Perhaps you’ve heard that a New York legislator threatened several cable companies with a boycott if they didn’t pull al Jazeera from their cable packages.
It is amazing that in the land we describe as the land of the free, a country which boasts of its support for freedom of speech, we continue to try to withdraw that opportunity to those we disagree with.
John Stuart Mill, one of the seminal thinkers about freedom, including free speech, argued in his classic book, On Liberty, that freedom of speech for despised ideas is necessary to allow development of appropriate and responsible responses even if there is no chance that those ideas might be right or convince us. Without the devil's advocate the angels cannot sharpen their tools.
I think there is an additional reason why despised ideas need to be heard – the need to understand and deal with what we don't like.
American schools eliminated the study of German in the wake of World War I the better to stop us from getting German ideas. But then only Franklin Roosevelt, who was fluent in German, saw the Nazi threat and tried to prepare this country for the epic struggle that became World War II.
Once the Cold War started and until fairly recently, few Americans were able to study Russian or Chinese. And to read Karl Marx was treated as creating a reason to believe someone was a Communist – though economists regularly read Marx as part of their education. But our willful withdrawal from the material we despised also meant that we didn’t understand the divisions among the communists, we didn’t understand the enmity between the North Vietnam and its Communist neighbors or the opportunity we had to use Ho Chi Minh the way we used Marshal Tito in Europe. Instead we fought a war at the cost of many thousands of lives for no identifiable gain – but we stayed pure; we never read what our enemies said.
Our unwillingness to engage with the left in Central and South America led to similarly unnecessary wars and enduring hostility. Not to mention that our unwillingness to look intelligently at leftists in Iran led to hostilities that continue with potentially disastrous consequences for the U.S., as Iran funds terrorists to attack the America that unseated their one democratically elected government.
Purity does not imply that we will behave intelligently or constructively – indeed the opposite is more likely.
How can failing to grapple with the ideas, thoughts, and beliefs of the Arab world secure our future. About the only thing it promises is what the military calls asymmetrical war – our tanks against their terrorists. Thanks but no thanks. Actually, I think John Stuart Mill had it right. We need to be able to grapple with speech we don’t like. We need to be strong not just behind a gun but strong in our minds, unafraid of the speech we dislike.
But OK, let’s trade. You pull al Jazeera, I’ll pull Fox, we’ll all just listen to milquetoast that no one objects to – or maybe turn off the tube.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.