Why Is Free Speech Necessary? Because You Are Ignorant.


You are ignorant, and I am too. Failure to acknowledge this fact, combined with an iron certainty that everyone else is wrong, could one day lead to humanity’s end. It is already leading to a less civil society and the erosion of free expression.

When two deranged radicals burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week, guns ablaze, they were exemplifying this ignorance of their own ignorance. When Italian Catholics burned philosopher Giordano Bruno to death for daring to suggest that those bright lights dotting the sky might be stars rather than holes in heaven’s blanket, they, too, were exemplifying an ignorance of their own ignorance. In both cases, the ignoramuses suppressing free speech acted out of sheer terror, out of an unconscious fear that opposing opinions might in fact have merit. Bruno put it best when, after trial, he condemned his condemners: “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”

We are all ignorant; none of us have all the answers. That fact is not only a strong argument in favor of free speech and against those who would suppress it—it is a spur toward greater wisdom. Consider the scientific method, that great mechanism for human progress, where nothing is assumed and discovery is made by vigorously attempting to disprove hypotheses.

Perhaps some are frightened to admit their ignorance because they fear the “ignorant” label. Yet acknowledging ignorance is a sign of intelligence. When the Oracle at Delphi told Socrates he was “the wisest man in Athens,” he couldn’t believe it. How could he be wise, he wondered? After all, the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. The Oracle responded that this recognition of his own ignorance, so rare among other Athenians, was precisely the reason for his wisdom. (Socrates’ sublime thoughts eventually lead to his execution for “impiety” and “corrupting the youth.”)

Even here at home, in our modern American society where free speech undergirds our Bill of Rights, a failure to recognize our own ignorance is lowering civil discourse. Free expression may not be threatened in as salient a way as it was in Paris on Jan. 7, but the effects of the “know-it-all” mentality are similarly corrosive. Conservatives increasingly garner all information from places like Fox News, while liberals stick to MSNBC. When discussing divisive issues like Ferguson, the battle lines are drawn almost as soon as the debate begins, and confirmation bias means Americans selectively seek information that supports their initial opinions. Far from attempting, like a good scientist, to disprove our initial hypotheses, we crave and seek information that proves our hypotheses. How can anyone form reasoned opinions in such an atmosphere?

Bertrand Russell aptly noted that a problem with the world is that intelligent people are full of doubts, while “stupid” ones are full of infallible confidence. Don’t be stupid. Life isn’t simple, and the answers to life’s problems aren’t simple, either. We humans must recognize our ignorance, because recognizing our ignorance will help us listen with an attentive ear rather than a dismissive one, with curiosity rather than anger, with love rather than hatred. Most crucially, recognizing our ignorance means recognizing that free speech is essential to free society.

You are ignorant. Our future depends on whether or not you are mature enough to realize it.