“When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
The above quote by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is often used to expound on the importance of free expression and a thriving marketplace of ideas – one where ideas compete for acceptance.
Analogous to an economic market where only the best products succeed, upholding a robust marketplace of ideas is the best way to filter out those that aren’t valid. Unfortunately, events over the past few years have indicated that this marketplace is in danger of being shut down and dismantled – that most people don’t respond to opposing viewpoints with meaningful and informative discussions but with personal attacks and censorship.
In January of 2005, the president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, notoriously remarked: “It does appear that on many, many different human attributes – height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability – there is relatively clear evidence that … there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and a female population … that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” His suggestion that men may be innately better than women in the fields of math, science and engineering sparked an immediate and intense furor. Women walked out midway through his speech because they were offended by his statement. Summers was attacked from all sides and finally forced to recant and apologize for his statements.
In the midst of the controversy, unfortunately, the evaluation of the validity of his comments was entirely ignored. Few of those who criticized Summers addressed the possible validity of his comments, which in fact had some statistical backing. The criticism leveled at Summers was not intended to counter his argument, but rather to reproach him for even suggesting something that people found offensive. Summers intended for his speech to provoke – and hence promote – further research and debate on why women are underrepresented in the fields he mentioned. He intended for his speech to inject life into the marketplace of ideas. It didn’t work.
Such is the problem even at the University of Michigan, an institution of higher learning that is supposed to foster intellectual discussion. You’d never get that from reading letters to the editor in The Michigan Daily, though. Over the past year, it has been almost impossible to have a civil discussion about issues such as affirmative action. People throw around accusations of racism at others who take stances that they don’t find palatable. The Daily ran a pro-MCRI cartoon on its opinion page and all hell broke loose. Apparently, writing countless editorials supporting affirmative action just wasn’t enough.
With the election over, one might expect the crossfire to lessen. Instead, the personal attacks over affirmative action have simply been replaced by identical attacks regarding the politics of the Middle East. Even with an issue that is thousands of miles removed and has little direct impact on most University students, it’s still impossible to have a civil discussion where both sides listen to one another and don’t simply shout each other down.
Freedom of expression is an often touted phrase that nobody disagrees with, but few people actually practice it in its entirety. Free speech is meaningless if we simply censor opposing viewpoints. Being tolerant and respectful of opposing stances is in all our best interests.
Five hundred years ago, everyone thought that the sun revolved around the Earth. Two hundred years ago, millions of Americans saw nothing wrong with slavery. It’s likely that our descendants will find a number of our beliefs incredulous, too. As Justice Holmes said, “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted.” An opinion that is valid does not require special protection. An opinion that is invalid won’t succeed, even if left uncensored.
Rajiv Prabhakar can be reached at email@example.com.