The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience, New York Times, 26 June 2018

The New York Times carried an opinion piece by Yale-NUS Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor and Professor of Humanities (Philosophy) Bryan Van Norden, who argues that the rights to the freedom of speech does not give the ignorant the right to an audience.

He cited English philosopher John Stuart Mill who argued that “any given opinion that someone expresses is either wholly true, partly true or false” and it is up to society to rationalise these opinions. However, in view of current events happening in the US, Professor Van Norden opines that Mill’s view may be difficult to accept as the problem is that humans are not rational in the way Mill assumes. Using the media as one of a few examples, he said that they are motivated primarily by getting the largest audience possible, which has led to a skewed conception about which controversial perspectives deserve airtime, and what “both sides” of an issue are. Professor Van Norden added that this has caused “endlessly dragging debates over the media, [where] stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.” Ironically, this form of “free speech” supports the tyranny of the majority. Professor Van Norden highlighted that research shows that repeatedly hearing assertions increases the likelihood of belief — even when the assertions are explicitly identified as false. Consequently, when journalists repeat President Trump’s repeated lies, they are actually increasing the probability that people will believe them.

Professor Van Norden opined that free speech could be distinguished from “just access”, which he defines as information granted to the public by institutions like television networks, print publications and university lectures. He argues that institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole. There is a clear line between censoring someone and refusing to provide them with institutional resources for disseminating their ideas. Hence, prestigious institutions should exercise their fiduciary responsibility as the gatekeepers of rational discourse and should award access based on the merit of ideas and thinkers. He concluded that the “invincibly ignorant and the intellectual huckster” have every right to express their opinions, but their right to free speech is not the right to an audience.


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