“The Ignorant are Part of the Process”

Some thoughts on Professor Bryan W. Van Norden’s, “The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience”.

“The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience,” according to the recent New York Times Op-Ed from Professor Bryan W. Van Norden. But do audiences have a right to be ignorant, at least for a spell?

The domain of free speech is a battleground. The goal is direct and simple: convince the other side of your perspective. It’s not about truth, at least initially. This is where an absolutist view of free speech can get muddled. Mr. Van Norden states in his article that those espousing free speech absolutism are, “at best, ignorant, at worst, sophists.” A cosmetic look at absolute free speech appears chaotic. But the philosophy’s strength derives from acknowledging that chaos is necessary. The dialogs in society serve to limit the boundaries this chaos can breach.

After all, the tactics of persuasion and argumentation are barbaric. The barrage is propaganda, the artillery shells are lies. It’s after the fog of battle, after the debates, after the news cycle settles — that’s when truth is left bare.

In biology evolution is spurred by the chaos of mutations. Evolution in culture is no exception. Ideas mutate from the random utterances of the ignorant, the cryptic observations of the intellectuals, and the lurid visions of the manics. Allowing such things ensures that one man can utter some incomprehensible “E=MC2" while another “pisses on Christ”. Both have forwarded human discourse in some manner. Though God knows, it isn’t always obvious.

It’s never been about listening to the one man telling the truth, something even the wisest of a generation cannot always handle. Mr. Van Norden is aware of this fact because he points out the example of those that first advocated heliocentric models of the solar system. They seemed crazy at the time when in fact they were ahead of the curve.

It is our job to humor, at least for a time, the Anne Coulters, Trumps, and Jordan Petersons of the world (one of these, by the way, is not like the others). For who knows, Mr. Van Norden admits that there could be, “some small fragment of truth in what they say?”. Audiences form because there are people listening, even a fragment of truth will do. This should force the distinction that speaking to truth is not the same thing as speaking the truth. Albeit the latter is more expedient.

The media is partial in its bias toward clicks and ratings. It feeds the most vacuous whims of humanity. But this doesn’t change that audiences tune into the media, the media doesn’t tune into audiences. The privilege of exposure is earned. Viewers lend their ears to individuals that speak to them. Whether told lies, facts, ethics, or truth it often doesn’t matter. They feel they are being represented. They are human.

This obsession of shielding people from lies is dangerous because it requires someone to curate what is untrue. I am skeptical of those eager to give anyone too much of this power, humans cannot so easily discern what may be a lie. Generations assumed with resolute certainty the earth was the center of the universe. And Mr. Van Norden fails to deliver on his article’s title because he is mindful of this. He does not suggest a policy for private or government institutions to restrict the spread of lies. There is no need. In reality curation is happening in a natural way (i.e. the example of ABC cancelling Roseanne).

Mr. Van Norden is right to have something against Kirk Cameron’s misunderstanding of evolution. But Cameron speaks to a Christian audience. Their concern is less about the technical facts of evolution and more about their fading influence on the nation’s religious tradition. There is subtext at play here.

When Trump talks about “The Wall” he’s giving a low resolution solution to an issue that people feel is a problem, immigration. This is a similar tactic Bernie Sanders employed, repeating a glib scapegoat for working class plight. The “One Percent”. But if there’s one good billionaire in that one percent then not all of them can be evil. His message omits detail to speak to the truth.

You can call out Trump for a lie but you cannot as surely condemn those listening. His base is looking for explanations to things they do not understand. Which this is okay, these are complicated issues. So complicated that even the opposition isn’t providing a satisfactory counterpoint. If they were ears would be honed in on that signal.

Truth needs feeling out. Even the best of us may be lying without being aware. Cue the millennia of people that “lied” about the earth being flat. We do not know our own ignorance until we have to defend it. If you know better than Trump then fight back. Force him and his supporters to play defense. You may have to fight dirty with marketing, slogans, propaganda, simplification, scapegoating… But the fight must be fought. If he repeats lies then repeat truth.

Speech is the field where matters are settled to avert the fields of battle. It is a fearful and ignorant man who assumes he has nothing to learn even from the most shameful of humans. It would seem wise of us to declare that all those who listened to Hitler were demons, but we’d be wrong to. Demons are not people, but they do influence us. And they’re so easy to listen to, speaking to our basest needs, speaking to truth without uttering an honest word.

Free speech is necessary. Absolutely. But I admit, it will do us no good if we fail to listen and listen close when one speaks. Even if you silence the liars you’re still left with their audience. And if you weren’t listening for what truth the devil twisted, you’ll have no clue how to talk to them.