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OpinionCommentary

Homilies about the marketplace of ideas are not nearly enough.

The echo chamber is the enemy of democracy

Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump's former chief strategist

Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump's former chief strategist during an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday in Washington. Photo Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

The decision of David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, to rescind Steve Bannon’s invitation to speak at the magazine’s festival next month has created a storm of protest. Those who abhor Remnick’s decision point to similar controversies on university campuses, where a pervasive question has been whether to host people whose statements or actions seem abhorrent to many people.

Disturbingly, most of the controversies involve people whose views are to the right of center.

Let’s step back from the details and ask some bigger questions: Which ideas, if any, are beyond the pale? Is it a mistake to “normalize” some speakers? When?

To get some guidance, we would do well to look to the example of William F. Buckley Jr., one of the most influential conservatives of the last 60 years. For decades, Buckley was the host of a television show called “Firing Line.”

Buckley hosted plenty of conservatives. But he was more than willing to provide a forum for people whose leftist ideas he despised, a group that included Noam Chomsky, Muhammad Ali, Saul Alinsky, Allen Ginsburg and John Kenneth Galbraith.

Buckley relished disagreement and debate. He was committed to the marketplace of ideas. He acted in accordance with the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, writing of the importance of freedom of speech:

Those who won our independence . believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.

Buckley seemed to agree with Brandeis’ claim that “the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”

Nonetheless, it’s important to emphasize that private organizations (including magazines, television shows, websites and universities) are entitled to refuse to host ideas they deem despicable, even if a free society cannot censor those ideas. That is one way such organizations exercise their own freedom.

Buckley himself believed in quality control. He limited his invitations to people who had interesting ideas, and who could defend them in interesting ways.

Nor did Buckley think that all ideas deserve a forum. He did not host defenders of astrology, the Ku Klux Klan, Nazism or Soviet-style Communism.

Buckley had a famous falling-out with Robert Welch, co-founder and leader of the John Birch Society, an extremist organization that spread (and spreads) wild conspiracy theories, and that can be seen as a predecessor of many conspiracy-minded organizations and speakers on the right (such as Alex Jones). Buckley did not invite Welch onto his program.

The larger lesson from all this is that homilies about the marketplace of ideas are not nearly enough. Whenever a private institution is deciding whom to invite, it cannot escape substantive judgments about the quality of speakers - and about whether their ideas fall within the bounds of rationality and legitimate argument.

But those judgments should be made with reference to two defining principles. The first is that echo chambers are a terrible disservice to readers, to listeners, to students and to democracy. The second is that with respect to political issues, a degree of humility is essential.

Opposition to echo chambers, rooted in democratic ideals, goes back to the founding era. During debates over the Bill of Rights, it was proposed that the Constitution should contain a “right to instruct,” by which voters could direct representatives how to vote.

Roger Sherman delivered the decisive objection. In his view, recognition of any such right “would destroy the object of their meeting.” The whole point of the legislative process, Sherman said, was to ensure that representatives would “meet others from different parts of the Union, and consult, and agree with them on such acts as are for the general benefit of the whole community.”

In short, Sherman insisted on the importance of open discussion among people with sharply differing views and perspectives. That does not mean that agreement is always possible. But it does mean that public engagement with people who think very differently - even if they embrace “noxious doctrine” - can be an excellent idea.

There’s a lesson here for citizens, not just representatives, and for all those who are deciding whether to invite (or to disinvite) controversial speakers.

In a polarized time, humility often seems in short supply. In a prescient essay written in 1989, the economist Albert Hirschman worried that in light of the need “for identity in our culture,” people insist on forming very firm opinions, which can turn out to be “hazardous for the functioning and the stability of the democratic order.” He drew attention to the “overproduction of opinionated opinion,” and urged the importance of “both having opinions and keeping an open mind.”

During World War II, Judge Learned Hand put it more pithily. He insisted that the “spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”

Judge Hand had it just right. It’s fine to be sure - but not too sure. If you are not too sure that you are right, you will be willing and perhaps eager to hear from those whose views you dislike or even deplore.

You’ll almost certainly learn something. Whether or not you change your mind, you’ll be better prepared to understand what others think - and to defend the values you most want to protect.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “The Cost-Benefit Revolution” and co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

Columns

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