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.
- 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.
Why is populism so popular? The rise of Donald Trump has been an enigma to many. Not so much to evolutionary psychologists.
- Working-class people take rules more seriously. Upper- and middle-class people do not. Why? The latter have financial and social safety nets, so they can afford to break some rules.
- Research shows that, by the age of three, working-class children are primed to be more rigid about rules. Those rules help working-class people survive what sociologists call 'hard living': extreme poverty, dangerous jobs, and unsafe neighborhoods. Having strong rules increases chances of safety and survival.
- Harnessing this evolutionary psychology can be very powerful in politics. Populists like Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen exaggerate fear and threat to gain popularity. They understand "the role of fear and threat in mobilizing people to want more tightness and to want autocratic leaders," Gelfand explains.
- In Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the World, Michele Gelfand explains her research into 'tight' and 'loose' cultures. Get a crash course here.
Humans are a programmable species, and we live inside the most ancient operating system of all — ideology.
For many years, Joscha Bach could not understand why humans flock so strongly towards religion and ideology. Having grown up in communist East Germany and seeing the people around him buy into nationalistic narratives—that were to him obviously untruthful—made no sense. It was only when the wall came down that he came to understand that people everywhere are buying into various false narratives—as of 2015, 34% of Americans still reject evolution completely. The drive to believe whatever instructions come from above you is not a cognitive error, Bach realized then, but an evolutionary feature—as powerful as it is problematic. The ability for large groups of people to follow one set of rules, to cooperate, is how Homo sapiens established agricultural societies, and is ultimately how we outcompeted other now long-gone nomadic hominin groups. We are a programmable species, says Bach, and we need to belong and conform to a larger entity to survive. As such, Bach sees the debate surrounding free will not as a question of determinism or incompatibilism, but of social conditioning. Perhaps the free will relates to decision-making over physics: are you really free to act in a way that is true, or are you bound by a social code of responsibility that runs thousands of years deep in your genetics? Joscha Bach's latest book is Principles of Synthetic Intelligence.
Sure, the old Greek guys from 2,400 years ago get all the glory. But these living philosophers have a ton to say about life, the universe, and everything as it relates to right now.
It can be easy to think that all the good ideas have already been thought; after all, philosophy have been going on for more than 2500 years. But that isn't true! There are still some genius philosophers out there, of course. Here, we give you ten living people with ideas worth learning about.
One of the most cited philosophers of the modern age, Chomsky has written extensively on linguistics, cognitive science, politics, and history. His work has had an effect on everything from developmental psychology to the debates between rationalism and empiricism, and led to a decline of support for behaviorism. He remains an active social critic and public intellectual, including here on Big Think.
“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”
Zizek is a modern Marxist who has commented extensively on culture, society, theology, psychology, and our tendency to view the world through the lens of “Ideology”. He has devoted a great deal of time to updating the idea of Dialectic Materialism. He is also a frequent Big Think contributor.
“Humanity is OK, but 99% of people are boring idiots.”
Cornel is an American philosopher who focuses on politics, religion, race, and ethics. Hardly shy for the camera, West is often seen on television talk shows and even had a cameo in the Matrixfilms. His work has expanded on the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois on more than one occasion, and continues to focus on the issues of being an “Other” in modern society. His Big Think videos can be found here.
“The Enlightenment worldview held by Bu Bois is ultimately inadequate, and, in many ways, antiquated, for our time.”
An American philosopher at the University of Chicago, Martha has written about subjects as diverse as ancient Greek philosophy, ethics, feminism, political philosophy, and animal rights. Along with Amartya Sen, she also developed the Capability Approach which inspired the United Nations Human Development Index.
“Now the fact that Aristotle believes something does not make it true. (Though I have sometimes been accused of holding that position!)”
Alasdair Macintyre is a Scottish Philosopher who has written on ethics and morality, political philosophy, theology, and the history of philosophy. His most popular book, After Virtue, helped to fuel a resurgence in Virtue Ethics. His thought shifted from a Marxist view in his early work to one that combines his former Marxism with his new Catholicism and Neo-Aristotelian insights.
“We are waiting not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
An American philosopher, cognitive scientist, and one of the so-called Four Horsemen of New Atheism. He has written on free will for decades, and supports the compatibilist view. He has also written on how philosophers think, explaining how the idea of the “Intuition pump” can both mislead and enlighten us. He also has very many interesting interviews with Big Think.
“The Darwinian Revolution is both a scientific and a philosophical revolution, and neither revolution could have occurred without the other.”
An analytic philosopher working at Columbia University, Dr. Kitcher has done extensive work on the philosophy of science itself. His work has focused recently on the criteria for “good” science, and the philosophy of climate change.
"A great scientific theory, like Newton's, opens up new areas of research... Because a theory presents a new way of looking at the world, it can lead us to ask new questions, and so to embark on new and fruitful lines of inquiry."
A modern consequentialist who puts his money where his ideas are. Author of The Life You Can Save, a book on how utilitarianism demands altruism from you right now, he went on to create an organization dedicated to the idea. He has also written on animal rights, and is a vegetarian. His stances on euthanasia and quality of life have been the cause of a great many protests over the years, often preventing him from speaking. His Big Think videos help explain his philosophy.
“We are responsible not only for what we do but also for what we could have prevented.”
An Indian philosopher and Nobel Prize laureate who was worked for decades in welfare economics, capability theory, and on the questions of justice. He often writes on the need to view the implementation of philosophical ideals in degrees of success, rather than as “existent” or “non-existent”. His work went on to inspire Martha Nussbaum, and they continue to compliment each other’s work.
“Democracy has to be judged not just by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard”
An American philosopher who has written on gender, politics, ethics, the self, and cultural pressures. She developed the theory of gender performativity, arguing that no gender exists beyond actions used to express a gender role. Her Big Think work can be found here.
“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results.”
Ideology doesn’t bend to reason, says Professor Barbara Oakley. Here's why we can't really change what other people believe, and why that brand of "helping" others can backfire.
The two things you simply cannot do are probably the two things you most want to: change someone, and help them. Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor who teaches the world's largest online open class, knows this intimately: when she was teaching in China, "working with the communists" as she says, people had tried to warn others about the dangers of communist totalitarianism before the Great Leap Forward. Nobody listened. Ultimately discussion isn't enough to sway people's beliefs — for any slim shot at that, says Oakley, you have to give people new experiences, not just facts. But should you always be trying to change others, anyway? "Your own good intentions can also lead you astray," says Oakley, whose research involves pathologies of altruism. Could altruism be a behavioral disorder? A study from Boston in the 1930s that was followed up in the 1970s imparts an important lesson on why thinking you know best for others can be anything but a help, and that if a good deed feels good, it might be a red flag that you're only helping yourself. Barbara Oakley's most recent book is Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential, and you can find the Mindshift course here.