Elon Musk has reopened the “marketplace of ideas.” Hooray! He is resetting the table, reminding us free speech matters. So, let’s go shopping – for some truth, ‘tis the season! That is the way republics survive.
Hundreds of millions of Americans before us – who lived, died, fought, and tried to protect free speech – are today happy. We should be, too. Between a reborn Twitter – reminding us diversity of opinion trumps suppression for ideology – and new congressional oversight, America has a chance to re-find our bearings. Let’s not lose this chance.
The overarching reason we tolerate wildly divergent speech, offensive, inflammatory, true and untrue, untoward and flush with discord, distasteful, disgusting, disgraceful – is because from that competition of ideas, deeply held views, emerges something remarkable, truth.
The world’s earliest philosophers understood this, long before the First Amendment, before America was America. Plato and Aristotle understood power of the spoken word, wrote as they spoke, to persuade – of truth.
In the 1640s, John Milton wrote against censorship, as did many who dared interpret the Bible, science, politics, and universe. Copernicus and Galileo, in the 1500s and 1600s respectively, fought for free speech – helped us understand the universe by doing so.
By the time Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, and Thomas Paine, eventually Jefferson, Madison and our courageous founders were talking about free speech, the idea had currency. The currency was not academic, not the notion that talking was good, but a bigger idea.
Without unfettered free speech, allowing lots of ideas, insults, prejudices, preferences, and stuff that is wrong and gets discussed and corrected, people forget to think, discern, and learn.
Free speech is at the heart of liberty. Why? Because a society – even a God-fearing society, let alone one off track – needs to self-correct to survive, review what is true, dismiss the junk. But this is a job for everyone, for the society, not some self-appointed speech czars. That is why free speech, no holds barred – short of specific incitement to violence – is key.
In 1859, John Stewart Mill – a British noodler of ideas – published a book called “On Liberty,” at about the same time people like Ralf Waldo Emmerson and others in the United States were giving depth to the value of free speech, self-reliance, and individuality.
Funny enough, if the modern leftist would stop – to understand history is more than toppling statues and redefining things – they would understand free speech was “classically liberal.”
Free speech hears the majority, but also minority views – like a round earth, heliocentric universe, civil rights, limited government, and self-determination. Until leftists adopted the word “liberal” and sullied “conservative,” a “liberal” defended lots of opinions. Conservatives did too, but moved more deliberately, since they valued tradition and distilled truths.
These days, definitions are fluid, constantly changing. Leftists think they win by upsetting what the world has built on stable definitions and moral compass, distilled through free speech.
Ironically, leftists would stifle free speech, afraid where competing ideas lead, majority and minority views in contest – because we know where they lead, to time-honored, life-lifting, progress-making truths, not oppression, censorship, Marxism and consolidated power.
So, this is the point. From early philosophers to founding fathers, Supreme Court decisions to common sense, we are a nation – a People and an Idea – built on diverse opinions, open debate, toleration of insult and offense, because buried in all that passion is reality, and we need that.
These days, we need reality more than any time in the past, because things happen fast. Threats to our way of life, constitutional rights, basic self-rule come up fast, hit us hard, tend to be disruptive and can come from inside or outside our society.
We need free speech – fast if furious, honest if ornery, clear and robust even if cranky and sometimes wrong – so that we can know ourselves, know what we want, know what we will not tolerate.
And one thing Americans are unwilling to tolerate is a government that – with the help of elites in the media and social media world – wants to inflict one view, one party, one way on us. What new leadership at Twitter – and honest government oversight – offer is not some triumph of conservative over liberal, but the triumph of free speech – and a rebirth of truth.
And that is why we should all be excited that the “marketplace of ideas” is reopening. We may have to pay more for everything else – but ideas are free and must stay that way. As a tough year closes, let’s go shopping again – for some truth, ‘tis the season! And that is how republics thrive.
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