Andrew Fiala

We need to hear bad ideas so we can argue against them

Americans have the right to say what we believe, says ethics columnist Andrew Fiala. We need to hear bad ideas, so we can argue against them. And we should hope that liberty provides the best cure for stupidity.
Americans have the right to say what we believe, says ethics columnist Andrew Fiala. We need to hear bad ideas, so we can argue against them. And we should hope that liberty provides the best cure for stupidity. Associated Press file

People don’t like political correctness. A February poll by CBS’ “60 Minutes” found that 55 percent of Americans think that political correctness is a danger to free speech. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans don’t like political correctness.

Donald Trump has made this a theme. In a January speech Trump said, “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.” In a recent response to the backlash about his criticism of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Trump said, “We have to stop being so politically correct in this country.”

Trump supporters agree. In a story about a Fresno kid who was not allowed to wear a Trump hat to school, Brooke Ashjian said, “If he wants to wear the hat, he should. If people are disturbed, too bad. There is so much political correctness people are afraid to rally.”

Democratic dialogue depends upon liberty, honesty and accountability. Without sincerity and freedom we end up with hypocrisy and duplicity. This is not good in a democracy.

Nor is it good for the pursuit of truth. Philosopher John Locke once said, “the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself.” Speech codes that limit the free exchange of ideas undermine the pursuit of knowledge.

When people say what they mean and mean what they say, we have a basis for judgment and evaluation. Without free and honest speech, we do not know what anyone really thinks. That’s a problem in democracy, in business, and in life.

Frank and forthright speech is revealing and occasionally disturbing. Consider what Trump’s unconstrained speech teaches us about him. He has admitted he is suspicious of Mexican-Americans and Muslims. It is better that we know this than if he kept those ideas to himself.

Free speech allows for education and progress. Consider the case of Leslie Rasmussen, who wrote a letter in support of a friend who was convicted of rape at Stanford. Rasmussen blamed her friend’s conviction on political correctness. She wrote, “Stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”

To claim that rapists are not always rapists is a contradiction. The complaint about political correctness is a red herring. But that’s why we need free speech. If we don’t know what people think, we cannot evaluate their ideas – or criticize their logic. Nor can we change their minds.

Rasmussen’s remarks provoked a backlash. Her band was dropped from a number of concerts. Some may see this as an example of the stifling effect of political correctness. But it’s part of the free market of ideas. And the backlash allowed Rasmussen to clarify her position. She recently apologized for her remarks.

That’s an important lesson. Unconstrained speech can result in dumb things being said. No one is perfect. Sometimes our tongues outpace our brains. When we say something dumb we ought to correct it and apologize. Honesty and liberty require accountability.

We learn and grow through free, sincere and accountable dialogue. When people say what they believe, we can evaluate them accordingly. We can even try to persuade them to think differently. But when discourse is constrained and people don’t say what they mean, we cannot have a productive dialogue.

In the best of all possible worlds there would be no hateful words. But in our flawed world, the next best thing is for bad ideas to come out of the closet. Political correctness can cause people to say the right thing for the wrong reasons, while remaining committed to dumb or indecent ideas.

Genuine civility remains an important good for social life. But genuine civility is not mere political correctness. Authentic civility is grounded in respect, compassion and commitment to the common good. Gandhi explained, “Civility does not mean mere outward gentleness of speech … but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.”

Eloquent courtesy can mask cruelty and violence. Political correctness can be oppressive. And inhibited speech prevents genuine dialogue.

Americans have the right to say what we believe. We need to hear bad ideas, so we can argue against them. And we should hope that liberty provides the best cure for stupidity.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: fiala.andrew@gmail.com

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