Tonight my husband and I were winding down together, watching a show. I was nursing the baby to sleep, and my sweet husband was trying to find something I could eat that would both pass my very high morning sickness bar and feed the ravenous parasites who are sucking my life force away. Then one of the shiny, witty TV lawyers standing before a judge shouted, “what good is free speech if no one’s willing to use it?!” and I felt like such an idiot, because I’ve had a blog post about exactly that sentiment floating in my head for almost a year, and I haven’t written it yet, because I couldn’t come up with a witty, shiny way to express that somewhat complicated idea. Free speech is meaningless unless people use it.

We hear so many calls on all sides, and especially during political silly season, to stop the divisive madness. Religious and social leaders plead for reason, exhort us to use a measured tone and to remember charity and common courtesy. Apathetic people everywhere moan and complain about the mean spirit of public discourse and shake their heads and mumble vaguely about Christianity.

I usually find this obnoxious, because, if you hadn’t noticed, I enjoy using my free speech, and I often use it in ways that make people uncomfortable at best, and at worst, a little unhinged. I don’t apologize for this, I take pride in it. It’s possible I could more effectively persuade others of my ideas by taking it down a notch, but I’m not usually trying to bring others to passive agreement with my principles. It’s not hard to get people to agree with you – just say things that are inoffensive and cozy, and if you’re interesting enough to get people to read or listen all the way to the end, the populace will line up around the block to limply shake your hand and pledge their tepid support.

Unobtrusive speech is different from free speech. The mild, the unobjectionable, the pleasant and retiring need little protection. No one is concerned enough with those views to try to use the power of the law to shut them down. The ideas that raise your blood pressure, those are the ideas for which we build bulwarks. I just read this wonderful quote by Jonathan Rauch. I know it’s long, but read the whole thing, because it’s awesome –

Indeed, “eradicating prejudice” is so vague a proposition as to be meaningless. Distinguishing prejudice reliably and nonpolitically from non-prejudice, or even defining it crisply, is quite hopeless. We all feel we know prejudice when we see it. But do we? At the University of Michigan, a student said in a classroom discussion that he considered homosexuality a disease treatable with therapy. He was summoned to a formal disciplinary hearing for violating the school’s policy against speech that “victimizes” people based on “sexual orientation.” Now, the evidence is abundant that this particular hypothesis is wrong, and any American homosexual can attest to the harm that the student’s hypothesis has inflicted on many real people. But was it a statement of prejudice or of misguided belief? Hate speech or hypothesis? Many Americans who do not regard themselves as bigots or haters believe that homosexuality is a treatable disease. They may be wrong, but are they all bigots? I am unwilling to say so, and if you are willing, beware. The line between a prejudiced belief and a merely controversial one is elusive, and the harder you look the more elusive it becomes. “God hates homosexuals” is a statement of fact, not of bias, to those who believe it; “American criminals are disproportionately black” is a statement of bias, not of fact, to those who disbelieve it.

Who is right? You may decide, and so may others, and there is no need to agree. That is the great innovation of intellectual pluralism (which is to say, of post-Enlightenment science, broadly defined). We cannot know in advance or for sure which belief is prejudice and which is truth, but to advance knowledge we don’t need to know. The genius of intellectual pluralism lies not in doing away with prejudices and dogmas but in channeling them–making them socially productive by pitting prejudice against prejudice and dogma against dogma, exposing all to withering public criticism. What survives at the end of the day is our base of knowledge.

Intellectual pluralism – that is why we protect and revere free speech. The free exchange of ideas pushes our culture and our collective knowledge further in the same way that the free exchange of goods and services changed the face of the Earth in little more than a century. Whether they crop up in politics, science, religion, history, literature or art, new ideas vigorously defended and equally vigorously attacked make our world a better place. It’s true that there is little value in name-calling or shouting, and if it bothers you, turn off the radio, throw away your TV and quit going to sports bars to socialize. But that shouting and mean-spirited mud fighting is the way that small minds react to ideas that shake things up and threaten the status quo. Cable show brawling is a harmless side effect of a happy phenomenon. When small minds are engaging in free-for-alls, we should all rejoice, because that means greater minds are engaging in creating, defending and combating new ideas. As long as the bashing continues, we can take comfort in the knowledge that someone out there is still thinking and still participating in the free market of ideas, which is a frontier more exciting and limitless than anything else the universe has on offer.