Thomas Jefferson said it best.
“This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it,” Jefferson wrote to William Roscoe in 1820.
Not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.
Jefferson was writing about the last great effort of his life, the establishment of the University of Virginia.
A product and a leader of the Age of Reason, Jefferson saw universities and colleges as a kind of intellectual arena, a place where truth and falsehood should engage in perpetual jousting. His faith always was that, in the end, truth would prevail.
That was a difficult challenge in the 19th century. It remains a difficult one in this, the 21st century.
Indiana University has endured a mini controversy over the appearance of conservative author Charles Murray. And the University of California at Berkeley — onetime home of the Free Speech Movement — performed an embarrassing dance by inviting, then disinviting, then re-inviting rightwing provocatrice Ann Coulter. Coulter declined the second invitation.
In both cases, progressive students and faculty members were upset about the appearances. They didn’t think it right to invite such reactionary and shoddy thinkers to campus.
They were wrong to do so, but not because Murray and Coulter are intellectual giants.
Murray is a particularly distressing example of what passes for too much conservative scholarship these days. He starts with a conviction — some might call it a prejudice — then cherry picks evidence to support that conclusion. When cherry picking isn’t sufficient to support his contention, he massages, manipulates and even manufactures data to buttress his argument.
That is why “The Bell Curve,” the book that made his fame — or infamy — has been so thoroughly discredited that it ought to be shelved in the fiction sections of libraries and bookstores.
And Coulter? Well, she’s a cry for help disguised as a political activist, an unhappy human being who somehow has turned misanthropy and self-loathing into a kind of partisan performance art.
Substantial figures, they’re not.
But that’s even more reason serious people shouldn’t run away from hearing what they say.
The answer to bad speech — thought that is shoddy, false or even evil — can’t be found in suppressing it, but in countering it. As Jefferson said, we tolerate error so long as reason is left free to combat it.
The way we make sure reason is left free to do that combat is by allowing all speech — left, right, center and off-center — free rein. We want noxious ideas out in the open where we can confront them.
That means the “solution” to bad speech is always more speech.
More informed speech.
This also is what the Murrays and the Coulters of this world fear. They prefer what the thought-suppressors at IU and Berkeley have offered them as a gift — the chance to claim persecution and thus be spared the hard work, for them, of making actual sense.
What Murray, Coulter and so many others say may be offensive to both reason and taste, but no one ever made the argument that human freedom was designed to spare us discomfort or even danger.
The argument for freedom always has been that the human spirit deserves to exist unburdened by shackles.
Freedom also is not for the timid. To be free is to be “not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead.”
That means that colleges and universities shouldn’t cower in the corner when people come to speak nonsense — even inflammatory, destructive nonsense — but instead should rush forward to combat it.
Reason demands that from us.
So do freedom — and, for that matter, truth.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].