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Banishing something or someone distasteful from your life is an immensely satisfying experience. I experienced this catharsis myself in January, when a pair of squirrels found their way into my house through a hole in my siding, happily burrowed into my walls, and began grating on my nerves.

Listening to them crunching all day long was frustrating, both because I knew they could cause immense damage, but it was also just painful to hear and distracting as I tried to work all day. My best solution was to put on headphones and go about my day, until an exterminator could seal things off and trap them.

We often treat people spouting ideas we disagree with like my nuisance neighbor squirrels. The ideas may be damaging and false, or the person saying them may just be obnoxious and annoying, but either way, we don’t want to hear them. We may feel a strong desire to ignore them, plug our ears, and disengage. Or worse, we may think the risk of damage that their ideas can do is so high, that they need to be silenced. Their presence is intolerable and dangerous. 

But people are not squirrels and ideas have consequences, even if we try to contain them or silence them.

In a piece published at the beginning of the pandemic in March, Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, makes an important point about the value of free speech. By looking at the origin of the COVID-19 virus in China, and the subsequent government crackdown on free speech about the virus, we can see how the virus further spread.

…China was foolish to silence early whistleblowers for “rumor mongering.” China not only chilled speech that may be untrue, it chilled speech that may be both true and useful, and also speech that gives us information about both human psychology in general and individual credibility in particular. (And believe me, many of us are paying a lot of attention as some people reveal themselves as bad mathematicians, hopelessly partisan, intransigent, or simply superstitious — and this surely is important information.)

We should value free speech not only because it helps us find the truth, but also because people who tell us things that are not true teach us something equally valuable. By digging into the “why” of various untruths, we learn about the concerns and motivations of those spreading the ideas and this gives us a more accurate and complete picture of the world around us. We will be better off as a society if we spend less time exterminating the fake news squirrels in our lives and more time thinking about how they got there in the first place.

 

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