Personal Freedoms

published : 2023-11-06

My ideas are best. So are yours, but how do we learn to hear one another?

America relied on free speech and robust debate to produce our ideas and we still need that tradition (or the task to create one if not provided)

A photo of two individuals engaged in a lively debate, representing the clash of ideas and differing perspectives. (Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV)

I think my ideas are best. You think your ideas are best. But in a democratic republic, is it possible to arrive at a "sense" we hold "in common?" In other words, a "common sense?"

One of the great challenges since the dawn of human civilization has been how to start from that reality — competing ideas from people living alongside each other — and get to a place where the ideas with the most merit rise and the ones with the least merit fade. It sounds so simple, but the challenge in its execution lies in providing a productive mechanism by which to expose your ideas and mine to scrutiny.

The social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, in his important book about political beliefs, "The Righteous Mind," has gone so far as to argue that part of the reason for our differing perspectives may be genetic. He’s not alone.

The political scientist, Alexander Severson, recently noted, "Most individuals perceive ideological beliefs as being freely chosen. Recent research in genopolitics and neuroscience, however, suggests that this conviction is partially unwarranted given that biological and genetic factors explain more variance in political attitudes than choice and environmental factors."

So how do we embrace scrutiny of ideas even when it cuts against the grain of human nature? This question has been at the core of the American experiment ever since our founding. This hope of our founders was stated by Alexander Hamilton in the first of the "Federalist Papers," where he argued that governments could be formed by "accident and force" or "deliberation and choice."

It is the aim of our First Amendment, and why our academic institutions have traditionally placed such an emphasis on free speech and robust debate.

If our leaders of tomorrow will need a skill (the willingness to expose their ideas to scrutiny) that flies in the face of human nature, they will need a place to learn that skill, and to refine it. At Pepperdine, we recognize this skill — like most others — is not learned overnight.

An image of students participating in a public engagement forum, examining and refining their ideas through discussion. (Taken with a Nikon D850)

It is not simply a decision that is made, but rather an expertise and a perspective that is forged over time through a process of implementing, failing, learning and implementing anew. It was exemplified by one of our first faculty, the late, great social scientist, James Q. Wilson, who understood that policy expertise had to be governed by the civic virtues of humility and courage.

This process not only allows unpopular speech, it requires it.

Remember, I think my ideas are best. I really do. You think your ideas are best. You really do. If one of us is denied the opportunity to expose our idea to the scrutiny of the other, not only will we never know which idea is best, but also if there’s a chance that some combination of our ideas might provide the best way forward.

In other words, could 1+1=3? In some of the work we do through our Davenport Institute for Public Engagement, this is something we see in communities around the country on policy issues ranging from homelessness to education policy.

Unfortunately, a commitment to free speech and viewpoint diversity is under attack on a number of campuses. A recent example at the University of Minnesota involved a handful of students shouting down a presentation by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

This occurred despite the fact that the University of Minnesota has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to providing students access to diverse viewpoints — including previous visits from Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, John Roberts and Antonin Scalia. Unfortunately, in public events, it need only require a small band of committed activists to disturb or stop an important conversation.

In my time at Pepperdine, I have been privileged to participate as either moderator or panelist in dozens of forums that elevated diverse viewpoints. I often strongly disagreed with an idea that was presented.

A photograph capturing a diverse group of individuals listening intently to a speaker, showcasing the value of viewpoint diversity and open dialogue. (Taken with a Sony Alpha a7III)

But as I reflect on the most notable of those experiences, I recognize the value I gleaned was disproportionately found in the moments where two competing ideas — be they mine or others — came into close proximity with each other. The value was found in the opportunity, mine and our students, to closely examine an idea we hadn’t previously fully considered.

If our leaders of tomorrow will need a skill (the willingness to expose their ideas to scrutiny) that flies in the face of human nature, they will need a place to learn that skill, and to refine it. At Pepperdine, we recognize this skill — like most others — is not learned overnight.

As the home for many of America’s next generation of public leaders, universities must be committed to providing students the opportunity to grapple with new ideas. Students must also be pushed to engage with the sometimes messy process of learning how to refine their ideas, and to help others refine their ideas.

Universities must be committed to protecting even unpopular ideas on campus — both inside and outside the classroom — and must ensure students are not deprived of that opportunity by a few who would rather not endure the uncomfortable process of scrutiny.

I think my ideas are best. You think your ideas are best. Our willingness to sharpen and be sharpened, which is quite the opposite of shouting down a dissenting view, is what will produce flourishing in our society.

Pete Peterson is dean of Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy.