Friday, March 15, 2013

John Kerry’s right to be stupid

Recently, newly minted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at a town hall meeting in Berlin, Germany. Taking a moment to address America's First Amendment rights, he defended them as a "right to be stupid."

Speaking to an audience of German college students, Kerry urged religious and political tolerance for ideas that others may find offensive. Writing for the Boston Globe, reporter Matt Viser observed that “the most profound moment of the meeting came when a woman in a light blue headdress rose and asked Kerry what he thought about when he saw people like her—and what he viewed as the difference between Muslims in Germany and the United States." (Part of the dialogue can be found here.)

"In America," Kerry replied, "sometimes you have somebody who's…not as tolerant as somebody else, and that happens anywhere."

He added, "But as a country, as a society, we live and breathe the idea of religious freedom and religious tolerance."

Kerry further continued, stating that, "In America, you have a right to be stupid if you want to be," and, "you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be. And we tolerate it." According to Kerry, "[t]hat's a virtue. I think that’s something worth fighting for."

That’s a ham-fisted way to explain and defend a crucial right.

In America, a person is left alone in their ignorance only as a secondary consequence of the protection of a crucial freedom: the right to perceive, think, and speak the truth without the threat of force. Under the First Amendment, any modern day Galileo can point his telescope up into the sky and report what he sees knowing that his freedom to speak is protected.

Why? Because the truth of a Galileo is infinitely valuable to human life—even if he is utterly alone in speaking it.

If untruth gets protected along the way—it's not because it’s untruth, but because the freedom to speak the truth is crucial to our existence. We cannot afford and do not tolerate some leviathan vetting every statement for truth, or decreeing what ideas are right and wrong. Instead, America’s founders left free and independent minds to sort fact from fiction. The result is generally unrestricted discourse and the abolition of physical violence from the realm of ideas. This is the peaceful ideal for which we fight—and not merely the "right to be stupid" as Kerry referred to it.

So no, let's not wax on about the right to be stupid. Let us proudly proclaim that in America, all speakers have the freedom to speak, and that our people decide for themselves what is foolish and what is smart.


  1. What do you make of Mill's argument that a properly free society actually does protect some speech that it knows to be false, precisely because the exposure of this falsehood by true speech will make clearer the truth? Within that context, Kerry's comment has a different ring.

  2. I think this Mill quote is apt, from Chp. 4, On Liberty: "We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavorable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us."

  3. Garrett Epps wrote:

    >What do you make of Mill's argument that a properly free society actually does protect some speech that it knows to be false, precisely because the exposure of this falsehood by true speech will make clearer the truth?

    Thank you for your question. Mill's argument here (and his larger philosophy) falls flat with me.

    The act of examining a falsehood has value in as much as uncovering a fallacy or misperception can help a person understand the nature of defective thinking, but I don’t think it's because falsehood serves as some sort of a lens that makes clearer the truth. A falsehood is just false—a broken link between one’s mind and existence. By itself, it doesn't clarify anything.

    For example, some wish to teach creationism alongside, or even as part of an elementary school science curriculum. Would this help a young mind better perceive reality for what it is, or help clarify the various issues? I say that it would not. Science is the act of making valid inductive inferences about the nature of the universe. It requires a certain method, and unless the student is a genius, that method has to be explained and taught. Teaching creationism alongside or as part of a science curriculum only serves to muddy the water—not make it clearer.

    Yet at the same time, no one has the right to outright forbid the study and discussion of creationism. Why? I think it boils down to a very basic truth: the mind cannot be forced.

    As for Kerry (and to be fair, politicians of all stripes), I simply think that it is disastrous to justify a right in terms of a negative.

  4. I tend to believe that the free exchange of ideas and lack of censorship of falsehoods by the State does provide a lens to know truth.

    False statements and facts are what give truth context.

    Also, given the greater context of Sec. Kerry's speech, his statement seems to be no more than clumsy.

  5. Michael Stone wrote:

    >False statements and facts are what give truth context.

    My stepdaughter does not believe in Santa Claus. Many of her classmates and friends do. How, as you claim, does the false view of Santa Claus provide context for the truth?

  6. I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command....

    They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

    John Kerry

  7. Nicholas Provenzo wrote:
    >How, as you [Michael Stone] claim, does the false view of Santa Claus provide context for the truth?

    Just to add my two cents, I don't think the false statement of Santa Clause being real is the type of false speech Mike was referring too (I think that would be religious freedom, right?).

    I think the first amendment allows false speech. And it's most effective in the context of when it relates to public affairs, such as satire or hyperbole, which are sometimes completely false statements, in order to provide context for the truth. Look at Stephen Colbert's, the Colbert Report. Take, for instance, his "Better Know a District" segment where he interviews members of Congress. In an interview with former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Colbert remarks that he has zero competition in his district for re-election. So therefore he can say an outrageous sentence. After hesitation, Colbert got the Congressman to say, "I enjoy cocaine because it's a fun thing to do," and: "I enjoy the company of prostitutes for the following reasons: because it's a fun thing to do. If you combine the two together, it's probably even more fun." To see the interview:

    What is the truth Colbert is trying to portray? I don't know for sure, but I surmise it is the ridiculousness of US elections. Additionally his recent use of SuperPAC law on his show has also been demonstrative of the utility of false speech, educating his audience of the Supreme Court's recent jurisprudence.

    Of course, not all false speech provides truth. In those cases, it may still be useful for turning someone away from a path of ignorance. Like the Westboro Baptist Church with their hate speech. Look how it's galvanized people, for instance, to shield Church protestors from protesting at military funerals.

    As for views on Santa Clause, those are really only relevant if trying to get out of buying someone a christmas gift, no?

  8. >I think the first amendment allows false speech.

    It allows most but not all false speech. For example, the First Amendment does not protect libel or slander.

    You analogize falsehood to a lens that clarifies truth. I say that falsehood can serve no such function and that it only muddies the water. You give the example of satire to bolster your point, but most people who watch the show that you give as an example know that it is satire—they know that the stories and statements presented are fake.

    My Santa example cuts to the heart of the issue. I am challenging you to show that in the eyes of a child, his or her being told that Santa is real clarifies the truth of his existence in their mind.

    I don't think you can. If you don't know or can't prove that a false claim is false, a false claim only serves to confuse an issue.