Freedom to Speak, Obligation to Listen

January 2018

I like to think I’m mature enough to admit when I’m wrong. I want to be open to changing my mind. Whenever I feel the thrill that comes with taking a partisan position, I cringe. I cringe whenever I feel myself grasping tightly the few certainties I hold.

I never cringe in the moment, of course. Embarrassment arrives later, after the thrill’s departed.

I wonder if a guy like James Tracy is cringing for what he’s said.

Tracy is the former Florida Atlantic University professor who claims he was fired for saying the mass murder of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School never happened. FAU says it fired Tracy for breaking the school’s rules.

I wonder if Anthony Hall is cringing.

Hall is the University of Lethbridge professor who, The Globe and Mail reports, said “there was a Zionist connection to the 9/11 attacks and that the events of the Holocaust should be up for debate.”

And I wonder if Courtney Brown is cringing.

Brown is the professor at Emory University who believes in remote viewing, a pseudoscience that allows a person to “see” across space and time. Brown claims to have learned about alien civilizations, the lost city of Atlantis, the truth about the JFK assassination and other subjects of conspiracy enthusiasts using remote viewing.

I want to think Tracy, Hall and Brown are cringing, but I don’t think they are.

But they make me cringe. I’m embarrassed for them. And I’m bothered by how they have, at various points in time, tried to defend their absurd ideas behind the banner of free speech and academic freedom. The issue with these men wasn’t about freedom of speech. The issue was their reluctance to listen.

The terrain of free speech in academia is well-trodden. We understand that in our pursuit of knowledge, academics must prize the freedom to think and to speak, not for abstract reasons, but for practical purposes. We understand that we determine knowledge through conversation. We need the freedom to think out, and speak out, our ideas. Speech is a tool for thought, and so we must be allowed to freely manipulate it.

What is often missed in discussion of free speech is its complement: honest listening. In the pursuit of knowledge, we who speak must also listen. We must listen to what all the evidence says, and we must actively listen to what others tell us about the facts. If we truly care about freedom, if we commit ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge, then we must be willing to admit when we’re wrong. If we can’t admit to, and know, our errors, then we won’t hear the truth, and we’ll never encounter knowledge we claim to seek.

The person who demands the freedom to speak must accept the obligation to listen. The academic who can’t listen to the evidence and admit when he’s wrong is an intellectual partisan, an academic Capulet, and a barnacle on the scholastic ship who slows our course.

In his saddest incarnation, he’s a conspiracy theorist, that strange character who knows what everybody else refuses to accept as true. He often plays hero, adopting the posture of the crusading intellectual, the one who will risk reputation to speak truth to power. But it’s never more than posturing because there is nothing heroic in taking a stand against what overwhelming evidence tells us is true. There is nothing daring in calling Sandy Hook a fiction, nothing courageous in suggesting a Zionist connection to 9/11, nothing reasonable in saying researchers can use remote viewing to conduct scientific surveys of the past, the future, or Heaven. There is nothing noble in standing up to crimethink that isn’t crimethink. Conspiracy theorists play brave for themselves alone. They are teenage boys flexing their puny biceps in the washroom mirror.

That is how I feel about people like Tracy, Hall and Brown. They have their fingers stuffed in their ears while demanding the right to speak. That is the problem. They devour the time and resources of the people who come to their aid. (And who, no doubt, think their views are nonsense but in the spirit of free speech defend these people nonetheless.)

I hope I don’t sound uncharitable. When I read about people like Tracy, Hall and Brown, I’m saddened more than I am outraged. They appear to me as people so lost to the facts that they cannot hear how wrong they are or stupid they look.

I favour open conversation. It’s the only way to arrest the natural impulse towards orthodoxy that inhibits the discovery and free movement of knowledge.

But conversation can only happen when both sides can speak their minds, when both sides actively listen, and more importantly, when both sides admit when they’re wrong and change their minds.

In my intellectual development, the most important lesson I’ve learned is how good it is to be wrong. I am glad when I cringe after discovering I’m wrong. That cringe is a sign I’m listening and a signal that I can correct myself.

And that’s good. It means I’m learning and one step closer to the truth.