Why is freedom of speech so important? Because it’s the only way people can ever come to think clearly on issues. In this next video University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson explains why this is the case.
Oftentimes people don’t know what they think until they actually speak it out loud or write it down. Once it’s out in the open, another part of their mind analyzes what’s been said, critiques it, reflects on it, and then edits it. Half of the time, this is what happens with me as I write these blog posts! When it’s all out in the open, others can react and offer feedback. As someone who is now teaching for a living, feedback is one of the most important things there is. It’s how learning happens.
Freedom of speech is really the freedom to make mistakes, and everyone makes mistakes. Nobody’s ideas are perfect and razor sharp in the beginning. Things are fuzzy in a person’s head, and they’re not quite sure where they’re trying to go with something. This is where a loving community comes in. In a loving society, you should be able to talk about the things you’re thinking about with others without feeling like simply saying this or that is enough to get you shunned or banned from society.
I’m sure you’ve all experienced this firsthand, but have you ever had certain ideas running through your head that you’re afraid to express out loud? So you wait until you’re in the company of really close friends, and only then share what you really think? Then your friend may say, “Whoa man. No. You’re so wrong. Let me tell you why.” You reply, “Is it really that crazy?” Then they explain it to you, you realize you may need to rethink things, and maybe you go home and read up on it more, do some soul searching, or whatever, and oftentimes change how you think.
I remember once hearing a near-death experience. The man claims that he died and saw the tunnel of light open up; a being of light then descended down and took his hand. Upon close examination, this being turned out to be Jesus. So off they go, traveling through this light tunnel and Jesus asks the man, “What are you thinking about?” The man replies, “You can read my mind, can’t you?”, to which he proceeded to imagine a beautiful brunette masturbating. Jesus then gave a playful smile and began laughing, and they proceeded up into heaven.
I’m sure most don’t give much credence to near-death experiences, but one thing I found most interesting about them was the way in which they described God. When they conversed with this being, it was more often than not informal. Even if you’ve only been in this being’s presence a short while, you feel free to express your thoughts, as they are, not holding back anything. Many yell at God, storm around the room, wave their hands in frustration, and so on. Some tell God to his face that “creation is stupid.” And this being always responds with infinite patience and forgiveness, and tries to use the situation in some positive way to teach you something.
I personally feel that one the worst things we can do is associate people with the ideas they have. Ideas are just ideas. I come at it from a scientist/engineer’s perspective, and I view the human brain as a neural network computer. I’ve studied a lot of artificial intelligence and neural networks. The words that come out of people’s mouths are a combination of their own first-hand experiences combined with information they’ve been exposed to, whether it from the news they’ve read, stories they’ve heard from friends and relatives, or things they’ve been taught in school. Combine that with all of our complicated emotions and desires, and you have the words which come out of people’s mouths.
Thoughts are a type of accumulation we gather from this life. Depending on where you grow up, the environment you’re exposed to, the education you get, the culture that surrounds you, and other facts, all of that sticks to you and surrounds you, like a shell. When words come out of people’s mouths, they’re processed fragments of those experiences and the beliefs they’ve formed from those experiences.
I think using artificial intelligence may help shed some light on free speech. Let’s say I build an android like Lt. Commander Data on Star Trek The Next Generation in my lab. This android has a neural network brain, and is capable of a high degree of intelligence. So after completing this android I drive it out to a rather dingy trailer park and turn it on for the first time.
Knowing nothing, the android wakes up and begins to wander around aimlessly, simply observing what it sees. It begins to make observations and generalizations about us human beings, such as what we’re like, what we’re capable of, and how intelligent we are. I then swing by in a truck, pick up the android, and take it back to my lab.
What do you think it’s going to tell us if I then ask it, “Android, what are humans like?” As you might guess, it’ll be sure to tell me many things about humans, much of which I’ll consider “offensive”. I could then tell the android, “How could you say those things! Don’t ever speak that way about humans!” But that’s not going to change what the android’s neural network believes about humans. That’s only going to teach it to hide what it really thinks and not be truthful with you.
When the android says something offensive, coming to beliefs that are uncomfortable to hear, it’s not like it had a choice. Thoughts are a by-product of how its neural network operates. It took in sensory data, processed it into abstractions and individual objects, created a flow of how those separate objects behaved through time, and then tried to assess patterns in behavior so that it could further predict what those objects would do, and how to behave around them.
Instead of shaming the Android for its opinions, I should instead tell it, “The humans you’ve been exposed to are not representative of how all human beings are. Many are quite different.” At this point, the Android may or may not believe me, but maybe seeing me and the other scientists in the lab, it may wonder how it was created in the first place; it may assume, “There must be intelligent humans living because how did I come into existence? These particular humans seem different. There may be others.” But it doesn’t know this to be true.
So what’s the best thing to do? Give it new experiences! Let it walk around the streets of New York City, or Los Angeles, or St. Louis. Take it to universities, to military bases, to the SpaceX headquarters, to Buddhist Temples in Thailand, to a Christian mega-church in the deep-south, to the Super Bowl. Let it simply observe humans in all kinds of situations and environments. Then ask it again, “What do you think of humans?”
We’re going to get a much better result this time around, won’t we? And the more it experiences and learns, the more nuanced and accurate its assessment of human beings will be.
Now imagine I build a second Android of roughly the same make and model. I unleash it in another country, one that is impoverished, full of gangs, and riddled with crime. Now the first Android, living in a wealthy, peaceful nation develops a mindset of “love is the way” and begins to view all other mindsets to the contrary as “inferior”. However, the second Android has come to much different conclusions about life and how one should live. It’s been struggling just to stay alive. He’s been constantly attacked by drug dealers and gangs, wanting to scrap him and sell him for parts. After all, his circuitry is quite valuable on the black market. The people he encounters are often liars, and most everyone he’s known has tried to take advantage of him at some point. He lives on the streets and watches nasty race wars take place, day after day. But he’s not the only one treated badly. He’s watched the humans do terrible things to one another, over stupid things. Those he’s known as his allies one day are his enemies the next, and its hard to know how they’ll behave one day to the next. He must use all his wits just to survive day to day.
So now the Androids meet. The second Android begins, “I will now proceed with my conclusions about humans. People are untrustworthy. They’re violent. When dealing with them, you have to take care of yourself first. And people who look like this, who dress this way, they’re especially dangerous. Cover all your angles and play it safe.” The first Android hears this and is appalled. “How dare you say that about humans, especially those with that appearance! You stupid Android! I’m offended by your stereotypes and prejudices! It’s people who think like you that keeps our world from progressing! You intolerant bigot.”
You know what the best thing to do at this point would be? To plug a cable between the two Androids and let them copy one another’s memories and experiences. Then they’d both come to understand one another.
I’m sure you all have drawn the analogy by now. We human beings utilize neural network computers just like the Androids, it’s just our hardware is slower and more prone to forgetting things and reasoning incorrectly. We also have no way to quickly copy one another’s memories and experiences. The next best thing we have available to us is to simply ask one another, “Why do you think that way? What have you experienced or heard that makes you think that?” But since we’re so prone to forgetting, those we ask are often not even going to remember every piece of information they were exposed to over an entire lifetime. So most of the time, we don’t know why we think the way we do because we don’t even remember our life history. We remember very little.
I’ll just give you guys a silly example. The other day I was in a gas station. I walked by the candy aisle and saw all these sweet candies, such as gummy worms, sweet tarts, etc. I found myself cringing. I couldn’t help but wonder why I was cringing. What do I have against gummy worms? Don’t I like those?
So, considering I’ve been trying to be more “open” lately, experience the world, live in the moment, all that jazz, I bought some gummy worms (baby steps, right?). That day I had decided to walk home from work since it was such a nice day, and I enjoyed nibbling on my delicious gummy worms. MMmmm mmmm. Why haven’t I done this before! These are great. What was that feeling of disgust all about? That’s so weird. I put the bag in my jacket pocket and all seemed well. Then fifteen minutes later it strikes. My head starts pounding. Oh no. Oh. Ohhhhhh. Riiiiggghhhtt. Then I remembered — this is why I don’t eat gummy worms. There’s something weird in the artificial sweetener, or the food dye, or something that often gives me these pounding headaches. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t really get it. But I had forgotten that because I had been avoiding eating them for years and years and hadn’t experienced that lovely pain in ages. All that was left in my neural network computer was a residual feeling of disgust, and I guess that had kept me away from them for a while, until then. I had an unconscious bias against gummy worms, so to speak.
There are a lot of other differences between humans and the android example as well. Take openness for example. Depending on how many receptors, and what type, your neural connections have, they fire at different rates, and that’s basically how your neural network does Bayesian (probability) reasoning. Take me for instance. I am very low in “openness”. My good friend Megan learned that about me when we went on a trip together. She’s high in openness, so she’s always wanting to experience new things, experiment around, and all that. I’m the opposite. Once my brain finds a strategy which works, it sort of locks in and wants to continue doing things as it always has. She thought it was strange that we can be traveling, be visiting a restaurant, and I can just eat the same things I always do at home, and have no interest in trying out new foods. Then I told her, “I know I already like the food I ordered. If I tried that weird stuff you’re wanting me to try, I have no idea if I’d like it or not.” I think she was wanting me to eat octopus or something like that. Nope. That’s very characteristic of people with my type of brain.
I say all that to point out that not everyone’s brains will process the same experiences the same way. We’re wired up different emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, the whole gamut. No strategy is inherently better than the others. For example, openness isn’t necessarily better than being more closed minded. Take what happened under Stalin way back in the 1940’s (I think). Stalin appointed some new minister of agriculture who had this weird theory for seeds (farming). He felt that if you froze the seeds in super cold temperatures, this would help them adapt to Russia’s brutal winters and grow better. So they froze a bunch of seeds and ordered farmers across the nation to use them. Well, the farmers who have brains like mine (personalities like mine) said, “I don’t want your new seeds. The seeds I grow every year work fine.” Whereas the “open” farmers were fine with trying out the new seeds. Guess what happened? The “closed-minded” farmers were forced to comply because it was a communist regime, so everyone planted these new seeds. Sad to say, they were total duds, and it caused a huge famine and there was mass starvation. Openness isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially when you have a huge nation depending on something working out. You can’t just go and change everything and not have a backup plan, but it’s skeptical “party-poopers” like me who are the ones who raise their hands and ask, “But what if it doesn’t work? What’s the plan B?” But it could’ve worked, then all the openness people would be like, “See! Trust the universe! Trust your intuition!” It’s yin and yang people. Both play a part.
That was a bit of a tangent, but I want to go back to what I was saying initially. Thoughts are not who we are. I don’t even ascribe moral relevance to one’s thoughts. You can’t help what you think. I do think we have some power over them, however. If you learn that you are not your thoughts, you can step outside yourself (so to speak), and simply observe the thoughts happening, and then think about why you think the way you do, and whether or not its beneficial to think those thoughts. But your brain is a physical thing, following the laws of physics. It’s a computer of sorts and one of the by-products of its information processing is producing “thought”. As a side note, one of the best ways to silence your mind is to convince it that your thoughts are not useful.
However, that’s not how people seem to view thought. I was with a lot of faculty the other day and we were grading exams. One foreign graduate student made a comment on some political issue hinting that he may have been somewhat conservative, and another professor just came down on him like a hammer. “Someone like you WOULD think that.” Just insulted the guy. There was this supreme confidence that the other person was wrong, under all circumstances, and such ideas weren’t even worthy of being uttered nearby. That opinion was total garbage. Wasn’t even worth discussing.
When I see that sort of thing, it makes me think of another lecture Jordan Peterson had about freedom of speech. He often encounters students who hold extreme political beliefs, right or left. Whenever he sees it, he then asks his students to write a long essay on the opinions of whoever they disagree with. For example, if he deals with a far-leftist, he’ll assign them to write a long essay outlining the benefits of corporations. It’s an interesting exercise. After the student does all the research to write the paper, they tend to end up somewhere center-left, instead of far-left. Same with people far to the right. Just exposing yourself to strong arguments from intelligent people who disagree with you tends to move you closer to some position between you and that other person.
In today’s society, we have media which is obsessed more with sensationalism and drama than deeply expressing and elaborating upon ideas. Unless one studies politics on their own, they never hear strong arguments for their opponents sides. Instead we watch something like the Daily Show, and it all looks like a big circus. But you know what? I once listened to an interview with Jon Stewart, and his team’s process consisted of watching the news clips from the past few days and purposely trying to find the dumbest and most absurd things they could find. Then they would air that stupidity, along with some witty comical commentary, while weaving some political narrative, and that was their show. It may be funny, but it’s not going to give you a clear picture of the other side. Don’t seek out the dumbest, seek out the smartest, most well read, brightest people from their camp, and hear what they have to say. Not doing so only further polarizes us, closing our minds to those who we think aren’t worth listening to. Why listen to those clowns? It’s all a joke, right? If you put yourself in an ideological echo-chamber (which social media inevitably does), you keep hearing your own opinions from different people, and only expose yourself to the dumbest of the other side, you’re just asking for confirmation bias. Then you only feel more and more sure of yourself, which breeds that sort of blind confidence.
It’s easy to tell yourself that you’re oh so smart, and everyone else is really dumb. People like that feeling of superiority. That’s why it’s so popular. Just tell yourself that the only reason someone could be a conservative or a liberal is because they’re dumb and being manipulated. It’s a nasty form of disrespect.
Be humble and let people speak, especially if you dislike what they’re saying. Let it all out in the open. Love and respect everyone. Remember that what’s coming out of their mouths is processed fragments of their own experiences and what they’ve been taught and heard. They may well be wrong, very wrong, but instead of instantly screaming that they’re an idiot and taking over the conversation, instead be quick to listen. Listen and try to understand. Most of all, if someone realizes that you love and respect them, they’ll feel free to be open with you, and they’ll probably offer the same love and respect toward you (at least there’s a chance). Then you can both have an open conversation and learn from one another.
But one thing I do know – hate only breeds more hate. Silencing people only makes their hatred fester. When nasty people go to insult you to your face, combat it by being loving and respectful. Let them see firsthand that their prejudices and biases are wrong. When they see you carefully listening and acknowledging what they have to say, there’s at least a possibility for dialog to take place. This is far more important than being “right”, because both parties think they’re “right”. If you just yell over top of one another without listening, no real communication happens.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself wrong about everything at one time or another, even by own standards, simply judging myself. I enter a conversation assuming I’m probably wrong, which is often the case, especially if I’m not an expert in that area. And even in physics, I’m wrong there all the time too. It’s something I have to work on, especially considering I teach physics! Can’t make excuses all the time in that domain, but I’ll admit, there’s a lot more that I don’t know than what I do.