Beliefs should be openly questioned, criticized

Columnist and Columnist

In our current culture the utility of free speech seems to be eroding.

While people advocate for “respect” and “acceptance” of all viewpoints (especially their own), they seem to be forgetting the foundational arguments for the freedom of speech.

As John Stuart Mill argued in his work “On Liberty,” allowing all opinions (including highly “offensive” ones) to be spoken and published is a concept that has practical applications.

Mill argued against the restriction of speech by writing: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose (what is almost as great a benefit) the clear perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

But, in order to gain anything from free speech, we must be willing to speak against the speech of others, and welcome others to speak against our own speech.

Mill wrote: “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.”

As Christopher Hitchens rephrased it in a debate over speech restrictions in Canada, “It’s always worth saying… ‘Am I sure about the theory of evolution? I know it’s supposed to be true, [but] here’s someone that says there is no such thing, it’s all intelligent design. How sure am I of my own views?’”

While neither Hitchens nor I are advocates for intelligent design, I do advocate for listening to and engaging with those that believe in it.

I for one have personally benefited from not ignoring the claims of intelligent design proponents. (There is no better way to learn about something than to fact check the statements of its detractors and engage with them.)

Also, for ideas that are clearly false and destructive, one shouldn’t hold back and simply wait for them to go away.

As Mill stated, “Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument; but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it.”

It goes both ways also; one should fully allow others to correct their own possible falsehoods.

As such, free speech should be used to engage and debate amongst ourselves.

And this confrontational speech can be beneficial for both speakers, or as one of my favorite Bible verses puts it, “As steel sharpens steel, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

That is what free speech is about, or at least what it should be about.

But sadly, many seem to advocate for a conception of free speech that negates that utility.

They seem to be advocating for a non-confrontational ideal, in which people are encouraged to state their opinions, while at the same time people are discouraged from speaking against the opinions of others.

We should forsake this path.

We need more, not less, collisions of ideas.

The stakes are too high to worry about “offending” or being “offended,” we should not allow the sensitivities of people to act as barriers to conversations that need to take place.

And as for the old precept of, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” I just want to say for the record that I do want people to judge my ideas, I don’t want people to “respect” my opinions and beliefs.

I want people to have enough respect for me, and my cognitive abilities, to take the time to point out how I am wrong.

I want people to correct me, to “sharpen” my thoughts into more ideal points.

And just as Zechariah welcomed fiery torments so that he could be purified “just as gold and silver is purified by fire,” so should we all welcome fiery criticism to be levied against us so that we can be purged of falsehoods and errors.

As Penn Jillete said, “I would rather be busted on everything I say, and I am… That’s the world I want to live in, I want to live in a world of a marketplace of ideas, where everyone is busted on their [bull] all the time because that’s the way we get to truth.”

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