About a week ago, this quote popped up on my Twitter feed. I absolutely fell in love with it.
“Let’s start with a test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?” –Paul Graham
It’s a little bit embarrassing how excited I got. But the thing that I liked most about this quote was that it reminded me how important it is to form your own opinions and speak what you think – even if you feel like you have an unpopular or “the wrong” ideas and opinions.
Having unpopular opinions is relatively much safer today than it was one or two or three hundred years ago. A couple hundred years ago, if you said something bad about your king or the Church, you were imprisoned or exiled at best. Today in the US, it’s pretty safe to say that you won’t be assassinated like Cicero, or exiled like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or even thrown in jail like Oscar Wilde or Bertrand Russell.
It’s not that things are perfect today. You might lose your job or be barred from certain professions for publicly holding certain beliefs (if you’re an avid creationist, most people won’t to hire you as a biology professor). Jail time is still a possibility (though usually only if you act unlawfully according to your beliefs). But I think I’d rather lose my job than face exile or an assassin in the night.
Where would we be today without all those intellectual radicals?
Ancient thinkers from Socrates to Cicero were killed for expressing their beliefs. Galileo was put under house arrest and immense pressure from the Catholic Church for his scientific discoveries. Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Church that he loved and was trying to improve. Voltaire and Diderot and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were imprisoned for their beliefs. Following your conscience isn’t always widely popular, but some of our most remembered and retold stories are of people who followed their conscience despite its unpopularity.
Rousseau – the guy who said, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” – wrote a lot of things that pissed off a lot of people (namely, the Calvinists in Geneva, the French Jansenists, and the French Parliament). He lived the last several years of his life roaming from place to place. Practically everyone wanted him dead or shut up in a prison.
But he was one of the most influential, revolution-inspiring thinkers that ever walked the Earth. His ideas directly inspired both the American and French revolutions. Every educated person in the Western world knows his name today.
Bertrand Russell was a philosopher, mathematician, and writer from the 20th century. He was a really incredible thinker that wrote nearly a hundred books on everything from mathematical logic to politics to religion.
He was a pacifist, and during the the World War I drafts in Great Britain, he protested. The government took him to court twice, and ended up putting him in prison the second time for 6 months for his “outspoken subversive views”. He lost his job at Trinity College too. But Russell kept thinking and writing and protesting. In 1961 at 89 years old, the British government put him in prison again for his peaceful yet outspoken and dissenting beliefs.
Why all this matters
The thing I love so much about Rousseau and Russell and all the other intellectual radicals we previously mentioned is that even though they faced really scary consequences for saying what they thought, they said it anyway. They never stopped thinking. They never stopped searching for Truth. And so if they can express their ideas even in the face of death or exile or imprisonment, I think I can do it too. We all can. And progress demands it of us.
The way you improve the treatment of people who have conflicting views is to have and be presented with conflicting views. I mean to say that more conflict will make the very reality of conflict less stressful and dangerous.*
People like traveling to exotic places because they get to experience different ways of living. Being exposed to difference broadens our minds. So if we all do our part and express our opinions and beliefs no matter how unpopular they are, the more we give other people a new perspective, and so the more we have the possibility to grow. It all starts when you speak what you think.
*Just to clarify: I’m only making this claim for ideological conflict or differing views, not physical violence.