I don’t know how often most of you notice the occasional noises of Flat-Earthers online, and particularly on social media, but I notice. Encountering such absurdities can at times lead a reasonably educated person to feel that the world is going mad, that society is collapsing, and that—despite the cornucopia of information available to us—humans are breathtakingly stupid.
However, I’ve recently been reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” and it gave me a new insight: The fact the we encounter such vociferous and seemingly ridiculous expressions of contra-factual ideas is a sign of the health and strength of our discourse, rather than its deterioration.
Mill states that to know only your own side of any issue is to be in a position of weakness. He points out that ideas—even good ones, even correct ones—that are accepted on authority, without argument, are, in a sense, spiritually dead. For people truly to understand what they hold to be true, they have to understand how that truth came to be known, what the arguments might have been against it, and how those arguments were overcome. This can be a challenge in cases where an idea is generally known to be true, having survived already the vicious battle of long discourse. In a sort of ironic tragedy, those subjects which have most clearly and definitively been shown to be true can thus become intellectually tepid, mere clichés that people don’t really think about anymore. It requires concerted effort on the part of thinkers and educators to reintroduce the old arguments against what we now know to be true, to explain how they were originally put forth, to give new learners of what is now “common sense” a clear understanding of how we know it to be true…or at least more true than the alternatives.
This is what led me to the conclusion that the Flat-Earther phenomenon is a sign of the health of our intellectual culture, and that such embarrassments are a means of strengthening our discourse. It is also a strict and severe warning to those who would curtail others’ freedom of speech, even regarding so-called “hate speech.”
How many of us really think about how we know the Earth is round? Most people probably never give it a thought in their day-to-day life, but awareness and knowledge of the Earth’s shape is crucial to modern civilization. We are given the statement that the Earth is round as a form of received wisdom in most cases, and we imbibe it as such, whole and without digestion. Only when the notion is challenged are we inclined to marshal the arguments for how we know its shape. Of course, nowadays, we have abundant photographic evidence from space of the Earth’s roundness, but people knew the world was round for millennia before the invention of photography, and their reasons and arguments were sound (Flat-Earthers can also just say that photographs are faked. Reason is much harder to dismiss).
So, we stop and think, and maybe we do a little research. We recognize that the existence of the horizon, and its general uniformity in all directions at sea level, is a strong argument for the roundness of the earth. If the world were flat, then with a good enough telescope, one should literally be able to see any place on Earth from a high enough vantage point—from Mt. Everest, one should see the west coast of the United States, and Antarctica, and Siberia, and Tierra del Fuego. Similarly, from any other place on Earth (with unobstructed sight lines) one should be able to use a telescope to see Mt. Everest.
We also find that, on the day of the equinox, at any point on the equator, upright sticks cast no shadows at noon, but the farther north or south we go, the longer shadows become. In the other orientation, with eastward or westward travel, the times of sunrise and sunset change according to a clock set at our starting point. Then there’s the argument that the Earth’s own shadow on the moon is always round, and the only shape that casts an always-circular shadow is a sphere.
And so on.
The point is, unless we are called to question ideas that are so “true” that we have never had to question them before, we never really know or understand those ideas. As Mills wrote, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”
So, the fact that there are people out there trying to argue that the world is flat is probably good for us. At the very least, it strengthens our mental muscles and improves our skill at dealing in evidence and argument; occasionally, such people will force us to ask ourselves whether we truly know what we think we know.
This brings me to my point of warning to those—at present, mostly on the far Left—who want to shut down what they consider “hate speech,” and how dangerous that instinct is, even to themselves. I know that the pseudo-arguments in favor of censoring such expressions include the notion that such speech not only leads to violence (a fact not clearly demonstrated in the vast majority of the cases in which it is invoked) but is a form of violence in and of itself. The latter notion would be laughable if not for the fact that some people maintain it in all seriousness. In response, I’ll paraphrase another writer and say: Those who see no difference between the power of words and the power of a whip should learn the difference on their own hides. Or, as all schoolchildren used to know: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Well…words can hurt our feelings, of course, but that’s quite different from the hurt caused by sticks or stones. History has shown us that to shut down (rather than honestly defeat) ideas we find odious, to prevent them from being voiced, is to use those sticks and stones, in a totalitarian fashion. And totalitarianism tends to rebound even upon many of its initiators, as history has also shown, and weakens society at large.
For our intellectual discourse, our culture, our overall knowledge, and our understanding, to continue to improve, we must allow even assholes to speak freely. At the very least, this makes their character clear to more people. If your own ideas cannot stand up to the arguments of those whom you would prefer to silence, then perhaps your ideas aren’t all that good. At the very least, you probably haven’t learned them as well as you ought to, and perhaps only maintain them for social rather than for rational and moral reasons.
We must keep discussion open and free, even about subjects we find uncomfortable. The truth can easily handle collisions with error; it tends to come away stronger after such encounters. As Mill said, “So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skillful devil’s advocate can conjure up.”
Fortunately, in the era of the internet, we rarely must imagine those opponents—they are not just present but tend to be rather noisy. This may be annoying, but we can consider it analogous to a vaccine: a small pinprick of pain that increases our resistance to bad ideas by making us better acquainted with the good ones. Whereas, if we consign ourselves to hermetically sealed bubbles, our defenses and our intellectual and moral health weaken, and will collapse upon any direct exposure to real controversy.