I tend to have ideas about many different topics. I like to share those ideas but when I write them out sometimes something gets lost – I don’t always love my own writing.
On my book, The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get, I worked with a very talented writer, Greg Lichtenberg. Greg and I sat together many, many times over the course of a few years and, in the end, I was pleased with the result. The experience gave me the idea that I could do something similar on this blog. So sometimes on this blog, when I have an idea or opinion I can’t express in writing as clearly as I want, I’m going to ask for some help from people I think can work with me to get my idea out better than I could manage on my own. When I do that, I am going to mention having gotten the help. For the piece I am posting today, I asked Alfred Levitt to work with me on the writing – my ideas and views with help from Alfred on the writing.
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I’ve long believed that a diversity of opinion is essential for our society to prosper. I oppose shouting down people who express competing views. It’s in thoughtful disagreement that sustainable progress can happen – silencing those who hold different opinions doesn’t end well.
So the recently published letter, A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, struck a chord with me, despite its overtly anti-Trump frame. (Yes, I support President Trump.) The letter, authored by academics, artists, and thought leaders, argues that spreading more widely in our culture is:
an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.
Counter-speech is a critical part of a healthy society. So while I believe socialism, despite its surface appeal, will destroy economic opportunity and leave more people in poverty, I support the right – and indeed the responsibility – of those who believe in socialism to express their views. I don’t always like what they have to say, but I believe entirely in their right to say it.
Now let me anticipate a criticism those who dislike President Trump might offer: “how can an old, white, rich guy seriously claim to oppose shouting down opposition when Trump is among the offenders?” All I’ll say about that is I’ve never found a politician with whom I agree fully on everything.
What I do believe is that a big part of the intolerance to counter-speech comes from our University system. In his book The Breakdown of Higher Education, Professor John Ellis argues that the silencing of competing perspectives at Universities has its roots in a shift among faculty over the past 50 years from mildly left-leaning to something much more radical. But when competing perspective is silenced and debate eliminated, something essential is lost. I believe we’re seeing the hangover from this shift rippling through society in a way that’s not good for anyone in the long run.
Adding gasoline on this fire are social and traditional media, which produce echo chambers where personal views are reinforced because people are only exposed to “like-minded” perspectives. It’s a dynamic that promotes an intolerance for competing ideas. I think that’s a bad deal – hearing competing ideas, although uncomfortable at times, is critical.
People should be armed with facts as much as humanly possible so they can make up their own minds about things. And they should be free to express their own views without being attacked for doing so.