John Adams and the Riots at Berkeley

In the time since the Alien and Sedition Acts, the United States has generally displayed great respect for the First Amendment.

While humans are not very good at coping with cognitive dissonance, they are remarkable experts at finding roundabout ways of avoiding it

With John Stuart Mill’s wisdom and a degree of intellectual discipline and self-control, we can overcome the mental block—the cognitive trap—that can make our minds dark caverns rather than places of great knowledge and inquiry.

During last night’s episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Mr. Carlson interviewed a graduate student from New York University, Kouross Esmaeli, who put forth the strikingly contradictory claim that he both valued unconditional  freedom of speech but that NYU ought to shut down the College Republican group because they invited Gavin McInnes, a controversial conservative commentator, to speak on campus.

Mr. Carlson continually pressed Mr. Esmaeli as he would continue to make this contradiction, in one form or another, in so many words. Embarrassingly, this went on for several minutes as Mr. Carlson pressed Mr. Esmaeli harder to explain his contradictions. Although one might be quick to dismiss Mr. Esmaeli as something other than a thoughtful graduate student, it is more likely, upon reflection, that he was experiencing a mental block. Consciously or otherwise, Mr. Esmaeli was escaping a daunting task of having to synthesize whatever Mr. McInnes, the College Republicans—or Mr. Carlson for that matter—had to say.

If Mr. Esmaeli was susceptible to this mental block. So were the protestors at University of California Berkeley, an institution once considered a bastion of free speech. Students there started fires and widely rioted and prevent conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos from addressing another College Republican group. Even John Adams, the founding father, the principled defender of the British regulars in the Boston Massacre, fell to this cognitive trap.

As clearly as the First Amendment may seem to modern eyes, our freedom of expression during the first years of our nation, was conditional at best. It could have, very well, been otherwise. Only seven years after the First Amendment’s ratification did a President of the United States, John Adams, sign the Alien and Sedition Act into law. To any intelligent outsider looking in, these laws violated the First Amendment in the most deplorable, yet blatant, way possible: the law made it illegal to criticize the federal government. Nevertheless, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by Congress and signed into law by none other than the Second President, John Adams, a man who firmly believed in a “government of laws, not of men.” How could this be?

It is not that Adams is a hypocrite, at least not any more than than the next man. And, it is not that Adams is a liar. I do not have any doubt that Adams believed with equal intensity in a government of laws, and in a need for such laws for to punish “unpatriotic” speech—what great irony that by and large those who reject American exceptionalism are the censors today!

The reason was simple, I think. Adams was human. Humans, by the very wiring of their brains, do not respond well to cognitive dissonance, a physiological reaction to cognitive elements that are in opposition to each other. If ideas we are presented with cannot be somehow integrated with the ideas already in our head, physiological discomfort surely follows. Coddled progressives of the millennial generation may call this discomfort a “micro-aggression,” but the only aggression is between different parts of your brain with one another. That is not to say that one ought not strive for politeness or make concessions to establish common ground. Just the same, young conservatives ought not be unkind simply for the sake of “boycotting” political correctness. But a true “micro-aggression” is not an aggression any more than is the feeling of relearning how to use your smartphone after a major software update, wearing an unfamiliar pair of shoes, or finding your collection of albums in disarray.

While humans are not very good at coping with cognitive dissonance, they are remarkable experts at finding roundabout ways of avoiding it as Mr. Esmaeli demonstrated. Censorship, or the call for censorship, is the most public manifestation of this phenomena. But even censorship comes from within: it starts with a mental block. But as unpleasant as this cognitive dissonance may be to experience, we can never underestimate the importance of free speech and open debate to discovering new perspectives and intellectual insights.

In the time since the Alien and Sedition Acts, the United States has generally displayed great respect for the First Amendment. One example of this is the  landmark Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) in which the Court ruled:

“Freedoms of speech and press do not permit a State to forbid advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

In other words, the only limit to your freedom of expression is that which incites violence. Not only that, but such violence must be both likely and imminent to occur. The standard to which the freedom of speech can be limited by the government is now extraordinarily high. The First Amendment and its guarantees of freedom of expression have, directly and indirectly, facilitated many of the great intellectual and creative achievements of our society.

As a final word on the importance of freedom of expression and open discourse, we can look to philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argued that freedom of expression, no matter how heinous the expression may be, should be preserved for three reasons: (1) that there may be some possibility that what is being said is true, (2) that there is some partial truth either in content or approach to be gained from listening, and (3) that even if there is no truth in what is said, that it nevertheless reminds us of what we truly believe and why we believe it. The process of engaging in argument and debate, even with viewpoints that are proven to be incorrect, is a worthwhile exercise. I believe the third is the most powerful: we should embrace expression unconditionally so that our intellectual foundation stands firm. With John Stuart Mill’s wisdom and a degree of intellectual discipline and self-control, we can overcome the mental block—the cognitive trap—that can make our minds dark caverns rather than places of great knowledge and inquiry.

Hans Riess is a columnist at Merion West.

Hans Riess graduated from Duke University with a degree in mathematics and is working towards a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He is interested in applying concepts from mathematics to theories of optimal political decision-making.

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