Free Belief, Free Speech & Criticism: All are Important

First page of Areopagitica, by John Milton

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve often said that criticizing the claims of others, even when those believe the claims to be true, does not infringe on their personal rights, whether to freely express those claims within legally-defined limits, nor their right to believe them, and finally, that those freedoms, essential in a pluralistic society, do not also entail protection from criticism.

I’ll attempt here to show why those statements are not just pronouncements from the proverbial chair.

Criticism of an idea alone does not impose on anyone’s right to hold true or express that idea, no matter how vociferous the criticism, for the simple reason that no coercion or deception is involved in such a critique given in honesty, and thus no undue compulsion to accept or reject the idea, nor censorship of it, is being exercised by the critic. There is no attempt to subvert the will or freedom of choice of the advocate of the claim, who may continue to believe the claim, or come to abandon it, on his or her own.

Lack of duress &/or trickery = Lack of violation of anyone’s rights.

Also, within certain constitutionally-defined limits in the U.S., one may freely express a belief or promote an idea without penalty, including critiques of other ideas so long as those critiques are both fair, lawful, and demonstrably true. This right does not imply acceptance of one’s claims.

Freedom to criticize is itself freedom of expression, and those who attempt to restrict it by claiming violation of their rights are themselves violating the right to free expression of their critics. Sorry, but you don’t get to have your proverbial cake and eat it too. If you don’t like what some mean old skeptic will say about your idea, don’t publish it.

Otherwise, get a thicker skin. Valid criticism is good because it improves the rigor of our arguments and tests the robustness of our ideas. The world is tough and if an idea cannot withstand the scrutiny of its critics, then it’s probably not worth the effort of defending it.

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