Complexity Requires Inquiry

Dr. Michael Shermer recently shared an early preview of his "10 Commandments of Free Speech and Free Thought" on ThinkSpot1 and, while it does communicate a lot of the ideals that I share when it comes to the expression of ideas, I disagree with his use of the word "commandment" to describe what he's shared as well as the fact there is a list of 10 to contend with. The list strikes me more as a series of questions followed by reflections on what is required for a respectful discussion on any given topic than a series of rigid laws. Going through the items, there is a clear theme that boils down to just three suggestions on how to communicate an idea with people who may strongly disagree: listen, empathise, and learn from others.

A summarised form of the ten points are as follows:

  1. We must resist the urge to control what other people say.
  2. Censoring speech is a form of tyranny.
  3. It is not just the right of the speaker to speak but for listeners to listen2.
  4. We might be completely right but still learn something new in hearing what someone else has to say.
  5. We might be partially right and, by listening to other viewpoints, we might stand corrected and refine and improve our beliefs.
  6. We might be completely wrong, so hearing criticism or counterpoint gives us the opportunity to change our minds and improve our thinking. […] To overcome [confirmation bias] we must listen to our critics.
  7. Whether right or wrong, by listening to the opinions of others we have the opportunity to develop stronger arguments and build better facts for our positions.
  8. Arguments made in favour of censorship and against free speech are automatically gainsaid the moment the speaker speaks, otherwise we would be unaware of their arguments if they were censored.
  9. Freedom of inquiry -- a form of free thought and speech -- is the bases for all human progress because of human fallibility3.
  10. My freedom to speak and dissent is inextricably tied to your freedom to speak and dissent. If I censor you, why shouldn’t you censor me?

This is a good way to approach complex discussions on complex topics, of which there are a good many. What is missing from the list is a clear outline of responsibility. Rights must be tied to responsibilities, otherwise they simply cannot exist. So if every person has the right to say whatever they wish, the listeners must carry the responsibility of correcting imprecise or unsophisticated reasoning. This does not absolve the speaker from any consequences that come as a result of what they have to say, but it does make possible a dialog with people who feel the need to share things that may not be correct or popular.

The recent sacking of Don Cherry after almost 40 years on Coaches Corner, a popular segment on Hockey Night in Canada is just one example showing there are consequences for expressing -- intentionally or otherwise -- an unrefined and ignorant opinion4. Mr. Cherry had the legal right to speak. The general public had the responsibility to demand a correction. When one did not come, consequences were justly and swiftly meted out. The system works.

What I see in a lot in public forums is an attempt to obliterate ideas. If someone has an unpopular opinion and they're scheduled to speak somewhere, people will show up with megaphones, horns, pickets, and more, all in an attempt to intimidate the speaker into silence. A lot of times this works. Occasionally it does not. Regardless, by preventing someone their time on a soapbox we do a disservice to both the speaker and the people who made the conscious decision to listen. Just because a person has an audience does not mean that audience is in agreement with them. Again, it is the responsibility of the listener to identify, challenge, and -- if required -- correct ideas. By not allowing this exchange of ideas, beliefs, and ideologies, we're hindering ourselves and leaving our own ideas, beliefs, and ideologies weak and untested. It's lose-lose for everybody.

Just as Dr. Shermer stated in his 10th point: My freedom to speak and dissent is inextricably tied to your freedom to speak and dissent. A just society grants all people the same inextricable rights and freedoms, so long as the people bear the responsibility of ensuring that everybody can exercise those rights and freedoms. If we are all to be equal, then there cannot be some more equal than others. We must all speak.

  1. Unfortunately this site is very much a walled garden. Sign-ups are available for free so long as you don't mind the waiting list. If you'd like access a little sooner, I do have some invite codes. Just get in touch via the contact form (or email) if you're interested.

  2. Going further, Dr. Shermer writes: "When colleges deplatform speakers or students succeed in silencing a speaker through the heckler’s veto, the right of the audience to hear the speaker’s ideas are violated."

  3. He expands on this with: "We are all wrong some of the time (and many of us most of the time) so the only way to know if you’ve gone off the rails is to tell others about your beliefs so that they may be tested in the marketplace of ideas. In science this is called conjecture and refutation, or hypothesis testing."

  4. From Wikipedia: On November 9, 2019, Cherry made remarks during Coach's Corner suggesting that Canadian immigrants benefit from the sacrifices of veterans and do not wear remembrance poppies. He remarked, "You people that come here… you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that… These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price." Sportsnet apologized for the remarks, stating that his comments were discriminatory and offensive, and that they "do not represent our values and what we stand for as a network." His co-host, Ron MacLean, also apologized via Twitter, expressing regret for his actions and for allowing Cherry make the comments. The NHL subsequently released a statement on Cherry's comments saying "the comments made last night were offensive and contrary to the values we believe in." Cherry later told the Toronto Sun that he would not apologize for his comments, stating, "I have had my say."