Speech sometimes offends, even injures, our sensibilities. Alex Jones and the decisions of Apple and Facebook to remove his content illustrate this. But there are at least two ways speech can “hurt” us. Some hurtful speech stabs to the core of our self and our sense of dignity as a human being. Other times, speech threatens us because our inadequate cognitive defenses and filters fail to protect our psyche. I want to address the second kind of scenario because it is more “up to us” than the first kind.
Epistemic Immune System
My father endured numerous chemotherapy treatments during his battle with cancer in 2002. I distinctly recall one time when his immune system was so severely compromised by the chemo that we had to wear face masks just to come into his hospital room. And if anyone was sick–forget it! A common cold could kill him. If someone walked into the room without a mask, a nurse would immediately escort them out with a stern reprimand. Ordinary germs–ones that any healthy immune system would handle easily–constituted a threat.
Something similar goes on with our beliefs. You could say we have another immune system–an epistemic immune system. Instead of protecting us against bacteria and viruses that threaten our body, the epistemic immune system protects our “worldview” (our system of beliefs about reality) against false ideas and bad logic. When our epistemic immune system is healthy, it identifies bad ideas and bad reasoning and escorts them to the mental trash bin. It also identifies good ideas and sound reasoning and allows them through unharmed, where they find eventual integration with our worldview. If our epistemic immune system functions well, we feel more secure and less fearful because we know our beliefs will remain healthy despite our exposure to bad ideas.
We need a healthy epistemic immune system because bad ideas really can harm us. If bad ideas gain “admission” into our belief structure, they can start to cause problems. They can cause psychological anguish or pain. They can result in actions that harm us or others. They can conflict with other (good) beliefs, or erode the foundations of our worldview. We sometimes feel this in the form of cognitive dissonance or instability. Like a man on a boat for the first time in choppy seas, we wobble around, out of balance and extremely uncomfortable. We sense that any small push might send us tumbling, our worldview crashing like a Jenga tower. Every disagreement feels like a threat, like spoken violence.
Inside and Out
Think of your worldview as a city with two lines of defense: outside the gate and inside the gate. You control what you are exposed to “outside” the gate by choosing what to read, watch, listen to, etc. But once you have seen or heard an idea, it’s through the gate and your internal mental defenses (epistemic immune system) have to do their job. It is very, very difficult to completely control what gets through your gate. It’s like movie spoilers–if you’re using social media, it’s really hard not to find out that everyone dies in Infinity War. (See!?!?) Ideas zip through the gate of your eyes and ears so fast! This is why we need a healthy epistemic immune system on the inside.
Now here’s the real crux of the matter. When our internal defenses are weak, we are too easily thrown off balance by disagreement and contrary views. Fear and insecurity rule us. So here’s what we do: we try to shut the gate. Or we at least build a barricade in front of it to block new ideas out. How do we do this? I’ve observed (even in myself) two main strategies. For one, we avoid exposure to new ideas–we become epistemic hypochondriacs. We shun (or censor) books, websites and people who disagree with us. Secondly, we use anger or outrage as a shield. Instead of looking carefully at the idea presented and constructing a reasonable response, we try to intimidate the other party into silence with loud, abusive speech.
Now before you write a nasty email or comment, let me clarify something. Remember I mentioned two ways that speech can hurt. When you’re dealing with the first sort (see paragraph 1), epistemic defenses won’t help much. This sort of deeply abusive speech that penetrates to our core does not require careful analysis and logical counterargument. It’s what the Supreme Court referred to as “fighting words.” But the other sort of “hurtful” speech–the kind that only hurts because we lack a healthy internal defense–should not be banned or censored. The challenge lies in discerning which sort you’re dealing with.
So let me offer a suggestion. Cultivate a healthy epistemic immune system. This solves much of the problem. You can do this several ways.
- Take a course on logic or critical thinking. Great on-line resources abound as well. For starters, try here and here. If you know of a good resource, share it in the comments.
- Spend some time with someone who can mentor you on these skills. Find a philosopher, lawyer, or someone else who gets paid to argue, take them out to lunch and pick their brain.
- Lower your shield of anger and moral outrage. A shield helps in certain cases, but overuse will only impede your mental maturation. Just like a healthy physical immune system, you need exposure to “germs” over time to develop your “antibodies.” Learn to stand your ground and respond respectfully and intelligently. Read before you dismiss.
- Finally, process new ideas more slowly. Unless you’re dealing with the first kind of hurtful speech, take time to digest and consider what is being said. Then you’ll be in a better position to either accept it or thoughtfully respond.