Why You Should Tolerate Wrong Opinions

Release Date
June 5, 2017


Free Speech

Real tolerance means accepting free speech even for people whose opinions are 100% wrong. Full interview with Dave Rubin and philosopher Brandon Turner here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFrLpk5OXfU

    1. Shaming Someone Doesn’t Change Their Mind – Learn Liberty (video): A look at the work of Alana Conner, a cultural scientist at Stanford University, and the social psychology of persuasion. 
    2. Freedom of Speech: Is Offensive Speech Good For Society? – Learn Liberty (video): Professor Tom Bell explains why protecting the right of Free Speech, even when offensive, obscene, or hateful ideas are being expressed, is beneficial for society. 
    3. How to Talk About Politics Without Sounding Like a Jerk (blog post): Professor Matt Zwolinski explains why political discussions are so difficult and often turn hostile.

Brandon Turner: The most interesting case, though, from Mill, that he makes in On Liberty is … What if the 1% is actually wrong, objectively wrong? What if we had a machine that could tell us with 100% certainty, “You guys are totally right about this. This person really is a crackpot. She has no idea what she’s talking about.”? Should we tolerate that view?
Just generally in On Liberty, On Liberty just gives the case for why we ought to tolerate … and by tolerate, I mean tolerate. Not just ignore someone, but confront someone with ideas that we find deeply offensive and deeply troubling, and yet, nonetheless allow them to say it.
Dave Rubin: Yeah. I’m glad you mad that distinction, though, because the word “tolerance” even, has become politicized these days, right?
Brandon Turner: Yeah, that’s right. There’s tolerance and then there’s apathy. We tend to mistake one for the other. Tolerance, particularly religious tolerance, when Locke was writing about religious tolerance, the demands for this were high. It was a demanding doctrine that says, “Listen. There’s your neighbor … he might be engaged in religious practices that you think not only are they condemning him to hell, but they might actually suck you down into the …”
Those are high stakes. Today, we’re like, “Oh, this guy eats that food, and he eats that food, and he wears that dress, and I’m just not going to pitch a fit about it.”
Mill, he’d say, “Listen. We’ve got to tolerate people with offensive views for a couple reasons.” On the one hand, it might just be the case that they’re right and we’re wrong. We’re the majority, we’re 99% of a popular opinion on this particular issue, and then you have this one guy who won’t shut up, and insists that we’re wrong. Well, this is the Socrates case, right?
Dave Rubin: Right.
Brandon Turner: It might just be the fact that he’s actually right, and that we’re gonna be made better off through interacting with him on this.
Dave Rubin: Yeah. That’s a pretty healthy way to view someone, that your opponent’s intentions might be good, might be right.
Brandon Turner: Oh, yeah.
Dave Rubin: You might be wrong.
Brandon Turner: That’s right. You might be right, which itself it’s a very demanding doctrine. In that case, it’s clearly justified to let him speak his mind, because if you’re remedied of an error, of being in the wrong, then you’re made better off, and so it’s justified.
Or it could be, he says, it could be that the truth is maybe split between us. We hold most of the truth. We, the majority opinion, we’re mostly right, but the other side might be right in some different ways, or the truth might be somewhere in between. In which case, we’re gonna come to a better understanding of the issue through a kind of interaction one on one.
The most interesting case, though, from Mill that he makes in On Liberty, is what if the 1% is actually wrong, objectively wrong? What if we had a machine that could tell us with 100% certainty, “You guys are totally right about this. This person really is a crackpot. She has no idea what she’s talking about.”?
Should we tolerate that view? Of course, we can think of parallels for this all over the place. If I’m a Jewish community in Skokie or whatever, should I allow Nazis to walk through my streets and protest, and all this kind of stuff? We know Nazism is wrong. We know that anti-Semitism is wrong. We know all these sorts of … these are horrendous views, and hold no place in polite society.
Should we prevent them from speaking out, saying their mind? Mill says no, even in that case. You actually may be better off through interacting with these particular views. You are given a chance for your views on a particular matter to become, in some sense, more alive, to become better.
I see this all the time, so when I teach something like Locke, or when I teach Mill or whatever to students today, a lot of my students … these are good, 20 year old kids, they have the right views on most things. They know that human beings should be treated equally, but if you press just the slightest bit, if you say, “Why should they be treated equally? What sort of doctrine are your views based on? Is it based on a natural equality?”
In other words, once you start poking around the edges of this view, they tense up a little bit. They’re not really sure … In other words, they have the right views, but they don’t know, they don’t [crosstalk 00:04:02] for the right reasons.
Dave Rubin: They don’t know why.
Brandon Turner: They don’t really remember why, or how they came to these particular views. They hold them in a shallow, or hollow sort of way. For Mill, interacting with someone who pushes you on these things, interacting with someone who genuinely does hold wrong views, gives you the chance to reinvigorate your own views on particular issues, that’s the basic argument of On Liberty.