Thomas Jefferson believed Freedom of Speech was necessary to a democracy not only because democracy requires that men be able to express dissent and air grievances without fear of reprisal, but also because it is a mechanism by which a society, and as such a democracy, improves itself. Freedom of speech creates a public forum where all ideas, regardless of their popularity or quality, may be openly expressed so that they may be heard, explained, considered and judged fairly and honestly based on the merit of the idea itself.
The notion was that not all opinions and ideas are of equal value or validity. Some ideas and opinions are definitely good, some are definitely bad and most fall somewhere in between. It doesn’t matter what political, religious or philosophical ideology you look at, there are some ideas within it that fall into each category. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Democrat, Republican, Tea Partier, Green Partier, Libertarian, Socialist, Nationalist, anarchist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, pantheist, polytheist, Deist, unaffiliated spiritualist, atheist, agnostic, or anything else. You have to understand that no matter what ideological bundle you ascribe to, some of the ideas are inherently good, some of the ideas are inherently bad and some of the ideas are not inherently bad, have the potential to be good but need a little work and refining to get there.
And that is where the public forum of Free Speech comes in. Note the wording I used above. “may be openly expressed so that they may be heard, explained, considered and judged fairly and honestly.” This is what Jefferson believed would and should occur, and once it has, the best ideas will be adopted as common practice to benefit society as a whole, the worst ideas will be tossed aside to prevent them from harming society as a whole, and the rest will receive that extra work and refinement they need to be something that can benefit society.
That is how Freedom of Speech is supposed to work to benefit society, according to Jefferson.
….but it went wrong.
Like most social/political theories, it sounds really good on paper, but once you add the human element it goes awry. See, the problem with this notion of the public forum, when put into practice, is that people are flawed. Because of the flaws, what really happens is more along the lines of: all ideas, regardless of their popularity or quality, may be openly expressed so that they may be heard,
explained, considered and judged fairly and honestly based on the merit of the idea itself measured against what an individual already believes and judged based on whether or not it agrees with what they already think is right. Once it has, the best ideas will be adopted as common practice to benefit society as a whole, the worst ideas will be tossed aside to prevent them from harming society as a whole, and the rest will receive that extra work and refinement they need to be something that can benefit society. the individual rails against the idea and says vile and heinous things about the person expressing it if they disagree with it, adds it to their repertoire of soundbites and hails the person expressing it as a genius hero if they agree with it, and the ones they’re not sure about they just ignore until the politician/pundit/clergyman of their choosing tells them what they should think about it.
Pick your reason. It doesn’t matter which you want to blame. They’re all involved. For some people it’s one, for other people it’s another. The end result is the same: The general masses are not willing to accept when the ideas and opinions they agree with have been heard, considered and judged to be bad. They are not willing to toss an idea aside unless it is one they personally think is bad and they are not willing to adopt an idea unless they personally think it is good.
We, as a society have taken the saying “everyone is entitled to their opinion” and made it a sound bite for the intellectually and rationally bankrupt notion that all opinions are valid and equal, regardless of their merit or source, by their sheer fact of existence.
Let’s clarify what that means about the way the general population of our society views ideas and opinions:
An argument of moral action based on position is seen as equally valid as one based from behind the veil.
When talking about evolution, the professional opinion of nearly 100% of the world’s scientists hold equal weight to the layman’s opinion of religious literalists who can’t even get the rest of their religion to agree with them.
A car salesman from podunkistan, USA who has never seen a copy of the Quran or met a Muslim (knowingly) is given the same credence on the topic of Islam as an Imam or a theological scholar.
A political pundit with a degree in broadcasting deserves the same consideration as a PhD in any other field being discussed. Always.
This is not how the value and validity of ideas genuinely measure up, but it is how our society has decided to view them.
Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In that line, I would say that ignorance is expressing the same idea over and over again and expecting it’s validity to change.
This is how…
…bigots and racists get away with insisting that you are morally wrong for expecting them to abandon their racism when presented with undeniable evidence that the race they hate is not inferior and that their deeply held stereotypes are not representative of the people they hate.
…we reached a point where candidates for the most dangerously powerful job in our nation have spokespersons say, as official campaign statements, that “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers“and when asked about outright lies that are provably false “it’s about what is in his heart” (translation: The truth doesn’t matter so long as the lie feels true) while at the height of their popularity in primary races and not a single one of their supporters batted an eye.
Yes, I just broke one of the only 3 rules of my blog. I brought up politics. It’s not possible to talk about what is wrong with modern society and not mention politicians and politics. This isn’t, however, a targeted slight against Republicans or conservatives in general. This mentality – the one expressed in the statements above – is not unique to them. Democrats and liberals in general are just as guilty of “all feels, no reals” and “I only care about the facts if they support my stance.” This isn’t an us-vs-them statement. In this respect, the only real difference between Republicans and Democrats is that the only two politicians who have had the balls to actually admit it have both been Republican.
…news agencies have decided that they no longer have an obligation to report verifiable facts, treat the opinions of actual experts as being superior to the opinions of an activist with no background in the topic being discussed, or report honestly in any way.
…news agencies changed from “report the facts” to “report the controversy.” Every scientific controversy that exists today is a non-controversy. Evolution, climate change, vaccines, etc. There is no argument about these things. Not really. All of these things are agreed upon by 97%+ of the global scientific community. Do you understand what that means? You can’t even get 97% of general population to agree that Nazis were bad, but 97% of scientists agree on these scientific theories. The “controversy” is people who have no idea what they’re talking about deciding that the experts – real experts, generations of people who have devoted their lives to the study and research of a single field of knowledge and understanding, absorbing the achievement of those who came before them and adding their own to the mix – are wrong because “my understanding is too limited to see the validity of this idea.”
There is no scientific controversy about whether or not climate change is real. 97% of scientists world-wide agree that climate change is real, climate change is a serious problem, and human industry is contributing to it. 3% of scientists aren’t convinced that human industry contributes to it *in a significant manner*. Even they, however, still agree that it exists and that it is a problem. But some people, the vast majority of whom have no retained science education beyond a middle school level, think it’s all hocus because it snowed in some southern states last week…and the Modern American Bastardization of Thomas Jefferson’s Public Forum makes their opinion equally valid to that of the experts who have devoted their lives to the study and practice of science.
…we, as a society, have abandoned the endeavor to vet ideas, judge them by their merit alone and adopt or discard them accordingly.
…public discourse became a hindrance, rather than a boon, to the improvement of our nation
…Freedom of Speech went wrong.