Offence, Freedom of Speech and the Importance Of Criticising Ideas

by Mark Hague | 28 February 2016

If you google “the importance of criticising ideas” the first two links that pop up (apart from a Wikipedia page on criticism) are entitled “Why Fighting For Our Ideas Makes Them Better” and “Why Criticising Others Is a Lot More Harmful Than You Think.” The schism between these two approaches captures almost perfectly the main point to be made in this article. On the one hand, people tend to view all criticism as somehow directed at a particular person or group of people, while on the other, criticism is thought to be aimed at a particular idea or set of ideas. However, as I will argue here, the distinction between criticising ideas and criticising people is a vitally important one to make, especially if we are to make any progress on pressing issues facing society today.

When the stakes are low in a debate or discussion (say, when two people are arguing over which coffee brewing method produces the best espresso), the above distinction is usually recognised and neither party takes offence at the others criticism.

It seems that once the discussion moves to topics of more consequence, religion, racial issues and political stand points to name some of the common points of contention, people are apt to take offence at any and all criticism. Now, this does not mean that offence should never be taken, indeed there are circumstances where taking offence is perfectly justified. However, increasingly in our society we are discouraged from questioning the deeply held beliefs (related to an idea or set of ideas) of others for fear of causing offence. It should be said that the intention behind this may be noble; we do not want to cause people distress or engender conflict by being insensitive to views other than our own. Unfortunately, this concern for sensitivity is often taken too far, and we end up with a culture in which people are less and less willing to talk about delicate issues.

Such a culture may be accurately termed a culture of offence. Under its influence, people increasingly police the conversation both in the public and private domains, using moralised terms such as racist, imperialist and bigot (where such terms are unwarranted) to effectively end the discussion. This has the effect of stifling much needed progress on important issues because people are unable to speak honestly or to say exactly what they think for fear of being labelled in this way.

An analogy to how progress is made in science may help to clarify this point. Criticism of ideas is central to the scientific method, in fact, this is what is meant by the term “peer review.” When a new idea is proposed in any field of science, it is immediately subjected to rigorous criticism by others experienced in that field. If it comes through this process still relatively intact, then the idea may gain acceptance within the community. In many cases, critical examination of a scientific idea may reveal key weaknesses and shortcomings, or suggest an alternative path of enquiry. If scientists became offended every time their ideas where criticised, insisting that such criticism amounted to a personal attack, very little progress could be made.

So we might say that idea criticism is necessary for scientific progress and is in fact encouraged and embraced through-out the community. I see no reason why we should not adopt a similar spirit of open and free discussion in other areas if our discourse, even if the stakes are high and such conversations make us uncomfortable. The time for comfort and political correctness has long passed. If we are to truly embrace free speech, the doors must be flung wide open to allow all voices to be heard, however dissenting and offensive they may seem to some. It is often the case that the most uncomfortable conversations are the ones we need to have the most.

At this point one may worry that by allowing such open discussion we give voice to those who hold truly odious views. I speak here of those who are openly racist, homophobic, misogynistic and xenophobic, as well as all the other divisive attitudes people are capable of holding. To this I would again point out that, if we are to truly embrace a free and open society, all people must be allowed to say whatever they want to. However, by the same token, those of us who are (rightly) offended by such views are free to utterly reject them in the strongest terms, subjecting their adherents to society-wide condemnation. Furthermore, one should also ask whether silencing those who espouse such repellant ideas is really the best tactic to honestly deal with the problems they pose. To the contrary, this may actually be the best way to ensure that the issue remains unresolved and that bad ideas continue to hold sway.

As a case in point, consider the fact that it is currently illegal in much of Europe to deny the Holocaust. It almost goes without saying that such a historical standpoint is not only empirically inaccurate, but deeply offensive. But should we go far as to enact laws that prevent people from even saying certain things? I think not. It must suffice that we criticise the ideas involved so completely that our collective denouncement acts as an effective disincentive. The alternative is a kind of Orwellian policing of our discourse, where certain issues are simply out of bounds.

This brings me full circle to the point I started with, that ideas themselves are distinct from the people who subscribe to them. The reason we currently consider critical discussion of certain topics off limits is because we are either unable or unwilling to make this distinction. This results in the critique of an idea being conflated with a direct attack on a particular person or group of people. It is imagined that such a critique, particularly when applied to ideas which have a distinctly moral dimension, amounts to some kind of irreverent dismissal of all the values to which a person or group subscribes, as opposed to what it actually is, which is a criticism of only certain ideas and the values associated with them.

Perhaps the clearest example of this presents itself when religious ideas are criticised, although I am arguing here that the same principal applies to many other important areas of our discourse. A simple way to see this is to ask the question, “how is it that people who hold radically diverging and, indeed, contradictory religious views are nevertheless able to maintain a genuine friendship? ” The answer, as you may have guessed, is that although they may disagree on certain metaphysical and (perhaps) ethical issues, there are many other, perhaps equally important issues, upon which their views converge.

So by acknowledging that people are in fact comprised of a suite of morals and values related to specific ideas, we are able to focus our criticism only on those that are problematic, thereby not committing ourselves to bigotry by writing off all that a person or group stands for. What does seem bigoted, however, is to assume that some people simply cannot stand their ideas being called into question, that we must, at all costs, protect them from any possible offence. This kind of implicit intellectual disrespect is both common place and largely unacknowledged. I hope I have gone some way towards convincing you that this is a situation that needs remedying, and that we all have a role to play in fostering the free exchange of ideas.