George F. Will: “The Oddness Of Everything

May 18, 2005

FIRE’s co-founder Harvey Silverglate just sent George Will’s latest Newsweek column to me.  While it is not every day that either Harvey or I agree with George Will, I must admit this is a brilliant, must-read column.  Will concludes:

America is currently awash in an unpleasant surplus of clanging, clashing certitudes. That is why there is a rhetorical bitterness absurdly disproportionate to our real differences. It has been well said that the spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure that you are right. One way to immunize ourselves against misplaced certitude is to contemplate—even to savor—the unfathomable strangeness of everything, including ourselves.

As I have written before, I think one of the most profound problems on campus today is that students and faculty have decided that some topics are off-limits and that some opinions can just be dismissed without discussion.  Failing to remember the possibility that you might be wrong can lead to tyranny in government, bigotry in people, and atrophy in institutions of intellectual innovation.  The philosophy of free speech recognizes that none of us is omniscient and that none of us possess ideas that are without need of refinement and occasional revision.  Free speech provides us with a framework for talking about anything—for sorting through the facts and the muck—but if we are all so sure we are right what need do we have for free speech?  FIRE hopes that free speech rights exist not just in law but also in the hearts and minds of the future generations of students, teachers, and citizens.  If free speech is not a living, vital, and internalized value its power will be increasingly diminished and even its survival uncertain.