In support of free speech: What we can learn from exposure to multiple ideas

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We want free speech, and for the most basic of reasons: so that we may listen, inform ourselves, ponder and decide. And so that we too may speak, debate and try to persuade. Free speech reveals our differences and is essential for discovering our common ground. The societies that censor free speech have never been healthy societies; I know this from having grown up under a dictatorship that did not tolerate free speech.

Free speech does not mean bringing neo-Nazis or white-supremacists to our campus, as its opponents charge and which no one has ever proposed.  This is argumentum ad absurdum, and it distracts from the main issue, which is that it is precisely when you are at college that you need to be exposed to ideas that are unfamiliar and even disquieting. There is hardly a serious issue in our society today that doesn’t involve two sets of opposing ideas.  And to be a decently educated member of that society, you need to know both sets of ideas, not simply your own side.  At minimum, you need to hear the best arguments of the other side, not merely a mendacious caricature of those arguments. For how can you argue your position unless you know the best arguments of the other side?

The opponents of free speech at Williams charmingly (and euphemistically) request that college speakers be curated. That’s a funny word choice: where will you find your curators?  In Hopkins Hall?  At a college where every point of view is vetted from within Hopkins Hall, you can rest assured that you will never hear an idea that challenges Hopkins Hall. “Curation” is indeed the perennial problem of those challenging free speech: who gets to decide what speech can be heard? Who would we trust to do that? (The Youtube video of Christopher Hitchens defending free speech is a must watch.)

When we hear unfamiliar and unexpected ideas, we are often disoriented and disquieted. This disquiet is the background noise of a brain that is working. After we process and assimilate the unfamiliar idea, and ponder it with our friends, we might find it is worthless and reject it outright. And once in a great while, we might find ourselves won over by a novel idea that we have never considered. If that is not happening to you from time to time, it is a sign that you have closed your mind to all ideas you don’t already accept. I will not attempt to stop those who stick their fingers in their own ears to block out what they don’t want to hear. But I don’t want them sticking their fingers into everyone’s ears.

As I said many times before, I have learned a great deal from hearing from people I deeply disagree with (e.g., creationists and climate denialists). In the end, that is the only way to have your counterarguments become clear, logical and ready to be used when the need comes.

Luana Maroja has been at the College since 2010.