In my younger days, I was pretty intractable, convinced that I was always right. When my wife, Tracy, reads this, she’ll do an eye-roll and think “was?” but I really have gotten much better about allowing for the possibility that I might be wrong. (At some point, I had to give in to overwhelming evidence of my fallibility.)
Unfortunately, the belief that we’re infallible infects us as a society. This is a pernicious threat to our future. Believing that we’re infallible leads to the discounting and silencing of contrary opinions, in other words, an intolerance for free and open expression. My goal for this column is to make the argument for allowing free expression, even when we find the opinions expressed despicable. (How many of you mentally read the word “despicable” in a Daffy Duck voice?)
Let me start my case with a quote from John Stuart Mill, “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” There is truth in Mill’s long sentences and confusing pronoun references. Essentially, Mill points out that silencing distasteful opinion (generally any opinion we don’t hold) deprives us of the opportunity to learn and grow, both as individuals and as a society.
Here’s the bottom line argument for allowing contrary, even reprehensible speech – only by vigorously testing our beliefs and values from all possible angles can we trust their correctness. This is true for a society, an organization or an individual. We learn and improve by considering the possibility that we are wrong. If we don’t allow and consider contrary opinions, how can we be sure that our own is correct? How can we correct ourselves when we’re wrong?
Silencing contrary voices comes from two sources, arrogance and fear. The arrogance comes from a belief that we are infallible. At some point, most of us have refused to consider an opinion out of an absolute belief that our position is correct. We do this in the face of innumerable times we’ve been proven wrong. We also silence (or fail to consider) contrary opinions out of two fears, a fear that the undesirable speech will spark an epidemic of distasteful thought and practice, and a fear that we may be wrong. As is usually the case, arrogance and fear deprive us. In this instance, we deprive ourselves the opportunity for a stronger grasp of the truth. Time often proves public opinion wrong, even reprehensible. History provides countless examples of brave souls shouldering the wrath of public scorn to bring the truth to light. We must allow all opinions to live or die through exposure to full and open discussion. Banning opinions from public discourse only drives them underground, often to fester until they spring to the surface at the worst possible moment.
Silencing contrary opinions is also a leadership issue. Building a culture in which people are afraid to disagree with the leader rarely leads to sustained success. Confident leaders build an atmosphere in which all feel free to express their opinions without fear of reprisal. Fearful and arrogant leaders seek an echo chamber in which subordinates parrot back the leaders’ opinions.
Suppressing opinions often leads to bad decisions. I joke that my staff’s main job is to keep me from doing something stupid. (It’s a full-time job.) I’m only sort of kidding. Listening to others’ opinions leads me to better decisions. At the end of the day, leaders must decide, but they should decide armed with the thoughts of those who hold contrary opinions. (We do, however, need to guard against endless discussion; at some point, you have to make a decision.)
In closing, I acknowledge that I write this from a position of considerable privilege, and the perspective that such a position brings. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that the best way to counter a reprehensible opinion is to expose it to the light of public scrutiny and full discussion. Let the truth illuminate the flaws.
For a much deeper and stronger discussion of these issues, read Mills, On Liberty, especially Chapter 2, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.” I welcome comments and feedback on these columns, even when the opinions expressed are contrary to my own. Email your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke
By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.
Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D., is a professor and dean in Northern Arizona University’s W. A. Franke College of Business.