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Let Them Speak: Censoring Controversial Speakers Gets Us Nowhere

(AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

“If a speaker from the alt-right attracts listeners, it is useless to rush to block him. The better approach is to engage in deep thinking to determine why so many people are willing to follow these messages.”

Our tendency to block or shut down speech we don’t like is among the worst things we can do for ourselves, our values, and the survival of our societies.

This tendency to censor is not just limited to university campuses; it runs deep everywhere. Now, with the help of social media, it finds itself amplified to new heights. At the slightest sign of an idea that we do not like, there is a flurry of calls, petitions, tweets, all calling for a swift movement that will silence, disintegrate, and crush the bothersome opposition. Journalist Jon Ronson, for example, delivers a detailed view on how we have no limits in ruining someone’s life, using social media. A controversial statement can cause social media storms that destroy careers. 

It is a natural tendency to seek to avoid speech we do not like. Oxford Professor Robin Dunbar in Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language discusses that for survival, we keep like-minded people around us. That might look like a viable solution for our day-to-day lives, but the damage to us, collectively, is immense.

To entertain a metaphor, look at a body with a fever. There is something wrong; its cells and organs are struggling, indicating through painful symptoms the situation needs urgent care and a remedy. If you ignore the fever, something far worse will come your way. Likewise, hearing speech that is outrageous, out of order, or even repressive is like society’s fever, a warning that something is disastrously amiss.

Just like how we only think to go the doctor when we see the symptoms of illness, no matter how much you dislike a view, you have to let that thought come to the surface; it is the only way to see how society truly is. The fact that speech such as this exists shows that something is ailing us, enabling us to discover where our shortcomings are, and most importantly, what we are missing.  

Most people are thinking simply via their speech. The ability to think is a skill that needs training. Jordan Peterson, in one of his Youtube videos, discusses the process of thinking. If you consider carefully what is usually going on, you might think you are thinking, but you are just settling an argument in your mind based on reaching the conclusion you want.

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However, we ought to think in a better way. Imagine those roundtables you see on television. If you want to train yourself to think more clearly, you should be able to simultaneously have a robust discussion and hold a number of point of views—not just those that confirm what you want to believe but also those that challenge it. But this, in practice, is a tough thing to do.

When people are speaking, they are trying to think. That speech needs other speech to challenge and interact with it. If thinking so often manifests itself in speech, oppositional speech is needed to move us forward

David Dunning, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, describes a very critical issue in how we interact with each other when it comes to exchanging ideas. Ironically, sometimes the less we know, the more we think we know. It’s a puzzling phenomenon as it’s hard to argue with someone who is completely convinced of the truth of his belief, a false confidence that is actually the result of knowing very little. 

This phenomenon, which is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, is all around us. Many people think they know a lot about forensic science, criminal courts, or how a hospital works since they watch television shows based on these areas. But so long as you overestimate your knowledge of a subject and are ignorant of the information you are lacking, it is difficult to make progress when exchanging ideas. 

Whenever we think that we have completely blocked unsettling speech, we have, in fact, just swept it under the rug, not understanding the harm that we are doing to ourselves as a society. Speech can never truly be blocked, evaporated, or annihilated. It finds its way through no matter what, covertly attracting its chosen audience. By the time it manifests itself to the public, we are not only dealing with an idea that is wrong, but we are also dealing with people who deeply believe that they are right. This happens when no one provides opinions to the contrary

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If a speaker from the alt-right attracts listeners, it is useless to rush to block him. The better approach is to engage in deep thinking to determine why so many people are willing to follow these messages. Just like the fever in the body, it ought to ignite an opportunity to consider what we are doing wrong, what our society is missing, and why that message resonates. Instead of tuning out Chris Hayes, Tucker Carlson, Alex Jones, Rachel Maddow, Rush Limbaugh, we need to understand their audience, rather than just label them or ignore them. 

Because of our tendency to sweep speech under the rug, the “rug of society” might as well be a battlefield. All those swept under the carpet, make our flat rug useless. That rug itself is a war zone. That rug is no longer serving us as a symbol of unity and cooperation; it is turning us against each other, as hate festers beneath the foundations of our society.

Kambiz Tavana is an Iranian-American journalist and writer.

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