On June 17, the political commentator Ann Coulter, appearing as a guest on Fox News, asserted that crying migrant children separated from their parents are “child actors.” Does this groundless claim deserve as much airtime as, for example, a historically informed argument from Ta-Nehisi Coates that structural racism makes the American dream possible?
Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has complained that men can’t “control crazy women” because men “have absolutely no respect” for someone they cannot physically fight. Does this adolescent opinion deserve as much of an audience as the nuanced thoughts of Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, about the role of “himpathy” in supporting misogyny?
We may feel certain that Coulter and Peterson are wrong, but some people feel the same way about Coates and Manne. And everyone once felt certain that the Earth was the center of the solar system. Even if Coulter and Peterson are wrong, won’t we have a deeper understanding of why racism and sexism are mistaken if we have to think for ourselves about their claims? And “who’s to say” that there isn’t some small fragment of truth in what they say?
If this specious line of thought seems at all plausible to you, it is because of the influence of “On Liberty,” published in 1859 by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill’s argument for near-absolute freedom of speech is seductively simple. Any given opinion that someone expresses is either wholly true, partly true or false.