Critical Thinking Note 13 Free Speech


It’s been a little while since we put out a Critical Thinking note and this has partly been due to uncertainty about how to proceed given the loss of ALL BC-FYI. The note below was submitted to ALL BC-FYI Digest on Monday, but with no reply or explanation, it hasn’t run. I have worried that ALL BC-FYI Digest is really more about controlling the exchange of information at BC than saving people a few clicks in a workday filled with thousands of clicks. And indeed, it does appear that someone in IT or administration has commandeered editorial authority over what information gets passed on to the college community. This invites some rather delicious questions. Do we have Information Technology, or Information Tyranny at BC? Is IT a tool we make use of, or are we to be IT’s artifact?

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But freedom of expression is an issue that deserves some special vigilance on college campuses. Freedom of Expression doesn’t mean it’s perfectly OK to say anything. It is a freedom that comes with some responsibility. In denying us freedom of expression to the campus community at large, administration has also deemed us unworthy of handling that freedom responsibly. I find this rather insulting. But personal feelings aside, I think there are some pretty good reasons for valuing and protecting freedom of expression, and especially on a college campus.

Inquiry runs on the free flow of ideas. This carries with it the risk of exposure to uncomfortable, even offensive ideas. Inquiry goes best when there is a level of good faith among participants based on their shared value of getting at the truth, or at least at the most reasonable and illuminating understanding of issues we can manage. The freedom of expression that is essential to inquiry can be abused. It is abused when people try to advance ideas with fallacious arguments or weak evidence. Worse yet, freedom of expression is abused when people aim to offend and deride others. But free expression, in conjunction with other essential components of critical thinking, provides a way to hold people accountable for bad behavior. Where we have freedom of expression, we can always call out the fallacies and other abuses. There is adventure in inquiry, and part of this involves standing prepared to weather a bit of nonsense and the occasional cheap shot in the interest of hearing the things that are genuinely worth hearing, including new perspectives and ideas that make us uncomfortable but help us grow.

Freedom of expression and the tolerance for diverse viewpoints has an ethical aspect, of course. In the absence of special overriding considerations, it’s arbitrary and unjust to allow some to speak, and demand that others keep quiet. But where inquiry is concerned, there are independent epistemological grounds for upholding free expression and bearing what discomfort this might bring. Free expression is essential as matter of gathering evidence in a thorough and unbiased manner. When we don’t hear the views of others, even those views that make us uncomfortable, we can’t evaluate them. And when we can’t evaluate the reasons people have for holding the opinions they do, there is no way those reasons can help to guide us toward the truth or at least improved understanding. Given the ethical and the epistemological value of free expression, we should expect free expression to be highly valued at institutions of higher education. This, after all, is the social institution where inquiry is kind of the point. There may still occasionally be compelling grounds for restricting the flow of information and ideas. But given our mission, I’d hope we’d hold the bar pretty high for any restrictions.

So, how are we doing here at BC? Do we value and protect freedom of expression? I suspect we are doing okay in some ways and not so good in others. But I don’t think I have much of the relevant evidence at hand. It would be really great if we had a forum in which we could freely discuss this issue. Perhaps one that is electronic and easily accessible to all members of the campus community, a forum where we could conveniently ignore, follow, or participate in an open conversation about how we value free speech at BC. That sounds something like ALL BC-FYI email, which used to occasionally serve this purpose.

Russ Payne

February 4, 2015

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