There’s something in our DNA to feel threatened by ideas that challenge our own.
History is haunted by tragic examples of the suppression of minority views, whether it be Athens killing Socrates (399 BC), the Roman Inquisition’s placing Galileo under house arrest for advocating heliocentrism (1632), Nazi book burning (1933), or the persecution of many thousands of academics during the Cultural Revolution (1966).
The suppression of minority views is a perennial issue, and it usually takes place in much less dramatic fashion than the examples above. Today, in the United States, this issue manifests itself in accusations of major tech companies disadvantaging conservative ideas on their platforms, increased political and media polarization, and the President speaking pejoratively about freedom of the press.
People have a basic human right to free speech, and to be treated equally, regardless of their political or philosophical views. But what I want to argue here is that letting minority views be represented in our public discourse is not just our moral obligation, but actually (usually) benefits society. Rather than suppressing or disregarding views that oppose our own, we should appreciate their value and seek to create a healthy collaborative ecosystem in which ideas are readily exchanged, compared, and improved.
While flawed, the United States has a better record of protecting minority views than most nations through the ages.
Reflecting on his 1831 visit to America, Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term “tyranny of the majority” to warn of a possible danger of democratic government, when the majority opinion secures a strongly disproportionate amount of political power, marginalizing the voice and influence of minority opinions. Foreseeing the same danger, many of the Founding Founders had identified the pricelessness of minority views and took measures to protect them by establishing a republic with a system of checks and balances. One of these measures was the Electoral College, which was originally intended to guard against majority tyranny. Since then, American leaders have conceived of additional ideas to protect minority views, some reasonable and some misguided, Nullification being perhaps the most controversial.
So why are minority views valuable? Here are five reasons.
First, the minority is often right (or closer to the truth). Every major scientific revolution came at the overturning of majority held views. Women’s suffrage and racial equality were once minority views in the United States. Moreover, the United States as we know it might not even exist if the Founding Fathers had not studied the philosophy of John Locke, whose ideas were at one time minority views. Human progress often comes from new ideas that achieve influence, and all new ideas begin as minority views.
Second, a minority view can contain truthful elements and good points even if its overarching conclusion is false. We can take truthful points from a system of thought without accepting its entire paradigm. A religion, philosophy, or political theory might have a true tenet or two that we can learn from, while rejecting its other tenets.
Third, views that conflict with our own views help us better understand our own views. Falsity can highlight the truth through contrast. John Stuart Mill wrote that “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race” because “if the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”
Fourth, when there are multiple prominent viewpoints competing with one another, they improve each other. Competition usually improves the things at competition with each other, and the competition of ideas is no exception. It drives forward reflection, further exploration, and innovation on the subject matter. As President George H. W. Bush said, “Free economies depend upon the freedom of expression, the ability of people to exchange ideas and test out new theories.” In the workplace, all else being equal, an employee who thinks differently and has ideas others do not have is more valuable than an employee who thinks exactly like his coworkers. Like businesses, societies progress faster when they are rich in competing ideas and worldviews.
Fifth, interacting with opposing views develops virtue. Listening both cultivates and requires humility, patience, and respect. Seeking to understand opposing views sharpens critical thinking, increases civility, and can even require courage. Respectfully defending our own beliefs forces us to know why we have them, points to areas for improvement in our thinking, and makes us better communicators.
For these reasons, the presence of minority views generally tends to benefit truth and virtue, even if the views are false. To be sure, some views, such as racism and sexism, are so toxic as to harm society in whatever form they exist. But, more often than not, to quote John Stuart Mill again, “Truth gains more even by the error of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.”
So why does all of this matter? Because a proper valuation of minority views should impact us in practical ways on both a societal level and personal level.
At a societal level, we should foster a culture in which ideas can flourish through collaboration and open debate. This involves promoting freedom of speech, press, and assembly. In education, it involves teaching our students respect of others, open-mindedness, and hunger for truth. Politically, we should heed President George Washington’s warning about powerful political parties that marginalize and disempower minority opinions. In the media, it involves providing a voice to a healthy variety of viewpoints and striving to reduce bias. As President John F. Kennedy said, “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed – and no republic can survive.”
At a personal level, we should seek intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is a virtue that begins with acknowledging the fact that each of our worldviews is flawed. All of us are wrong about some things, and other people have important things to teach us. So listen respectfully, even when you think you are faced with preposterous ideas. Be stalwart in your advocacy of truth, but resist dogmatism. And when appropriate, have the courage to change your mind.
We see minority views being suppressed today, and we’ll see the same tomorrow. The solution starts at the individual level.
To conclude with this spirit, some of my points in this article might be wrong. What do you think?
Wikicommons photo: Deutsche Studenten verbrennen eingesammelte, “undeutsche” Schriften und Bücher öffentlich auf der zentralen Prachtstraße “Unter den Linden” in Berlin. 11 May 1933.