Let’s Talk

Hello, and welcome to my blog. Are you tired of the sensationalism, ideology & simplification that passes for mainstream media & social media these days? Me too. I believe that the discussions we participate in should aim to inform & inspire… that they should leave us at the end of each day, wiser & more insightful than we were before.

As a former journalist & newspaper columnist, I hope I will once again be able to start discussions towards these goals. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my opinions, I hope we can have an illuminative discussion on the issues that really matter.

To start things off, let me post the very first piece that I ever wrote as a columnist. I hope it will set the tone for the rest of the blog.

“When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.”

The above famous quote, by Justice Holmes (1841-1935), is often used to expound on the importance of free expression and a thriving marketplace of ideas – one where numerous ideas compete against one another, for acceptance, in an open and fair market. Analogous to an economic market where only the best products succeed, upholding a robust marketplace of ideas is the best way to filter out ideas and opinions that aren’t true or valid. Unfortunately, events over the past few years, if anything, have indicated that this marketplace of ideas is being shut down and dismantled.

In January 2005, the President of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, famously remarked “It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability-there is relatively clear evidence that … there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population … that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong.”

His suggestion that innate differences may exist between men & women in the fields of math, science and engineering sparked an immediate and immense furore. Many women walked out midway through his speech because they were offended by his statements. Soon after, Summers was assailed by criticisms from all sides, until he was finally forced to recant and apologize for his statements.

In the midst of the controversy, unfortunately, the validity of his comments was entirely forgotten or ignored. Few of those who criticized and called for his resignation addressed the validity of his comments, which were backed by various studies and statistics, beyond a few fleeting remarks. The criticism leveled at Summers was not aimed to debate the validity of what he said, but rather, to reproach him for merely suggesting something that people found offensive. Summers had intended for his speech to provoke, and hence, to promote further research and debate on why women are under-represented in the mentioned fields. He intended for his speech to inject life into the marketplace of ideas. Clearly, he failed.

Another similar example is that of Professor Ward Churchill. He gained national notoriety for his essay in which he stated that the September 11 attacks were justified. He too was faced with a barrage of criticism. The University of Colorado was put under intense pressure to fire him – pressure that eventually culminated in the University President herself stepping down. It was even suggested that Churchill should be executed on grounds of treason. He did have his fair share of supporters but once again, the content of his essay that actually sparked the controversy was lost in the crossfire. Churchill’s essay did contain a few potentially valid points, such as his contention that the September 11 attacks, justified or not, were a result of the US government’s foreign policy.

Unfortunately, his opponents were too busy attacking him and his supporters were too busy defending his right to voice his opinion. The actual validity of his ideas, ideas that if deemed valid could have resulted in pressure to change the government’s foreign policy so as to lessen the likelihood of any future terrorist attack, was entirely ignored.

Even newspaper journalists face the same problem. During the heat of an affirmative-action ballot proposal, it seemed almost impossible to have a civil discussion about issues such as affirmative action. People were liberally throwing around accusations of racism, simply for taking a stance on a topic, in an effort to discredit anyone who disagreed with them. On one such occasion, when a cartoonist drew a cartoon that highlighted what she felt to be a weakness of race-based affirmative action, she faced a torrent of criticism and was even accused of racism by the NAACP. Even more absurd: The NAACP considered boycotting the entire newspaper for running the cartoon on its opinion page.

Ironically, the same newspaper’s editorial board had been one of the most vocal supporters of affirmative action and has consistently written a number of editorials urging the University administration to further promote diversity. Apparently, supporting affirmative action was not enough – the NAACP would like newspapers to censor all opinions that it disagrees with as well.

I did not bring up the above examples because I agree with Summers, Churchill or the NAACP – I brought them up because they are examples of the numerous instances in which people are intolerant of opposing viewpoints. Freedom of expression is an often touted phrase that nobody disagrees with. Unfortunately, few people actually practice it in its entirety. We need to learn to be more tolerant and respectful of others’ opinions, even if we strongly disagree with them. Engaging in open discourse and enlarging the marketplace of ideas is in all our best interests. We should not be attempting to censor or shout down, whether it is by direct censorship or through personal attacks, opposing viewpoints.

To quote Holmes Holmes, “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted.” An opinion that is true or valid does not require any special protection. An opinion that is neither true nor valid won’t succeed, even if left uncensored.