What is the Eternally Radical Idea?

April 9, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: COVID-19 has played havoc with all plans, so please consider this entry another preview of Greg’s new Eternally Radical Idea blog. The blog will officially launch with the publication of Greg and his team’s update to The Coddling of the American Mind, his best-selling 2018 book with Jonathan Haidt. (Greg and Haidt made all of chapter 1 available online earlier today.) The update article, tentatively titled “Catching up with Coddling” will be coming soon. Stay safe and sane, folks! 

What do you call an idea that has a clear track record of promoting innovation, human flourishing, prosperity, and progress, but is nonetheless rejected by every generation?

I would call that idea radical. And because it’s always so staunchly opposed, I would call that idea “eternally radical.”

So what is the Eternally Radical Idea? It is freedom of speech. 

The unfettered right to state your opinion is extremely rare in human history. Your right to promote reform, contradict prevailing orthodoxies, or engage in artistic and personal expression is even rarer. 

Indeed, human beings are natural born censors with a strong drive toward community conformity. Throughout the millennia, how have we typically handled dissenters? Often it’s ostracization or banishment. At other times, it’s arrest, torture, beheadings, burning at the stake, crucifixion, or drinking hemlock.

As listeners of the FIRE-sponsored, ground-breaking, and now complete, podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech will know, brutal enforcement of conformity has not been isolated to one type of society or to one part of the globe.

And the examples aren’t all in the past. Even today, according to Pew, 26% of countries and territories still have laws against blasphemy, with violations carrying the death penalty in several. As of December 2019, 40 were on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy. And this problem is not confined to the Middle East, which accounts for fewer than half of the countries that criminalize blasphemy.

On the other hand, when you look at history, you’ll see times when societies were comparatively tolerant of differing ideas characterized as Golden Ages. Think of ancient Athens, the late republican and early Roman Empire, the Islamic world of the Middle Ages, and China just prior to the Ming dynasty.

Mere toleration of dissenters is surely a radical idea. But the eternally radical idea goes a step further: Rather than merely not jailing or killing dissenters, how about we listen to them?

Mere toleration of dissenters is surely a radical idea. But the eternally radical idea goes a step further: Rather than merely not jailing or killing dissenters, how about we listen to them?

How do we accept the possibility that the dissident might be right — or, even more radically, that the sacred truths of our ancestors might be wrong? This has been described by Yuval Noah Harari as the “discovery of ignorance,” and it was a crucial step toward “liberal science,” the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and the idea of civil and human rights.

I have been lucky enough to grow up in the United States during what may be the high-water mark of free speech protections under the First Amendment. The invigoration of the constitutional right to freedom of speech that began in 1925 and accelerated in the 1950s allowed for the rise of the civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements. It led to a cultural explosion of art and knowledge at an unprecedented scale.

But in 2020, many of us take the eternally radical idea for granted. In this hopelessly polarized country, too many people begin by asking, “So, is free speech a conservative or progressive idea? Is it right or left?” If the answer is, “on the left,” throngs on the right assume it can be ignored. If the answer is, “on the right,” many on the left feel absolved from having to take it seriously. This is a childish level of debate and discussion to be sure, but it also misses the point: Free speech — freedom of thought, academic freedom, liberal science itself — all transcend today’s partisan politics.

Some readers may be skeptical of my basic premise that freedom of speech is a radical idea. After all, when you ask people all over the world if they support freedom of speech, most of them answer, “Yes.” But scratch a little deeper and you will find that most define freedom of speech within the boundaries of what is already tolerated by their cultures. 

Many people want to believe they are open-minded, and sincerely believe in the value of freedom for their own speech. They can become ambivalent, or even hostile, when that right is extended to other people. In most places, the concept of free speech is held up as a symbol of modern progress and civilization. Someone’s self-assessment that they believe in free speech usually doesn’t convey much more information than that they believe themselves to be a “good person.”

A global survey demonstrates the difference between people’s claimed belief in freedom of speech and the reality. In 2015, Pew found that large majorities of those polled in Germany (86%), Ukraine (61%), and Brazil (68%) said it was “very important” that people can say what they want without censorship. However, when asked if other people should be able to make statements that are offensive to personally-held religious beliefs, support in Ukraine dropped to 12%, when asked about statements that are offensive to minorities, support in Germany dropped to 27%, and when asked about sexually explicit statements, support in Brazil dropped to 23% — perhaps surprising for those who have attended Carnival.

We see a version of this same phenomenon on our nation’s campuses. A survey conducted by FIRE and YouGov found that 75% of students think students should have the right to free speech on campus, even if what is being said offends others. But the very same poll found that 57% of students think colleges and universities should be able to restrict student expression of political views that are hurtful or offensive to certain students. 

Free speech will be opposed by the forces of conformity and the inclinations of human nature from now until the end of human civilization. That’s why it must be fought for, explained, and re-explained with each new generation. 

But free speech has one powerful fact on its side: It works. It works really well for the discovery and remedying of problems, and even for something as simple yet profound as knowing the world as it truly is, warts and all. 

While this blog will be about more than just freedom of speech, its first mission is to get people to understand that freedom of speech belongs to no one unless it belongs to everyone. 

That will always be a radical idea.