A duty to speak your mind

Knowledge, free riders, and 5 links worth your time

You have plenty of reasons not to say what you think. 

Think of all the examples of well-known people who have lost their jobs for expressing unpopular opinions. And professional consequences aren’t the only ones that make us hesitate. There are social costs to voicing our opinions, too. Who wants to lose friends or end up isolated?

Public figures face consequences, but so do you! I’m not famous, I’m not a social media “influencer,” but I can certainly recall occasions at work or in a social setting where I’ve thought, “I really should speak up because I think what is being said is wrong.” 

I didn’t have to worry about losing thousands of Twitter followers or my job, but, in those circumstances, I still didn’t say what I was thinking because I judged that staying quiet would cost me a lot less than speaking up would.

A cost-benefit analysis of speaking up

It’s hardly surprising, then, that recent research shows most people in the United States are reluctant to speak up in an environment of increasingly polarized public discourse.

For the current episode of the Civil Squared podcast, I spoke with Professor Rishi Joshi of Bowling Green State University about his new book, Why It’s OK to Speak Your Mind. Dr. Joshi, a professor of philosophy, argues that we have a duty to speak up, but not because we choose to ignore the risk of speaking up or because we should sacrifice for others.

His most persuasive argument is a selfish one: you should speak your mind because you will benefit most from doing so.  

Public knowledge and free riders

Yes, speaking up benefits others, and Dr. Joshi notes that much of the knowledge we rely on every day comes from others. You probably don’t know how to build a bicycle from scratch, but that doesn’t stop you from riding one. The knowledge of others who DO know how to make a bicycle makes this possible. The modern world is a great example of the intellectual division of labor, and each of us benefits from knowledge that others have developed and made public. Thus, if we keep our knowledge to ourselves, we’re acting as “free riders” on the “epistemic commons” (the philosopher’s way of saying “the vast store of knowledge that is publicly shared”).

But let’s say you don’t care about that and you’re happy to keep free riding on the contributions others make to the knowledge we all rely upon day-to-day. You probably still do care about the quality of your own life, and Dr. Joshi argues that voicing your ideas helps you become intellectually independent and allows you to flourish. If you spend most of your life around people with whom you agree or suppressing your own thoughts, you certainly aren’t going to learn much, and there’s a good chance you won’t be very happy.  

Avoiding self-censorship

I hope you’ll listen to my conversation with Dr. Joshi, read his new book, and think about the significance your voice can have, both in making your intellectual life better and helping others to avoid errors. Our five links this week offer some background on how serious the problem of self-censorship is today and some tips about how you can avoid doing it!

5 links worth your time

  1. Most College Students Don’t Want To Discuss Views On Politics, Race And Other Controversial Issues On Campus,  Forbes – In late 2020, 1,500 undergraduates were asked by Heterodox Academy about their willingness to discuss controversial topics. The results are worrying for anyone who thinks that college campuses should be places committed to viewpoint diversity. 
  2. Poll: 62% of Americans Say They Have Political Views They’re Afraid to Share, Cato Institute – We’ve shared this research from last summer before, but it’s worth reading again alongside this week’s podcast. It’s no wonder people are afraid to speak their minds if half of “strong liberals support firing Trump donors” and thirty-six percent of “strong conservatives support firing Biden donors.” 
  3. 5 Reasons You Should Speak Up (Even When You Think You Shouldn’t), Inc. – There are good business reasons to speak up, even when you are worried about the cost to you. Kevin Daum, a business coach, shares a quick list to consider if you’re thinking about staying silent in the workplace or on a team project. 
  4. How to Cure Groupthink, JStor Daily – In our conversation, Dr. Joshi references the Bay of Pigs invasion as an example of what can happen when people have doubts and fail to speak. In this summary of Professor Ronald Sims’ research on groupthink and unethical behavior in businesses, Farah Mohammed encourages us to build workplaces of “healthy debate and discussion.”
  5. Habits of a Free Mind, Civil Squared Podcast – One of our most popular podcast episodes! Dr. Pamela Paresky talks to us about what she calls, the “habits of a free mind” and how to cultivate habits that make it productive when we want and need to speak our minds. 

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