I first encountered Milton’s excellent treatise in support of free speech when I was teaching British Literature, and I’ve never forgotten his stunning prediction that Truth, in an open encounter with lies, will always win.
Given the nastiness of our civil discourse these days, perhaps Milton was too optimistic. The Enlightenment guys always were a bit under appreciative of just how bad humanity can get.
But at the core, I think Milton is right. The goal of thorny discussion is not to banish the ideas we hate – though indeed, racism and misogyny and xenophobia are ugly, horrible ideas that are driving elements of the 2016 election cycle. The solution is to shine more light on those ideas, to examine them, to teach adults as well as their children to discern critically the nature of ideas, to offer explanations of complicated concepts in ways nearly everyone can understand (YouTubers! Get on this!), to listen and respond rather than shouting and screaming and walking away.
We all need a dose of Milton right now. We need his dogged determination not to fear ideas we don’t agree with, and be willing to talk about them.
Freedom of thought, freedom to pursue knowledge, and freedom of speech is a societal good, I argue, not a threat. We need to embrace the battle of ideas, not seek its regulation in new-fangled licensing laws, the like of which I had hoped were going the same way as monarchy. ‘Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions’, I wrote. ‘For opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.’ And further on, ‘Let [truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?’ You see, a free and open public sphere, in which people are able to say what they think, and print what they believe, is the best way to get at the truth of the matter. This is because the people, as free and reasoning individuals, will be able to judge for themselves the merits of opposing arguments. A bad argument is best corrected, in public, by a good argument.
Read the whole essay ^ – it’s worth your time.