a license plate qualifies as government speech, so Hart's vanity plate didn't have free speech protections.

But the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Court of Kentucky, which resoundingly ruled in favor of Hart, said that the Commonwealth of Kentucky had gone too far. It concluded that the rule governing such license plates was an unreasonable and impermissible restriction of Hart's First Amendment rights. This was because of the inconsistency of the rule's application, which amounted to the state picking and choosing what kind of messages it wanted on the road regarding the topic of religion.

"The same year Mr. Hart was denied a plate reading 'IM GOD', the Transportation Cabinet approved the contradictory plates 'NOGAS', 'EATGAS', 'VEGAN', and 'BBQ4U' among many others," wrote U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove in his decision. "Under the Transportation Cabinet's logic, the Commonwealth is not only contradicting itself, but spewing nonsense."

"If the Court finds that vanity plates are government speech, then the Court would also be finding that Kentucky has officially endorsed the words 'UDDER', 'BOOGR', 'JUICY', 'W8LOSS' and 'FATA55,'" he also noted, according to WDRB.

Win Against Religious Discrimination

According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church organization, the court's decision highlighted the bias the state of Kentucky was displaying toward religious non-believers.

"As the court affirmed, the denial of Ben Hart's choice of a license plate was pure discrimination," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in a press release.

Hart expressed gratitude for the court's ruling against that discrimination.

"I'm thankful to finally have the same opportunity to select a personal message for my license plate just as any other driver," said Hart in FFRF's press release. "There is nothing inappropriate about my view that religious beliefs are subject to individual interpretation."

This display of religious bias isn't surprising, and it likely isn't the first or only instance. Despite the increased visibility of atheists and the decline in religious beliefs in the United States, uncomfortable attitudes towards atheists are still prevalent. This makes the ruling all the more significant.

It might be just one silly license plate, but this case underlines how government officials are able to censor certain messages like those on license plates and determine whether they are, say, too blasphemous or too religious. Thanks to this ruling, those officials will have to check certain biases they have when giving a state stamp of approval to license plate messages. Aside from atheists or other religious minorities, this court decision is a win for anyone who might want to promote a viewpoint on government property without being censored because certain officials don't like the message.

According to FFRF attorney Patrick Elliott in a "newsbite" by the nonprofit organization, it is particularly egregious for government workers to censor phrases on the topic of religion because it equates to them endorsing pro-religious or anti-religious messages. Now, thanks to this ruling, the state of Kentucky can't do that. And the rest of the nation has taken note.

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