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The Right To Be Wrong

Just what is so all-fired important about freedom of speech, anyhow? Aren’t most people ignorant and, well, full of it? Doesn’t the mass of humanity go along with whatever their family, friends and neighbors say, whether that’s enlightened social democracy or rule by the Taliban? Most people in the so-called established democracies don’t even seem to value their own freedom of speech, whatever lip service they pay to it. The loudest shouters for freedom in America these days are also the swiftest to ban books that say things they don’t like, supposedly to protect children from the terrible danger of being exposed to new ideas.

Here’s one aspect of the answer: We need freedom of speech, which entails freedom to express very unpopular opinions, precisely because most people are full of it and the conventional wisdom is so often dead wrong. I’ve intellectually grasped this truth since I was very young, but it took me until well into my adult years, when I had gone through the mortifying experience of being wrong about more than one important political question, to really feel emotionally how important it is to allow diversity of opinion. You see, the views you despise today may be the very ones you value most, or at least acknowledge the correctness of, in the fullness of time.

That depends, of course, on whether you’re ever willing to admit to having been wrong. Most MAGAs are infamously unable to do this, but the problem, gentle reader, is hardly restricted to them. As I have discussed before in this space, when I lived in Israel in the 1990s, I was a passionate supporter of the Oslo Accords and the “peace process” with the Palestinians, which I believed was on track to achieve the longed-for solution to the conflict, two states living side by side in peace, Israel and an Arab state of Palestine. I remember well my sour-faced old Turkish-born Israeli landlady in early 1993 exclaiming, “They don’t want peace, they don’t want peace!” and how foolish I thought she was. Unfortunately, she was right and I was wrong, the key being in that phrase, “the longed-for solution to the conflict.” Who longed for it? The U.S. government, much of the official international diplomatic community, about half of Israelis, and close to zero Palestinians.

The result of this dismal set of circumstances is a matter of tragic historical record. I do not think my values have changed much from what they were thirty years ago; I still believe that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs both have national rights to the same small strip of land, and that therefore the most just solution to the conflict would be to partition it. But I no longer believe it will happen anytime in the foreseeable future, if ever. What has this to do with free speech? Only that, for me, the events of the past thirty years have driven home that some people I sincerely believe to be in the wrong, may in fact be right, and that it would therefore be imprudent as well as a violation of human rights to shut down points of view I disagree with, even if I find the people who hold them quite disagreeable. I wish everyone would have something like my humbling experience of being wrong, of learning from it, and of growing intellectually and morally as a result. That, for me, is one of the greatest benefits of freedom of speech.


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