Making space for heretics
Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, he and the site have been under pressure to reign in alleged misinformation and unfavored opinions that the old ownership had limited. Even Sir Elton John just announced that he’s departing the platform because misinformation is “being used to divide the world” and Twitter is allowing it to “flourish unchecked.” But if social media is in many ways our new public square, as has been frequently stated, Musk is right to fight for a culture of free expression on the platform, even if it means allowing views contrary to prevailing dogmas of the coastal elites.
These elites may have little doubt that their views are correct, but many others are just as confident that they are wrong. Truth and falsehood are not always as clear as we would hope, so there will always be honest disputes about the facts, making “misinformation” generally in the eye of the beholder. The debate over the efficacy of masks and vaccines in preventing COVID-19 or whether Hunter Biden’s laptop was a Russian plot are a couple recent examples where defining misinformation depended on the day you asked.
Being free to challenge the dogmas of those currently in power, even if you end up being wrong (call it the right to be a heretic), is actually the key to testing theories and arriving at the truth. Elon Musk declining to bow the knee to the new cultural orthodoxy, while certainly ruffling some feathers on the bird app, is making space for the public to participate in this process.
The comparison to a public square may not be the most appropriate, though, since social media companies are privately owned. A better comparison could be to bars and coffee shops, where people freely discuss and debate with friends and strangers on whatever topics they choose. But a bar owner who monitored all conversations at his establishment, weighing them for scientific accuracy and politically correctness, would be violating the basic purpose of that space. He would also likely have to kick out most of the patrons, based on my own experience of bar conversations over the years.
This kind of monitoring does happen, but not in free countries. In Iran, where bars are illegal and you can be sentenced to death for drinking, youth gather at coffee shops to speak a little more freely. But even there, Iran’s religious police frequently monitor the shops for improper discussions, for “mixing” of men and women, and for lack of head coverings on women.
On Thursday, the Iranian government announced that they had executed the first of many protesters sentenced to death for participating in the widespread protests seen across the country in recent weeks. A large focus of the protests was opposition to the nation’s religious police and their stifling of free association and free speech. Similar protests are occurring in China as citizens push back on a government that does not allow dissent on social media or in the public square against their policies, including a draconian “Zero-COVID” plan.
But it’s not just Chinese communists, Iranian theocrats, and woke Western elites who are threatened by freedom of speech. Certain conservatives, if they had their druthers, would also limit challenges to their dogmas. Here in North Carolina, Reformed theologian Stephen Wolfe argues in his book, “The Case for a Christian Nationalism,” for an abandonment of pluralism and a return to the confessional states that dominated before the Enlightenment.
This has rekindled a debate among Christians largely settled since the Peace of Westphalia, the 1648 agreement which ended the European wars of religion and allowed Protestants and Catholics to live according to the faith of their choosing. While not perfect, these principles expanded over time to allow general freedom of thought — including misinformation and what some may deem heresy. But in the book, and interviews about it, Wolfe appears to disagree, saying suppressing heretics is justified and necessary for forming a truly Christian nation.
When called out by another Christian author on Twitter about it, Wolfe responded with the internet slang, “Based,” roughly meaning, “I approve unapologetically.”
As someone who adopted and rejected multiple worldviews in my teens and early 20s (left-wing atheism, apatheist, various Protestantisms, and eventually Catholic), I shudder to think how many times I would have been hauled in by Wolfe’s equivalent of the Iranian religious police.
Free speech, and the pluralism that it engenders, is messy. It involves allowing views to be expressed across the bar (or the screen) from you that you vehemently disagree with, and maybe even think are inherently harmful. For example, I think the misanthropic views of many environmentalists, like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, would lead to pretty dark places if widely adopted. But since I believe there is a real objective truth to be discovered, I can allow those views to exist in confidence, or at least hope, that they will be challenged and found lacking in the marketplace of ideas. We aim for their defeat but not through physical violence.
The alternative to this is to return to a pre-Westphalian world, where each worldview has an army defending its territory and an internal police force imposing its orthodoxies on heretics — a zero-sum world of ideological monopolies rather than the free exchange in the ideological marketplace. Hopefully it’s obvious which is preferable. Twitter is just a small battle in this war to keep open as many spaces as possible where people can freely assemble and speak their minds. Elon should be applauded for being the equivalent of a good bar owner in a world where a drink and an honest discussion has solved many stubborn problems.