My Philosophy on What the Best Freethinking and Free Speech Really Entail

Anyone who has ever had me for a professor will attest that I foster an environment of open discussion in which everyone is free to express his or her mind. And they will also tell you that a wide range of people express a great many dissenting viewpoints on almost any topic that we discuss. Some will even tell you about times that I explicitly laid out my own ideas on the table and the students showed no compunction about challenging them as hard as they could.

There are two reasons for all this. One is that I genuinely love, and seek to cultivate, freedom of thought and expression. The other, more subtle and hidden reason, is that I deliberately prevent various natural obstacles to free expression from arising.

See it is simplistic to think of free speech in absolutist terms where it means anyone just says anything at any time in any way they feel like. Free speech requires a certain kind of order to it in order to be as free as possible. And it is up to those in charge of a discussion forum to set that order. The simpleminded free speech absolutist likes to call any imposition of order on speech “fascism” or “cowardice”. But that’s just a naive or self-serving fundamentalism.

The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as a situation anywhere in the world at any time that is not subject to power relationships. In any context “no rules” does not mean that no one is ruled—it just means that the most forceful rule. This is why it is a false dichotomy when in economics conservatives create a false opposition between government regulation on the one hand and “freedom” on the other. Lack of formal regulations of how commerce is conducted does not mean freedom for a majority of citizens, it just means more unfettered domination by amoral, impersonal, predatory corporations at the expense of other competing goods that the natural laws of capitalist structures do not inherently protect or advance.

Those other goods sometimes require other forces to balance them out if there are to be maximally good overall social, political, economic, psychological, aesthetic, moral, intellectual, educational, and physical outcomes. Not every good or just arrangement is served best by capitalistic dynamics and so we must be ruled by more than just those dynamics and only be ruled by those dynamics in areas and in ways where they actually do serve the greater good better than their constraint or countering would.

And, analogously, in discussion and debate forums, those who are most verbally domineering, harassing, or incendiary can intimidate and silence many other voices by creating a hostile environment.

To be entirely neutral about that reality would be to say that discussions should be run by the law of the jungle where the most aggressive and the strongest either bully everyone else into silence or simply disgust them away.

How I create maximally free speech in my classroom is by removing the interpersonal conflict from it. I talk to the students one by one. They all raise their hands and then I call on them one by one and they take turns. And when I answer each one I walk over to their desk, or at least to their side of the room, and I make eye contact and they focus on me and not on their classmates who disagree with them.

And, I never just shoot them down or belittle them. I demonstrate that I understand them, I ask them for clarifications, I present to them several things they might be saying and ask them which one it is. I offer helpful suggestions, and/or I point out potential objections. I do all of this constructively. I listen to them charitably, by which I mean that I try to make sure that the best version of their ideas gets considered even if their initial articulation is a stuttering brainstorming mishmash. I give them the freedom to stumble and make mistakes without fear or shame by using my power, my force, to reassure them rather than to make them feel threatened. I am not there to tell them they are right or that they are wrong. I am there to help them clarify their thoughts and to see their dialectical implications more clearly so that they can assess how good or bad they are for themselves. I am there to help them see their potential and the potential of their ideas.

And then I move on to the next student. And here’s the trick—the students never directly counter each other. They just talk to me, in numerous parallel discussions with overlapping and competing ideas with each other. And, so, conflict averse people who feel tightly tethered to their ideas and feel personally threatened if attacked for their ideas, are loosened up. They open up to me where they might shut down if an overeager student with whom they disagreed jumped down their throat. They don’t have to talk to anyone like that. They talk to me, and support their process of thinking rather than impose anything on them. And since I have professorial power in the room, they feel safe that I will protect them from others.

And in that context, they can loosen the personal grip on their ideas and learn to be comfortable distancing themselves from them as good critical thinkers. They don’t feel like they will suffer for having had a bad idea, so they have less incentive to make those bad ideas look good at any cost. They are free to separate themselves critically from them and to abandon ideas that don’t work without feeling like they’ve been exposed as stupid or as not trying hard enough.

And by doing this, I create a wildly freewheeling discussion covering a large spectrum of viewpoints and it all happens productively and with no acrimony. And people like coming to class. 

You see, controlling an environment so that it is actually orderly and safe for all and to all increases participation and increases diversity of opinions. And as someone who cares about the goods that free speech ideals are supposed to create—i.e., maximal participation and airing of diverse opinions, I get what I want by controlling things that way. I don’t control what is thought or expressed or concluded. I control how it is said. And the result is classes that are not shy in criticizing me when I put my own ideas on the table. That’s how safe they feel. That’s how I use my control and my power—to empower them so they can freely criticize every authority, including me.

There is no way to remove power and domination. The question is “How can we use our power the most constructively?” Good moral rules and codes of conduct are ones which encourage us to go against the grain of our most shortsighted impulses to create a better good for us. Clamping down on counter-productively hostile speech allows the would-be combatants to get what they really should want—which is a fair and genuine debate in which their ideas are actually heard the most receptively and have the most chance of being influential when true.

This means I have to use my power when I am hosting discussions to help my students have the most illuminating discourse about ideas they can.

But at this point you may object that the public square is not a classroom and I cannot control everything my way here. And maybe there’s a place for some rough and tumble confrontationalism that allows other kinds of truths that I might suppress through my civility standards. And maybe all of what I describe might be good for pedagogy but bad for interactions between equals or allow disreputable thinkers to never be adequately denounced. And maybe my schoolroom tactics allow for “controlled-and-constructive-thought” but not freethought in the truest sense of the word.

So let me address those challenges here:

Of course I don’t run the internet and I won’t even mediate every discussion between my blog commenters the way I do my students. But the point is that private discussion spaces have moral rights and moral obligations to encourage maximal constructive debate that hears out a maximum range of voices by cracking down on tactics and forms of speech that create hostile and intimidating environments. The government should stay out of that business except so as to protect the safety of individuals and their rights to peaceably assemble. The government has too much force at its disposal and is too little trustworthy with unquestioned force to be allowed to do much more in regulating speech than simply make sure it is orderly. When governments cross the line from referees that guarantee free discourse to dictating its content, we are on the road to tyranny.

But that does not mean private groups should be morally neutral in choosing between harassers (of any kind) who create hostile environments and those who would be silenced or driven away by them. The freethought movement especially should be proactive in making sure that the numerous groups presently underrepresented in our community should find an environment that is as genuinely welcoming and open as possible to them.

The free in freethinking has traditionally not connoted intellectual anarchy but rather a specific kind of freedom—freedom from arbitrary authority figures and, more specifically, religious ones. No freethinkers acknowledge any arbitrary personal or institutional authorities in matters of truth, we all acknowledge only reason and evidence as guides to determining truth. That’s it. That’s what makes us minimally speaking “freethinkers”. Some religious people think it’s arrogant of us to call ourselves “free” thinkers as though we were declaring ourselves thereby better thinkers.

While free thinking in fact is better, that’s not what the term directly indicates. Religious people specifically acknowledge that they take direct dictates about truth from either some Scripture or Church or other institutional religious authority, the authority of which they take as basic and indisputable (even if requiring heroic efforts of interpretation occasionally). Therefore, by their own implicit and explicit practice, they are not free as thinkers. And this would be true, even if their method of reasoning were more truth-conducive. (Of course it’s not more truth-conducive. Recent centuries’ uses of logic and evidence based reasoning, unshackled from Church, Mosque, and Temple authorities, attest this through their incredible successes in advancing knowledge.)

Freethinking also does not mean total neutrality with respect to thought. Reason is not neutral. Freethinkers, as defenders of rationalism, i.e., thinking that is based on “reason alone”, inherently have an intolerance for the irrational. And as a freethinker, I do not have to pretend that I think everyone’s scientific, metaphysical, or ethical positions are rational. I can as a freethinker tell someone they’re flat out wrong or decide that their ideas evince too much irrational prejudice to qualify as worthy of belief by a rationalist.

As long as I do this by rational standards, I am not being exclusionary in some unjust way simply by disagreeing with them or not wanting to associate with them. Similarly, in matters where a great deal of well-established truths have been won through vigorous testing, we do not need to give every dubious hypothesis challenging them equal weight or time. We can say that there are some things we basically know and that we will not abandon unless we get some truly remarkable evidence or reasoning capable of overturning the existing remarkable extant evidence.

Now, further beyond that, freethinking, like all good reasoning, requires a good bit of epistemic and moral humility. For the sake of the truth we should be constantly reexamining our viewpoints in light of new evidence or in order to find hitherto unnoticed internal contradictions. And for reasoning to flourish we should respect each person’s right to think for him or herself and to offer new evidence or new arguments wherever that might yield truth.

So, this means there are some things we should do. We should openly encourage dissent, that’s one thing. But the other thing we should do is create environments that make people comfortable to express themselves without emotional bullying. We need to make everyone feel free to reason according to their consciences.

The forces of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and numerous other power structures are direct obstacles to people thinking freely and clearly. Not only traditionally but still today these sorts of pressures have shut people and ideas out of conversations. That is an obstacle to good reasoning. It is an obstacle because it shuts out marginalized voices who have access to truths based on their experiences that the mainstream misses out on or silences. It is an obstacle because unjust social norms and linguistic conventions codify prejudices that thwart clear thinking about the issues. Internalized conventions strangle thoughts that might otherwise be realized, rationally assessed, and found true.

It is because of this that I argue so vociferously that rationalists must conduct ourselves like rationalists in how we treat others and their arguments. This means that we must not resort to emotional or institutional pressures to bully people. We should assiduously avoid name-calling. We should make sure that spaces for public discourse are not hostile to anyone except those who use irrationalistic pressures to silence others. We should pay special attention to make sure that we create spaces that are safe for those who are especially vulnerable to silencing by accepted cultural norms which routinely marginalize them. We need to create contexts in which the meek, the mild, and the minority are not bullied around by the brash and the majority.

We can be harsh but not in a way that throws away the basics of civility. This includes knowing the difference between criticizing someone as wrong and engaging in denigration via ablism by calling them stupid. And it extends to eschewing all other names that are not descriptive and based in evidence. We can level strong moral and intellectual challenges with words people don’t like to hear. But each of those words should be one that that person can hear and take as a point for assessing with respect to truth.

If all the word does is express contempt without making an evidentially assessable claim about one’s virtues or vices or correctness or incorrectness, then we should be avoiding using it. We owe people the respect of intellectual disagreement when they are wrong and sometimes moral blame and contempt when they have failed morally in ways they should know better than to have done. But we do not owe them the disrespect of treating them as beneath contempt and as worthy of abusives atop their valid criticisms.

And finally, we must be civil even to those we think are wrong and evil because of the chance that we are wrong. Even if we feel certain or nearly certain we are right, we must continue to honor the formal principle that we could be wrong and treat our opponents with the minimum respect of being persons with minds that could in some way at some point contribute something to our knowledge. The neutral, arbitrating rules of civility should not be construed such that all my gratuitous insults to you are okay because I happen to be right in my mind but all your gratuitous insults to me are not okay because you happen to be wrong. That’s unfair and a road to self-righteousness, prejudice, confirmation bias, and numerous more cognitive biases, logical fallacies, incivilities, and immoralities.

Do all these rules treat people like children or one’s students or other subordinates? No, actually, they require we treat each other as free, equal adults deserving of respect, even when we do not feel like it or when they are not behaving like they deserve it. That’s rising above childishness if you ask me. And it is the cornerstone of what it means to live as egalitarians. Most egalitarians know we are not all actually equal but that we all deserve to be treated with certain minimal equal standards of respect and dignity.

Related posts on these topics:

Who Are You Calling Stupid?

I Am A Rationalist, Not A Tribalist.

I Don’t Really Give A Fuck About Tone, Per Se

How Atheist Reddit Doesn’t Get It

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

My Thoughts on Blasphemy Day

The Truth, The Whole Truth, and No Name-Calling

Bullying or Debating? Religious Privilege or Freedom of Speech?

Can You Really Love Religious People If You Hate Their Religiosity?

On the Virtues of Political Correctness and of Related Godless Pieties

Audiences and Approaches

Force and Reason


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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.