Do you have the right to be wrong? A defence of free inquiry

“If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.” (John Stuart Mill, ‘On Liberty’, 1859)

“If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind… I should say to you, ‘Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you.’” (Socrates, speaking at his trial, 399BC)

If no one exactly said certainty is the enemy of truth, many have expressed that idea in similar words. It is a common misapprehension that we are in an era of relativism sometimes called post-truth, when the opposite, or near opposite, is the case. In fact, we are living through an era of post-relativism in which certainty is confused with truth.

There is of course a certain type of relativism in which people claim with absolute certainty that there is no such thing as truth, in response to which the philosopher Roger Scruton wryly advised that they be taken at their word. But there is a far more benign – even truthful – form of relativism that is agnostic on the question of absolute truth, but certain that what we know is not the whole truth, that much of what we (individually and collectively) believe is wrong and, for that reason, we should always be willing to listen to others’ ideas and adapt our views if we are shown to be in error.

This is the relativism that developed with the Enlightenment, that accepted that truth is hard to come by, has to be wrested from the noise of sensory experience and the flux of ideas, needs to be supported by reason and evidence and, even when so verified is, in the grand scheme of things, likely to be only part of the truth and unlikely to be an eternal truth. This is the basis, naturally, for the sciences, but also for such institutions as the law, the free press, academic inquiry and the function of a free economy, the very institutions which underlie, support and justify the existence of liberal democracies.

At the core of these institutions, the democratic ideal and modernity itself are the principles of freedom of thought and free speech. I say principles rather than rights deliberately; it is a fact that in the West these freedoms are rights guaranteed by law, but in that sense only contingent on the continuing acceptance of those rights. In some countries those rights do not exist, in others they have been suspended; in the West they are increasing being diluted as they come into conflict with other new rights. My argument is not about rights, although I would defend the rights to freedom of thought and speech; my argument is that the principles of freedom of thought and speech are the basis not only for continued development and prosperity, but for our continued human social existence and survival as a species.

Today we have become fixated on free speech, on its importance, on its continuity, on its denial and on its endangerment. But free speech is only the most outward form of free inquiry, and free inquiry, like free speech, is predicated on the ‘right’ to be wrong; though ‘right’ is probably the wrong frame; it is more the nature of inquiry that discovery is based upon challenging the limits of knowledge in order to get to truth or at least success, which requires immersion in the tangible reality of ignorance, guesswork, trial and error, and being wrong more than being right, before – with luck – the goal for which one is hoping is achieved. The stories of two scientists are highly illustrative of the importance of the freedom to be wrong.

In the 1940s humanity was passing through a bottleneck in terms of its ability to feed a growing population. This was particularly true in Asia with its burgeoning population. The spectre of widespread starvation was foreseen. In Mexico a young American agronomist, Norman Borlaug began experimenting with versions of wheat, crossing different strains in order to produce a version that was resistant to the ravages of a fungus known as rust. After hundreds of experiments over several years, and multiple failures, he managed to produce a version that not only was resistant to rust, but as a short-stemmed variety, was also able to bear a higher yield. This breed of wheat became the staple in India and Pakistan and was the beginning of the ‘Green revolution’ there in the 1960s. By some estimations a billion people were saved from starvation.

A decade earlier Trofim Lysenko, a peasant farmer who was illiterate until his teens, but an avid member of the Communist Party, was commissioned by Stalin to oversee agricultural production in the Soviet Union. With only a rudimentary grasp of contemporary biology, Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics as bourgeois science, perhaps too close to the pre-revolutionary practice of passing on wealth to descendants for his comfort, advocating instead Lamark’s theory of evolution through inheritance of acquired characteristics, because it was convergent with the Marxist orthodoxy of the time that biology was shaped by the environment. Based on this assumption and his own limited experiments, and in charge of the nation’s collective farms, he mandated methods of crop production which resulted in failed harvests and the starvation of millions of Russians and possibly thirty million Chinese who adopted Lysenkoism in the 1950s.

These contrasting stories, and there are many similar, illustrate the point that free inquiry works because it accepts that failure is invariably the forerunner of success, whereas ideological conformity fails precisely because failure is not acceptable so the process of trial and error is unable to proceed. Thought and speech can also be considered from such an evolutionary process. Thought and speech are not entirely congruent because the act of speaking is in a sense an attempt to order our thinking, and writing even more so. Because we are mostly ignorant and have the capacity for malevolence, this can manifest in our speech and in our writing. Nevertheless, in a generally tolerant, liberal and open culture, we are able to see moral evolution on both the individual and societal levels through a process of correction.

In the immaturity of youth, having grown up in a time when casual (non-aggressive) racism was widely tolerated, I was once taken aside by a rough dockworker and gently apprised that some of my comments to a fellow worker of African origin, while intended to be humorous, had caused offence, which he saw but which I was oblivious to. I never forgot that lesson and I hope never repeated that mistake. British society in the space of a few decades has become far more colour-blind; it also has one of the highest rates of mixed marriages in the world. This represents the success of a liberal, individualistic society in bringing about the moral evolution of its people.

Just as I was confronted with my own wrong by the fact that it was manifest, so the manifestation of social evils, such as racism on the football terraces and the extremist language of radical Islamists, is met by the revulsion of the great majority of ordinary people, whose voice is reflected in the press and in the halls of political power. The openness of society permits those who disagree with prejudices – whether prevailing and casual or extreme – to speak out and be heard. The outcome is that attitudes moderate over time. Clearly crimes against persons or acts of terrorism should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but free expression of ideas, however reprehensible should not, for without the expression of that which is wrong, the mechanism of correction does not function.

Clearly there are still many dysfunctional aspects of our society, but the enormous social progress we have seen in the last fifty years, particularly in the areas of tolerance, are a testament to our liberal culture. It is a tragedy, therefore, that at the moment of its vindication, liberal society is in retreat and our institutions are becoming increasingly infected by the ideology of postmodern identity politics. Now, I have no problem with people believing in identity politics, just as I have no problem with people believing in any religion or political theory. However, ideology of any variety, once it escapes the confines of academia (whence all ideologies emanate) and permeates the institutions of power becomes inimical to the very freedoms that allow it to flourish in the first place.

All ideologies function in the same way by determining a priori what is acceptable and unacceptable belief. To some extent all foundational principles of society, whether religious or humanistic, do this. However, in the West Protestant Christianity, with its emphasis on spiritual individualism and a strong work ethic, and science, with its emphasis on reason, evidence and progress, despite their conflicting epistemologies, have reached an accommodation and mutual tolerance that underlies the modern order of free and prosperous societies, that has found a place also in different cultures. To that extent, modernity is a discovery of the West, not its unique characteristic, something totally misrepresented in the tirades of postmodern critique.

The postmodern identity politics of today is qualitatively different to the radical liberalism that prevailed from the 1960s up until about 10 years ago. That emphatically upheld the ideas of free speech and social justice for all; it actively resisted the idea that those should be denied to anyone, based on the Enlightenment ideal of fundamental human rights, merely extending that ideal beyond the historical myopia of its architects. The new wave of postmodern radicalism repudiates individualism and the striving for equal opportunities in favour of reified collectivist identities and an intersectional hierarchy based on an equity of retaliation for historical victimhood.

The foundations of the Enlightenment were already deconstructed by the postmodernists of the 1960s who concluded there was no meaning outside of the structures of power. Since this was a critique of the Western tradition and canon – ironically by European philosophers within the Western tradition – it was seized on by those outside or those marginalised within the tradition who grafted it to their radical politics. This has given rise to the most virulent form of radicalism yet known. The Critical Theorists of the 1920s rejected the ‘scientific socialism’ of Marx and Engels because its predictions of proletarian revolution were confounded. Similarly, the Communists of the 1960s became disenchanted after the tyranny of Stalin was exposed. Postmodern identity politics denies even the evidentiary basis on which critical judgment of its efficacy could be made. Consequently, rather than the next stage in the progress of a liberal order, it is the blueprint for a neo-feudal society, with an identitarian caste system, a fluid yet unforgiving dogma, already riven by pre-scientific superstition and already engaging in the persecution of heretics.

Clearly, the acolytes of such a dogmatic view, driven by the certainty of their moral superiority, can broach no opposition, no dissenting voices. Their strategy is straightforward and has been remarkably effective: to promulgate a Manichaean worldview of absolute light and darkness and to define themselves in total opposition to the forces of absolute darkness, so heap maximum opprobrium upon any dissent. So, if you are not ‘Antifascist’ or ‘Antiracist’ or question any of the identitarian agenda, you must, by definition, be fascist, racist or guilty of some transgressive ‘phobia’.

The grip of this delusional worldview is now so strong that free speech is on the verge of being redefined as ‘hate speech’ in many countries, particularly in the Anglophone world. It effectively has been in America under the new administration. It has been in most universities in the Western world, although there are notable exceptions that are fighting back. This crusade is now spreading through the corporate world, which is now in thrall to ‘diversity and inclusion’ at any cost having abandoned, it seems, the principles of meritocracy and profitability without even a backward glance at their shareholders.

The coalescing of the disquiet on the broad left of views they disliked around the idea of hate speech is a new phenomenon. As late as the 1990s even as radical of the left as Noam Chomsky could state, “Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.” Despite his radicalism, Chomsky falls clearly within the liberal sphere of the Enlightenment as a libertarian anarchist. The postmodern left has entirely abandoned the principles of the Enlightenment, however, and this converges nicely with their (actual, not imagined) hatred of and determination to suppress any views not entirely in agreement with the current line in identity politics. This not only applies to moral or political conservatives, but even to the older generation of gay and feminist activists who do not accept the dissolution of sexual and gender identities championed by the trans activist lobby.

The idea of hate speech is not actually new and has been evolving over several decades. However, in the past few years it has both expanded its scope and blurred its boundaries to the point that anything that upsets or potentially upsets anyone who self-identifies or is identified as a member of a ‘vulnerable minority’ is now so classified. If this was just the opinion of a particularly sensitive section of society it would be largely unproblematic – after all, under the provision of free speech people have the right to virtually any opinion they like. The problems with the idea of hate speech as it is developing, though, are many.

First, the notion of harm has radically altered from bodily harm, which is easily explicable in terms of causation, objectivity (visibility) and measurability (i.e. slight harm to severe harm), to emotional harm. There is no denying, of course that emotional harm is real and can cause real and lasting damage. The problems are that it is invisible, therefore not easily evidenced, relies entirely on subjective measurement and, most problematic, accounting for causation is entirely down to individual caprice. There already exist problems with self-inflicted injury, false rape accusations and the like, but there is a strong forensic methodology for determining the probability that accusations are reliable or not, which tends to discourage false accusations and strengthen the case the those who claim harm are genuine. However, with the total lack of such a mechanism in regard to accusations of emotional harm, there is no disincentive to turning up the volume of hurt to 11 and, moreover, to play to the gallery for the most innocuous of offences.

Second, the notion of hate speech and the attendant concept of ‘microaggressions’ are so loosely defined that they can be applied to almost anything that someone dislikes – dislike being in the new interpretation a form of harm. This would be bad enough if it were equally applied and equally a cause for redress across all groups in society, as it reinforces a psychologically damaging pathology referred to as ‘catastrophising’, putting the worst possible interpretation on motives and events. However, under the new dispensation, this is not the case. By definition, those within the intersectional circle cannot be guilty of hate speech – or at least to the degree that they meet the hierarchical requirements of intersectionality – while those outside it are invariably on the verge of committing it, particularly in the worst case of being a cis-normative, heterosexual white male.

Third, despite this absurdity inherently undermining the moral basis of society as a place of equal justice and equal opportunity, as well as basic human trust, as the ideas of the postmodern left gain traction in politics and the legal profession, there are moves to increasingly define offence in the law as a ‘hate crime’, which have potentially serious consequences for people who stray over the line, whether deliberately or unintentionally. Scotland has recently enacted a hate crime law so intrusive into people’s personal lives that even the Scottish police force have reacted against it. Similar moves have happened in Canada and some states in Australia, and in Biden’s presidency by fiat the United States is rapidly descending into a no-go area for proponents of freedom of speech.

The future under the rule of postmodern progressivism promises to be dismal. Already today, the education system, up to university, increasingly exists to stultify progress, smother curiosity and propagate ignorance among the population. This is only due to worsen as intersectionality invades even the STEM subjects on which our technological progress depends and businesses on which our livelihoods and general economic prosperity depend, replacing competence, the idiosyncratic diversity of opinion and brilliance with mediocrity, sanctioned diversity of protected characteristics and compliance.

What is the solution? It is often stated that it cannot be the case that there is total freedom of speech, to say anything you like to anyone you like (or, more likely, don’t like) at any time you like. There may be, the argument goes, some radical libertarians who believe this, but most reasonable people believe that there should be limits and that society as a whole through its policies and through the courts should express its collective dislike of offensive speech and punish those who stray over the line, as a sort of bulwark against which we can hone our own behaviours. However, I believe this is a pernicious argument that is the edge of a slippery slope that has facilitated the gradual, but now rapid, transition into a culture of arbitrary and highly unjust censure. The idea of the limits of free speech should be a taboo subject, a subterranean, never-mentioned and never-invoked concept, like Helveticus’ declaration that conscience is nothing more than fear of the police or John Gray’s assertion that all culture is simply denial of the reality of death, possibly true but ideas so despicable and corrupting that they should be securely locked in the closet of collective consciousness, only rarely to see the light of day. Freedom of speech should be effectively absolute or it is nothing. If it is nothing, then we will rapidly devolve back to Hobbes’ war of all against all, over which Leviathan, the absolute state, must reign.

We need to give not just the benefit of the doubt but primacy to free speech under all circumstances. If people put forward bad arguments, so be it; there is always someone who will put forward a better argument or expose the lie in a bad argument. Free speech allows the propagation of bad ideas, but also the falsification of bad ideas and the propagation of good ideas. The fate of bad ideas is to self-destruct, but only in a society that allows criticism do they die a relatively quick death. It is not the government’s place to limit the harm that I put myself in by bad ideas or to police the offence I may cause others. The law covers the physical harm that I may cause to others; human intellectual, moral and social progress can only exist in the engine of conflicting ideas. This makes possible the existence of an educated public, inoculated against error by being critically exposed to it, which is the very basis of a functioning democracy and always will be. This was already understood two and a half millennia ago by Aristotle, who declared it to be “the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.”

To express an idea is to expose oneself to criticism because almost everything we say contains falsities of fact or evidence; it may also contain truths and insights. To believe in free speech is to believe in human fallibility but also in the improvement of the human mind and human society and to trust in humanity. To believe in censorship of speech for whatever reason is to implicitly believe that life is just the struggle for power. There can ultimately only be one winner in that struggle – and it won’t be you.

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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