We must operate under the permanent belief that it is possible we are wrong. It is possible we are wrong even about our most deeply held beliefs. What was once widely accepted truth is now outdated dogma and it will be again. An open mind freely considers any new information but doesn’t necessarily admit it permanent standing. The same skepticism with which we should endeavor to hold our current ideas should apply in equal measure to new ones.

This kind of humility is profoundly difficult. We must come to terms with the fact that if we had been born at a different time and a different place it is a near statistical certainty that we would have believed just as strongly in things that we now know are profoundly wrong. Some of those things may be factual, such as the miasma theory of disease, and some may be moral, like patriarchy.

This is an argument for humility. It is an argument to keep an open mind when we come across ideas we disagree with. It is an argument in favor of speech itself, as that is how we parlay our humility into a better understanding of the world around us.

But it is also an argument for civility, without which speech suffers. In a room where someone is shouting loudly enough, nobody else will speak even if they are free to do so. Likewise in a silent room where one person holds a weapon and a menacing glare. The path to the most speech is through civility. So there must be consequences for breaking that decorum.

That is why attempts to limit access to the flow of ideas to just those ideas that are true will invariably fail, but attempts to remove all constraints on behavior are also doomed.

Epilogue, added 20 July, 2022

This post suggests an individual framework for pursuing truth and suggests society needs to strike a balance between speech and civility to support it. But it is mute on exactly where that balance should lie. My sense is that the broader the audience the more we need to err on the side of speech. Smaller groups are likely to value civility to a higher degree in order to function, not to mention to be attractive places for people to invest time.

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves while wiser people so full of doubts.” - Bertrand Russel

“I know that I know nothing” - Socrates

“Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Our common sense intuitions can be mistaken.” - Carl Sagan

“We should be so lucky to have realized we were wrong” – Adam Grant

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Probably not Mark Twain