Why you should tolerate intolerable ideas

Just because you disagree with something doesn't mean that it isn't true for someone else.

Nadine Strossen: Many people have contended that there is a paradox of why should we tolerate intolerant ideas. And the answer is that we have to engage in exploration and analysis of all ideas if we are going to honestly and sincerely reach our own conclusion as to which ideas we believe to be correct and which ideas we believe other people should adopt. I go back to John Stewart Mills classic essay called On Liberty in which he says here are the reasons why we should listen to even ideas that we believe to be completely wrong. And as somebody who is advocating tolerance for freedom even for the ideas that we hate, I would say an idea that I would hate would be an intolerance idea. So here's the reason why I think I should listen to that idea, paraphrasing Jon Stewart Mills. Number one, I may revise reviews after I listen to that idea. And I can give you a concrete example where that actually happened thanks to the silver lining of all of the protests on campus about free speech. Many students and faculty members even have asserted that freedom of speech should not be such a special important value in our society; we should not tolerate freedom for ideas that they consider to be dangerous ideas. And quite frankly to me it had always seemed so indisputably correct that we had to protect freedom for all ideas that I never really had grappled thoroughly with that contention.

I recently wrote a book on the subject and in the process I had to articulate to myself why I reached that conclusion and I did so in a way that I persuaded myself, I hope that means I was persuasive to my audience, and I wouldn't of had to do that, I wouldn't have enriched my own understanding of my long standing position had I not been forced to grapple with the exact opposite contention. 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 when do so, we will understand them and appreciate them and articulate them with much more depth and vibrancy when they are the result, not just of unthinking reflexive orthodoxy: "Oh that's what I've always believed and that's what everybody else believes" but when we are forced to really examine them. And that forced examination comes through contact and conflict with challenges and questions and opposite ideas.

  • Former ACLU president Nadine Strossen argues that without freedom of expression we don't have freedom of speech.
  • With some major college campuses disavowing "dangerous ideas" from certain speakers on campus, this can lead to a slippery slope wherein ideas—and even ways of life—can be marginalized entirely.
  • The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.


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