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Why free speech is sacred—even when it’s dangerous
The bedrock of freedom? Denying the government the power of censorship.
NADINE STROSSEN: Censorship has always been used by those in power to stifle the voices of those who are criticizing them and seeking to bring about some kind of law reform. So it's not surprising that any authoritarian regime today and throughout history has always stifled protesting voices, has always exercised censorship, including over the arts and culture as well as politics. So, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, to the Soviet Union and Turkey and a whole range of authoritarian countries—Saudi Arabia springs to mind—have all exercised censorship as a way of maintaining the power of those who hold it and of preventing reform and spreading of human rights and also thwarting the pursuit of truth in realms of science and other fields of human endeavor.
I think the flipside to the question of "What is so dangerous about censorship?" is "What is so positive about free speech?" Because we lose the positive potential of free speech through censorship, and freedom of speech is, as great Supreme Court justices in the United States have recognized, the essence of individual liberty. Freedom of thought cannot really be exercised unless you have freedom of speech, so it's a way of forming your ideas, forming your own identity, communicating with other people to forge bonds of friendship, bonds of community. Freedom of speech is used to join together with others to amplify our messages so that we can have more of an impact in bringing about whatever changes or reforms we'd like to see happen in society. Freedom of speech is essential for petitioning the government, lobbying, trying to persuade those we elect and hold accountable to us to adopt certain policies or reject certain policies. Freedom of speech is also essential for the pursuit of truth. As somebody once said: Every great truth began as a blasphemy, so if government had the power to censor, as it has in the past, it has thwarted advances in all kinds of scientific and social scientific fields. Art censorship has been used to stifle expression that has been important, not only for the individual artist herself or himself, but also for those who are deprived, then, of the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired and enlightened by creativity. I definitely agree with the Supreme Court when it said that freedom of speech really is the bedrock of every other right, and really almost everything positive in our society could not be achieved without that essential bedrock.
There is absolutely no doubt that speech can do an infinite amount of harm, as well as an infinite amount of good. The reason why censorship is bad is precisely because speech is so powerful. And with that power we human beings can exert it either to great good or to great ill. Now the question is what does more harm, trusting our fellow citizens on the whole to minimize the adverse impact, adverse potential impact of speech, or trusting government to pick and choose which potentially dangerous, harmful speech should be censored? What we've seen throughout history and around the world, not surprisingly, is whoever exercises censorship power does it in a way to perpetuate their own power and to disproportionately silence the voice of their critics.
So today we have a president who attacks fake news—a lot of my liberal friends, and I am a bleeding-heart liberal as well as a civil libertarian, a lot of my liberal friends will say: But there is such danger coming from right-wing media and the dark corners of the Internet—"Shouldn't we censor that version of fake news?" And I say, "Who exercises the lever of power today? Are we going to give to the Trump administration the power to decide which news is sufficiently 'fake', sufficiently 'dangerous', sufficiently 'harmful' that their FCC licenses should be revoked?" I think it would not be FOX News whose license would be revoked or whose voices would be suppressed, it would be CNN and so forth.
And mark my words I would be equally distraught at having voices on the right silenced for a whole lot of reasons, one of which is the indivisibility of all rights. So if we're licensing the government or empowering the government to say, "This is sufficiently misleading that "it's going to be suppressed," it would just be a matter of time before there's a change in administration, a change in ideology, and it would be voices on the other end of the political spectrum that are suppressed.
And then also for the reason that censorship does more harm than good in general, which is that there is some really important benefit to confront ideas that are out there that people hold. I want to know that they have those ideas; I don't want them to hide in the dark corners of the Internet and to go underground. I want to be able to respond to them, perhaps dissuade people from holding those ideas, certainly persuade other people not to adhere to those ideas. If it's a hateful or discriminatory idea, I want to monitor the people who have those ideas to make sure that they don't actually engage in discriminatory or violent conduct. So there are all kinds of benefits from listening, even I would say especially, to ideas that we consider to be dangerous and odious.
The United States Supreme Court made an observation, which I think is really important, that freedom of speech in terms of government policies, public policies, is especially important because it is not only a matter of individual liberty and self-expression, but it is essential for our system of self-government. The way the Supreme Court put it was more or less this: That freedom of speech about policy issues is the essence of self-government.
The message to the team is keep the eyes on the prize. We have to look beyond the particular factual situation and understand that we are fighting for something larger, which encompasses the ideas that are antithetical to the ones that happened to be at issue in a particular case. So people will often say to me, as somebody who is Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who barely survived the Buchenwald Concentration Camp: How can I of all people defend the Nazis? And I always say I'm not defending the Nazis, I'm defending freedom of speech as an inviolable, indivisible principal that is only going to remain strong if we continue to respect that bedrock viewpoint neutrality principal denying government the power to suppress an idea merely because in one community that idea is deemed to be unpopular or hateful or hated.
Because I know that in many communities in this country, ideas that I cherish as a civil libertarian, as a human rights champion, those ideas are seen as dangerous and are subject to censorship. So I'm not defending the Nazis, I'm defending a principle that is especially important for those of us who want to have the freedom to raise our voices to protest the Nazis and everything they stand for.
- Suppression of free speech dooms democracy, says law professor Nadine Strossen. We should all be open to hearing dangerous and odious ideas rather than drive them underground.
- "[P]eople will often say to me, as somebody who is Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who barely survived the Buchenwald Concentration Camp: How can I of all people defend the Nazis?" says Strossen. She also says, "And mark my words I would be equally distraught at having voices on the right silenced for a whole lot of reasons, one of which is the indivisibility of all rights."
- 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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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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