Two Tests of a Free Society
Free and Open Discussion and a Fair Description of the Opposition
by Dr. John H. Morgan, Karl Mannheim Professor of the History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences
Where in a free society might one expect to find a safe and public place where ideas can be discussed and various opinions be explored except on a university campus? Not in politics! One is reminded of the congressman who began his address on the floor of the House with this remark: “I know I am lying but hear me out!” Not in a house of worship! One is reminded of the preacher who said to one questioning his sermon: “If you ain’t got it like I’ve got it, then you ain’t got it!” Neither religion nor politics seem to be prepared to either encourage or permit a “free and open discussion” of topics not reflective of their own bias and prejudice. It must be to the university, to the academy of scholars and students, to whom this awesome and indispensable responsibility must reside. And, a free and open discussion does not mean only those ideas of which I approve or we as a group approve or as society itself approves but rather ideas of which we desperately disapprove. For, unless we are willing for everything to be discussed, for all ideas to be heard and explored, wherein the rule of reason might be applied, then there is little justification for any idea to be considered by reasonable people.
Furthermore, the very nature of a free and open discussion requires that those opposed to any idea must be able to so articulate the opposition’s position as to secure the opposition’s approval of their position as stated by the opposition itself. Unless I can state my opponent’s position in such a fashion as to secure his/her acknowledgement that I have stated their position correctly, then there is no real opportunity for a free and open discussion of conflicting ideas. Where there is the failure on both parties’ part to state their opponent’s position to their opponent’s satisfaction, it is impossible to engage in a serious dialogue but rather only in a meaningless juxtaposition of dual monologues. When you can state my position to my own satisfaction and I can state your position to your own satisfaction, then and only then can we have a free and open discussion.