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Free Speech: Truth's Only Ally
This piece was first published in Areo Magazine. You can find the original here. Areo is an independent publication, entirely funded by reader donations. If you enjoy reading, please help me to ensure that it remains vibrant and sustainable long term, by donating to our Patreon, SubscribeStar or PayPal.
Despite our keen intelligence and irrepressible curiosity about the nature of the world in which we live, we humans are not primarily truth-seekers. We are a species of social ape, highly dependent on each other. Our friendships, our livelihoods, our sexual and familial relationships all rely on our ability to get along with other people and we do so largely by saying the things that we know they want to hear. Much of the time, we talk—and write—in order to demonstrate that we can be trusted, that we should be accepted and rewarded because we think and feel the right things, we share the same beliefs and values as those we love, admire or depend upon.
The incentives to deliberately lie are myriad. In our personal lives, we tell white lies to spare people’s feelings, to try to cheer people up (“don’t worry: everything will be fine”), to avoid unproductive or stressful arguments that might strain our friendships. We lie about our weight, height and age on dating apps to avoid being filtered out by the preferences potential partners have set. We lie about our political opinions in order to keep the peace. We lie to flatter the cognitive dissonance of our friends and loved ones, to help them ignore obvious problems they do not want to face: “another glass of wine won’t do you any harm”; “why not treat yourself to that expensive weekend trip—you deserve it”; “I find you just as attractive, even though you’ve gained a little weight.” Above all, we lie to try to convince ourselves that we’re not in any trouble, that our habitual behaviours are not causing any problems, that we’ll begin the diet and reduce our social media use and pay off that credit card bill soon.
When it comes to our political opinions, there are many incentives to lie. Many people downplay, obscure or even deny passionately held views that they know will be unpopular or that others will find suspect, offensive or crazy. No one wants to be ostracised.
But, for some, the incentives are stacked in the opposite direction: heterodoxy can also be rewarded. If you have been maligned for—for example—supporting Brexit and have found an online community of people who agree with you on the topic, you will find that many of them are also against gender self-ID, opposed lockdowns and have not been vaccinated against Covid-19. There is no intrinsic connection between these viewpoints, yet they are usually inextricably linked. (The same is true of more progressive, woke and left-wing equivalents—this is a general human tendency.) People tend to cluster together and their views on a variety of topics coalesce until they become a like-minded tribe, with an agreed line on every subject of public interest. Hence the paradoxical phenomenon of contrarian orthodoxy, which you challenge at your peril (as editor of heterodox magazine Quillette Claire Lehmann found out when her views on Covid measures conflicted with those of a large portion of her readership).
In addition, we may obfuscate or obscure the truth for fear that bad actors will exploit it for their own purposes. We might, for example, stay silent about some example of Islamic misogyny, homophobia or extremism to avoid providing the western far-right or Hindu nationalists in India with fuel for their bigoted hatred of Muslims as a group. This is a short-sighted policy but understandable. There is always the danger that the wrong people will agree with you and your cause will be discredited by association. Allies of this kind are worse than the most inveterate opponents.
Most work environments also mitigate strongly against truth-telling. To continue to receive your wages, you will usually be asked to refrain from saying anything that might tarnish the company’s image, to ignore any shady dealings, to tolerate double standards, to discreetly remove the rainbow logos when marketing to China, to keep quiet even on matters irrelevant to the company’s line of business, if your opinions are liable to prompt a backlash on social media. This dependency is exacerbated in the US, where employees often depend on their employers for healthcare, as well as income.
In a perfect world, universities would be ideal forums for the free exploration and exchange of ideas. It is vital that we make much greater efforts to create and sustain a robust culture of free speech in academia and to signal boost and support all those currently attempting to do so.
This task is as important as it will be difficult. Currently, universities—which should be single-mindedly devoted to truth-seeking—tend to operate like corporations when it comes to the range of opinions you are permitted to express. Universities are ferociously hierarchical institutions and job security and advancement are often dependent on courting popularity with students, presenting acceptable research to journals and toadying to superiors. In the US, in particular, an underclass of precariously employed and wretchedly underpaid adjuncts and teaching assistants, often burdened with significant debt from their own educations, are especially dependent on currying favour and suppressing views that might get them fired. This is not an environment that encourages freedom of thought. We need to change the culture radically and meanwhile carve out many more spaces in which academics can speak freely, if we do not want academia to be, like business, filled with mealy-mouthed sycophants and bloviating credentialled imposters.
I don’t mean to imply that it is primarily left-leaning groups and environments that stifle freedom of expression. This may seem the case, sometimes, in the liberal west, where the British police can arrest people for hurtful tweets and diversity officers can terrorise employees—even sometimes attempting to monitor and correct their subconscious thoughts by using quack psychology tools like the Implicit Association Test. Worldwide, most threats to truth come from the right. In large swathes of the world, people have to lie about their sexuality and their atheism—about the two most fundamental personal truths, who they love and what they believe—to avoid being cast out of their conservative families and communities. And totalitarian regimes across the political spectrum aspire to control everything their citizens say, listen to, write or read. In Communist China, North Korea, most Muslim countries and a slew of other dictatorships and failed states, people are forced to lie for fear of oppression, imprisonment, violence and even death.
But there is an even greater obstacle to speaking the truth. Even if we are determined to speak truth to power there is the enormous difficulty of determining what is true.
Here at Areo, over the past year, I have been mostly platforming left-of-centre but anti-woke viewpoints. I have presented arguments against identity politics, against discrimination of all kinds (including positive discrimination and quotas), paeans to liberalism and free speech and defences of capitalism tempered by a strong welfare state and of multi-faith, multicultural secularism. Areo provides a really important vehicle for such views which, I believe, do not receive enough airtime. I personally want to push back against what I see as illiberal tendencies on the left, while remaining true to some fundamental left-wing values. But this magazine is not a bastion of truth. Like all publications, it contains errors. No matter how carefully we construct them and how well evidenced and watertight we may believe them to be, all arguments are provisional and are likely to be at least partially wrong, in ways that we cannot yet know. We can’t guarantee that we are right. But we can be scrupulously sincere in stating what we believe to be true.
Most importantly, Areo is a vital part of an ecosystem of political and social commentary and this ecosystem must flourish, if we are to have a chance of ever approaching closer to the truth. We none of us have access to revealed knowledge: we are all simply guessing and our guesses are stress-tested by exposure to criticism. We are too liable to deceive and flatter ourselves to be able to correct our errors on our own. We need ideological opponents: people who are sceptical of our claims, who have a vested interest in proving us wrong and will scrutinise our arguments.
Erroneous ideas and immoral practices can hold sway for a while; eloquent demagogues and populists can enthral people temporarily, doing a great deal of damage in the short term, but over long enough periods of time, through the clash of ideas, we become less and less wrong. We no longer burn witches—though we still slice off the foreskins of newborns; we no longer sacrifice our children and llamas to the gods to prevent famine—though, in some parts of the world, we still kill people for violating ancient superstitions and taboos. But increasingly we fight using words, not weapons and we kill off bad ideas, not the people who hold them. As Karl Popper recommends, we try to let our theories die in our stead. Over the long sweep of history, we are gradually becoming less ignorant and less wicked.
But for this progress to continue, we need the freedom to think aloud, to explore every idea, including those that are offensive or outlawed. We need free speech and a tradition of criticism, which must include a freedom to challenge every opinion, no matter how many people believe it, no matter how passionately they may feel about it and no matter who those people are. And, in particular, anyone—independent of sex, sexuality, skin colour or nationality—must have the freedom to make reasoned, thoughtful arguments on any subject and such arguments need to be given a hearing. We are all biased, but it is especially important to support those who are at least attempting to be fair and even handed in their arguments and to resist the temptation to strawman their opponents and indulge in pop psychoanalysis and cheap moralising, while still being courageous enough to toss a few sacred cows onto the barbecue and turn them into brisket.
There are too few places where people can speak freely. I would like Areo to be one. But to make that possible requires money. We have no sponsorship, no board of directors, no endowment, no major funders. Areo relies completely on reader support: on your support. To keep the magazine vibrant and sustainable for another year, I urge you to consider giving at least £5 or £10 a month—more if you can afford it—to our Patreon, SubscribeStar or PayPal. Let’s keep this space open to everyone with clear ideas and good arguments.
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