Free Societies

A culture of openness

Culture of openness

Johan Norberg

The latest College Free Speech rankings show that US colleges might not be the best place to be, if you happen to like free speech.

In fact, 37 percent of Ivy League students think it is at least sometimes acceptable to shout down a speaker. 21 percent thought it acceptable to use violence to stop a campus speech. Granted, 21 percent is just a minority. But when it comes to violence, it doesn’t take a village. It’s enough with one.

It is depressing to see universities come to this. These are the places that were created to open minds, provoke thought and stimulate debate. If people stop listening to each other, and engage in self-censorship there, it could happen anywhere, in workplaces, newspapers, social media.

It is wrong, not just because it is abusive to others, but also because it is self-harm.

Most great achievements come about when people are led outside their intellectual comfort zones. As Herbert Spencer once put it: “Truth has ever originated from the conflict of the mind with mind; it is the bright spark that emanates from the collision of opposing ideas”.

Yes, I know Spencer is cancelled. That’s the point. If you are not open to insights from people you don’t like, you let them have knowledge that you deny yourself.

The bright spark that emanates from the collision of ideas is the reason why we are here. As I show in my new book Open: The Story of Human Progress, this is the spark that gave us the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Enlightenment thinkers adhered to the motto of the Royal Society of London, “Nullius in verba”, meaning “take nobody’s word for it”. Don’t accept tradition or consensus, but only facts and logic. ­

In the 17th century, European philosophers and scientists used the new commercial postal system to create a Republic of Letters, where they circulated what they found correct, improved what they found promising and attacked what they found faulty. For the first time, the authority of ideas replaced ideas of authority.

Apparently, there were no safe spaces in the Republic of Letters, as the French philosopher Pierre Bayle explained in 1697:

“The Empire of Truth and Reason is only acknowledged here; and under their protection an innocent War is waged against any one whatever. Friends ought to be on their Guard, there, against their Friends, Fathers against Children […] Every-body, there, is both Sovereign and under every-body’s Jurisdiction.”

All of us are children of the Republic of Letters, whose importance has recently been documented by Joel Mokyr in A Culture of Growth. This open-mindedness created the quantum leap in scientific knowledge, technological innovation and economic productivity that in just 200 years would increase global life expectancy from 30 to more than 70 years, and reduced extreme poverty from 90 percent to 9 percent.

We all suffer from confirmation bias – I do too, and so do you. We are mostly looking for data that confirms what we already believe, and therefore we miss knowledge that doesn’t seem useful at first glance, and we fail to see weaknesses in our own position. But we have a powerful ally: Our enemies. They really, really dislike what we think, and have therefore specialized in finding the plank in our eye. That improves our eye-sight.

Openness is not about generosity, but long-term self-interest.

The solution is not government regulation of platforms for speech, as some suggest. The solution is a culture of openness. We must recognize how it benefits us, and tie ourselves to the mast, by agreeing to declarations about open speech – universities, newspapers, social media – to resist the temptation of shutting it down whenever it hurts.

As the great Enlightenment thinker Thomas Paine, pointed out, in an attack on all forms of national chauvinism and cancel culture: ­­

“The philosopher of one country sees not an enemy in the philosophy of another; he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him”.