Why It’s a Good Idea to Listen to Opposing Viewpoints

It is never about me being right and you being wrong. It is always about listening with respect to another’s opinion.

Perhaps like me, you have been completely and utterly confused by the terms mis- and dis-information entering the zeitgeist out of nowhere; like they were suddenly sprung up in a lab to spread across the global population…

Hey, wait a second!

But what is ‘misinformation’ anyway? Oxford dictionary defines it as ‘false or inaccurate information.

Fair enough. That’s exactly what you’d think it is. It was actually crowned Dictionary.com’s 2021 word of the year.

But that’s not flat-out lying, is it? Lying is defined as ‘intentionally delivering a false statement.‘ It’s the intention that makes it malevolent. Deliberately creating a false impression or deceiving is morally wrong from anyone’s subjective standpoint.

Only, the definition for ‘misinformation’ continues… After defining it as “false or inaccurate information,” it then broadens its definition after a comma “…especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive.

Wait, isn’t that just lying?

Or are all these terms just a rebrand of Fake News™?

Of late, there has been rising pressure to censor public figures for spreading this so-called “misinformation.” Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you likely know that podcaster Joe Rogan has been the subject of lots of criticism lately. Musicians like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, podcasters like Brené Brown, and even employees of Spotify have loudly voiced their concerns over what has been widely criticized as “misinformation,” particularly on the subject of COVID-19, by both Rogan himself and his guests.

Incorrect or malevolent information should certainly be fact-checked and rectified whenever possible. However, my concern is with the convenient revision of “stuff-I-don’t-like” to the more palatable “misinformation” moniker. Our failure to appreciate opposing views is causing an upsurge in the demand for censorship.

I’ve always been of the belief that censorship does more harm than good. Rather than removing the source of bad information carefully with a scalpel, labeling anything controversial as “misinformation” is the equivalent of using a chainsaw. It may remove some bad, but it ultimately removes free discussion of ideas in the form of debate, and discourages other voices from speaking up. So long as speech is not directly encouraging violence or causing harm to others it should be allowed to be shared and put to the test in what we call ‘the free marketplace of ideas.’

Being wrong isn’t fatal. But more and more, people are treating it as such. People are calling for widespread cancellations, de-platforming, and punishments simply for someone being wrong about something. It brings us closer to a society where people say things simply to avoid sounding wrong, where we avoid uncomfortable truths and pad sharp edges.

The now popularized “cancel culture” has always existed in history in the form of witch burnings, book bans, and otherwise administrative political tactics to spurn “unacceptable views” (see Justin Trudeau). But the secret isn’t to avoid being wrong altogether. The secret is to be willing to be wrong.

In society, we need critics with loud voices. In fact, it’s crucial to an effective democracy. We need confrontational people who don’t agree with the status quo. Otherwise, what, we’d all just agree with each other all the time??? Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.

Some people have wacky ideas. And despite how irrational those ideas may seem, sometimes they end up being legitimate (see Copernicus). Other times they’re dead wrong. But hey, that’s life. You win some, you lose some. What’s critically important is that we appreciate the fact there are people with unique perspectives on taboo subjects.

When someone makes a mistake we shouldn’t rush to hit the Ctrl-Alt-Delete on their entire career. Think first. Was what was said an intentional statement made to inflict damage or harm on someone? Was it a genuine critique questioning of the orthodoxy (see J.K Rowling, James Damore)? Perhaps they just didn’t think their argument’s implications all the way through (see Whoopi Goldberg).

People say stupid things sometimes, myself included. Without exception, we have ALL said something we regret. Before we try to sum up someone’s entire personality by a couple of dumb statements, take a look in the mirror. Cancel culture is such a historically human problem, in fact, there’s even a story about it in the oldest book in existence:

If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her – John 8: 7-8

Spoiler alert: No one threw a stone that day.

I’ve been listening to The Joe Rogan Experience for over six years, and although he says things I don’t always agree with, I appreciate his authenticity. Compared to the pithy, oft-interrupted sputtering of cable news debate, the unscripted long-form conversations are a breath of fresh air. The show is off-the-cuff and unbeholden to any corporate commodity, which is ironically the exact reason people trust it. People don’t want to listen to canned answers and scripted niceties anymore. They want laughing, cursing, and vulnerable conversation; REAL people saying real things, warts and all.

Listeners know Rogan may be wrong on certain things. Heck, he may even be dead wrong sometimes. But what keeps them coming back is that they know that he isn’t lying to us. There is no other agenda than pure curiosity. Although it can be contentious at times, the pursuit of an honest answer is the part that people enjoy.

Rather than labeling unbridled conversations as “misinformation”, we should actively encourage challenging orthodoxy by asking tough questions and offering alternative solutions. God forbid people speak so freely!

A perfect example is something that Rogan himself mentioned in an Instagram post addressing the complaints of misinformation on his show:  A year ago, if you said that COVID-19 may have come from a lab in Wuhan, you would be banned from social media. Now it is considered “highly possible” by almost every media network.

Information changes. Science changes. Unless we pursue more information, we’ll never get the full answer. That is literally what science is supposed to do – challenge the scientific doctrine through observation and experimentation. Imagine censoring scientists from doing such? Or censoring private citizens from asking honest questions about such science?

This isn’t just about Joe Rogan. This is about anyone who expresses opinions that people don’t like. The formula for cancellation is beyond obvious at this point. When the Misinformation™ label doesn’t stick, they go for the -isms (racism, misogynist, homophobism, transphobism, etc).

We need to stop this obsession with crucifying people for slipping up. What we need is better speech, not less. Misogynists and homophobes don’t just go away when they’re kicked off Twitter. More speech is always the answer.

Having a stranglehold on conversation only stifles debate. Being correct implies a certain level of risk and humility. You have to believe in something so definitively you need to be willing to get some egg on your face if it turns out you were completely and utterly wrong. Science-fiction writer Jack McDevitt once wrote, “It is not faith per see that creates the problem; it is conviction, the notion that one cannot be wrong, that opposing views are necessarily invalid and may even be intolerable.” Many conspiracy theories are flat-out ridiculous. But every now and then, a couple of them turn out to be 100% true. We should explore those, not shy away!

That also means we need to hold our new sources accountable. The same news sources trying to bring down the Joe Rogans of the world are the ones spreading much of the lies, hatred, and vitriol that cause mistrust. Remember who was at fault for the misinformation we have been sold over the years. Journalist Matt Taibbi in his recent article The Folly of Pandemic Censorship writes:

Even in a society with fairly robust protections, as ours once was, the most dangerous misinformation is always, without exception, official.

The people who want to censor things don’t succeed by debate, but by force. Ironically, the more they clamp down, the less trust they warrant. Taibbi’s argument continues, “Censors have a fantasy that if they […] rein in people like Joe Rogan, that all the holdouts will suddenly rush to get vaccinated. The opposite is true. If you wipe out critics, people will immediately default to higher levels of suspicion. They will now be sure there’s something wrong with the vaccine. If you want to convince audiences, you have to allow everyone to talk, even the ones you disagree with. You have to make a better case.

More speech is always the answer.

Let people be wrong. Suppressing dissenting views only makes mistrust worse. Withstanding scrutiny makes truths stronger, not weaker.

Rather than burning people at the stake for wrong-think, make a better case. Make your argument bulletproof. In the age of hot takes, it takes humility to admit we’re wrong. That should be encouraged, not criticized! You can’t be right by doing wrong, and you can’t be wrong by doing right. We will never know which side or combination of ideas is right if we are not willing to truly listen to what others have to say.

It may make your blood boil and your mind may not be changed, but the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.

– Barack Obama


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