In Defense of Free Speech
In his response to my letter (“Watson’s Remarks Unacceptable,” Nov. 9, 2007), Justin M. Cannon ’08 suggests that I defended James Watson’s comments on race; I did not, although, in using them to frame my argument, I may have conveyed that impression.
I would find Watson’s comments alarming if he intended to run for public office. Seeing, however, that he is a biologist, I am far more interested in the seminal contributions that he has made to the field of biology than in his political judgments. Similarly, I would only make note of the arguments of a flat earth theorist if he or she sought a position within NASA.
Were Watson’s fate to inaugurate a precedent — that is, if we refracted every individual’s intellectual contributions through the prism of his or her political judgments — I suspect that the unemployment rate would soar. All of us harbor beliefs that others would consider to be beyond the pale of acceptable discourse; where the vast majority of us maintain our silence, Watson was foolish enough to break his. However, racism (or, for that matter, any other such belief) that is declared is no more deserving of scorn than that which is suppressed.
Having addressed his first point, albeit an implicit one, I feel compelled to address his larger argument about free speech — more precisely, the boundaries that he believes should circumscribe it. Cannon argues that “some topics rightfully deserve to be cast aside if not handled responsibly.” What are those topics? Who decides what they are? Most importantly, by what standards are they cast aside? The answers to these questions are intrinsically fluid. Topics that could never have been discussed in centuries past are staples of modern discourse, and vice versa.
There are, broadly, two manners of resolving the aforementioned questions. The first, full freedom, permits individuals to challenge all received truths and disseminate any messages. It entails the risk that falsehoods will be circulated and the comparatively trivial possibility that devil’s advocates will obstruct society’s move towards enlightenment in their desire to be irritants. However, such prospects should be of little concern to individuals who maintain faith in their own intelligence and resourcefulness. The second route, political correctness, ensures that no one’s sensibilities are offended. It entails the far greater risk, however, of diluting discussion until such a point as it is bereft of any meaning or interest. I submit that this latter prospect is far more alarming.
Lastly, Cannon’s use of the phrase “taboo against questioning” is curious. Questioning is to the intellectual what air is to humans. It remains the only known way to advance society’s progress. A sincere belief in free speech yields the modest conclusion that all presumptions of fact, no matter their social standing, should be equally open to interrogation.