Jonathan Haidt, author of the 2012 best-seller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, co-founded a network of academics committed to open inquiry and viewpoint diversity called Heterodox Academy in 2011. When college students began to act as if hearing from speakers they disagree with "bring[s] dangers rather than benefits," he says, he was ready to convince them otherwise. Working with John Stuart Mill biographer Richard Reeves, Haidt produced a condensed, illustrated version of chapter 2 of Mill's classic On Liberty, which Haidt considers "the best set of arguments for free speech ever written." That condensation, titled All Minus One, can be purchased or downloaded at heterodoxacademy.org/mill. Senior Editor Brian Doherty spoke to Haidt in April about why these ideas are needed now more than ever.
Q: Mill wrote that debate is beneficial in part because it exposes us to facts and ideas we can learn from. But are college speech suppressors open to an argument that depends on accepting that they might not already have the total truth?
A: When social forces are perfectly aligned to support your ideology, you are unlikely to change it. But that's not true for most high school students and college freshmen. I think that although almost everyone supports free speech in the abstract, support drops when pitted against other values. If we can [teach people about the dangers of] confirmation bias and other failures of human cognition, we can convince them that we need others to challenge us and make us smarter. The second chapter of On Liberty is about this problem of society deeming certain views to be unairable. The First Amendment gives us extraordinary freedom from government censorship, but in the age of social media, increasingly people are afraid to speak up and challenge ideas that they know to be wrong [for fear of social persecution]. This is why Mill is especially needed.
Q: What topics aren't being debated the way they should be?
A: Name any topic that is politically valent. Certainly race and gender but also poverty, immigration, inequality. These are the most pressing issues of our time, and we need a robust discussion with people doing their best thinking.