05 September 2018

The Silly Debate About Bannon and Free Speech and the Two Reasons That the First Amendment is So Vital

As I write this there is a bit of a furor over the fact that Steve Bannon was invited to an ideas festival hosted by the New Yorker and then disinvited, prompting a flurry of pieces like this one in the New York Times by Bret Stephens.

"The only security of all is in a free press."
- Thomas Jefferson
Steve Bannon is a white nationalist. He believes that white superiority and national economies are nonfiction. There are people who think that he deserves an audience for his tried - and spectacularly disproven - ideas. Some of these people argue that this is a free speech issue.

At some point in the evolution of science, astronomers presumably stopped inviting "scientists" who argued that the earth was at the center of the universe. Like white nationalists, geocentrists had been proven wrong and no longer deserved a hearing.

Free speech doesn't mean that any curator of content like the New Yorker owes you their audience. I wish that were the case because I would sue every major news outlet and conference host (as would every person with a set of ideas they were trying to get out into the world).

There are two reasons for the first amendment that guarantees the right to free speech, assembly, religion, and press, what is essentially freedom of thought and expression.

The first is simply because it is such a vital part of the human experience to hold beliefs and to express those. This is reason enough for the first amendment but there is more.

The second is that a community with freedom of thought and expression will make more progress. If you espouse a really dumb idea, I can refute it with a better idea. As I stand there smug and proud, another person can come along with an idea even better than mine. And as they accept their accolades for such insight and intelligence, another person comes along with an idea that refutes theirs. And so it goes in a parade of progress that all depends on people freely having ideas, sharing ideas, and refuting or refining ideas to evolve a worldview that lets them better deal with reality. The ultimate test of their ideas is whether these ideas enable them to travel across the ocean or sky or space, conquer diseases that once conquered them, feel happy and know how to make others happy, and do other things like create energy or knowledge. The first amendment is not meant as a tool for protecting old ideas but as a tool for creating new ideas that we can act on in new ways.

The real power of the first amendment is that the evolution of ideas drives progress. This evolution is driven by the free expression and exchange of ideas and animated by beliefs we're passionate about.

Old ideas like white nationalism that destroyed a country as great as Germany and resulted in 100 million deaths do not deserve a second chance or a new audience. We already know it doesn't work. The first amendment doesn't mean that it has a right to an audience. Properly understood, the first amendment means that it deserves to be discarded as we move on to something more practical and intelligent.

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