Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Truth and Fallibility: A Historical Perspective on Why Liberty Matters

History is arguably one of the most undervalued subjects in education. While history does not repeat itself, as is commonly and fallaciously stated, it does have a tendency to rhyme. Past events form a model for how we can expect the present and future to play out, and can guide our understanding and decision-making to hopefully escape the mistakes of our ancestors.

When we neglect the study of history, it is easy to forget why we hold certain beliefs and values, and perhaps the most important is the principle of free expression.  Its value is not particularly self-evident, and is in many ways actually counter-intuitive; shouldn’t we want to protect people from hateful speech of wrong ideas?
Such was the line of thinking that John Milton was arguing against in his time-transcending essay Areopagitica, in defense of freedom of the press. His was a time in which the printing presses were controlled and censored by the royal government, a government which was presumed, under the divine right of kings, to have a greater monopoly on truth than mere mortals. What if Kings too were simply poorly evolved mammals like the rest of us, prone to error in judgment and perception?

Censorship, according to Milton and to John Stuart Mill in his Milton-echoing essay On Liberty, harms us in three distinct ways: It robs us of potential exposure to some previously unknown truth in its’ presupposition that we already have the truth and that we cannot be wrong; It takes away our ability to critically analytically think about what we think we know, and our chances at more deeply understanding why we know what we believe to be true is, in fact, true; And finally, it fails to solve the problems it attempts to solve—namely false ideas. The prevention and punishment of the dissemination of thoughts we disagree with doesn’t make them go away, but merely forces them underground, promoting a polarized and uncommunicative society that lays the groundwork for greater misunderstanding, contempt and conflict.

The reasons for free expression necessarily imply the allowance for ideas that might seem untrue to us, or even hateful. An often-quoted example against such liberty is the famous ruling of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who sent members of the American Socialist Party to prison for opposing America’s involvement in WWI, claiming their distribution of pamphlets was allegorically equivalent to “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” As the smoke cleared from that unnecessary conflict, more than 117,000 American soldiers lay dead. Was Holmes really sure there was no metaphorical fire?

As a student, it is easy to fall prey to speech limitations from the pleading arguments of “tolerance,” but these neglect the thoughts of Mill and Milton and subsequently shut down debate. My critical writing in the school paper on college policies that impose orthodoxy in student thought have stirred controversy, alienated former friends and even threatened my job, but maintaining the values of the enlightenment seems well-worth the dangers in pursuit of discerning truth.

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