The concept of the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ is widely considered to be a liberal one. It is, indeed, liberals who have argued for the free exchange of ideas as a positive good. However, in a more fundamental sense, there has always been, and will always be, a marketplace of ideas, so long as there are groups of humans living together and holding conflicting views. It does not even have to be a very large group, as anybody who has ever worked in a team knows. Once, a group project I was part of, consisting of four people, had managed to separate into two distinct and decidedly hostile factions within 24 hours. (The Helenite faction was correct, obviously.)

Humans are a very disagreeable species.

Therefore, it is important when speaking about the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ to separate these two things:

  1. The material reality that any society formed of humans will be a society in which a variety of ideas will proliferate, humans will perpetually try to convince others of their ideas, disagreement about these ideas will nonetheless persist, factions will form around those disagreements, and conflict between these factions will ensue, resulting in constant cultural change and, often, bloodshed.
  2. The liberal system for managing that conflict, minimising the bloodshed, and steering inevitable cultural change through pluralistic (live and let live) norms and democratic systems by protecting freedom of belief and speech, disallowing authoritarian coercion, and encouraging open debate with an expectation that arguments will be honest, civil, reasoned, and evidenced.

It is important to distinguish these two concepts because there are always some people who believe that, if they do away with the liberal system that protects the free exchange of ideas, they will also somehow do away with viewpoint diversity itself. This is utterly false. Unless homo sapiens somehow changes radically from the big-brained, combative, cooperative, tribal, territorial, social mammals that we are, we are stuck with the material reality of the Marketplace of Ideas. From school children negotiating the scope of an imaginary game to leaders of political parties trying to win voters, we will always be in the business of selling ideas and deciding which ideas to buy into. We cannot help ourselves. I’m doing it right now and so are you.

our cousin the chimpanzee—a fellow ‘big-brained, combative, cooperative, tribal, territorial, social mammal’.

The liberal system of the Marketplace of Ideas can, of course, be changed. It has not been in operation at all for most of recorded history, is not in operation in many places even now, and has never been upheld perfectly anywhere. Liberal democracies that seek, in principle, to protect freedom of belief and speech, value viewpoint diversity, and actively encourage the free exchange and critique of ideas with an expectation of rationality and the use of evidence are relatively new developments of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) societies. WEIRD countries have always struggled to do this fully in practice, although their attempts have resulted in greater advances in knowledge and human rights than were known previously or that exist in countries that have not attempted any such system. It has been much more common for a dominant ruling power to decide what may or may not be said and by whom and to penalise disobedience under concepts like ‘treason’, ‘heresy’, ‘apostasy’, and ‘blasphemy’.

It may well be that it is fundamentally counterintuitive for us to allow other people to be morally or factually wrong or to see anything to be gained from having a variety of contradictory viewpoints or having these viewpoints do battle with each other when we think we know what is true and good. Even when well-established liberal democracies are doing comparatively well at remaining open to viewpoint diversity, we are always having to fight against people who want to make some things unspeakable and some truth claims unquestionable. They often do so with the best of intentions: to eradicate ideas that are hurtful or untrue and to stop them from being circulated in society and doing harm to people.

If you are a compassionate human being who is absolutely sure that God exists and that the consequences for being wrong about that are an eternity in Hell, why wouldn’t you do everything in your power to stop the contrary from being argued? You will be saving lives—more, you will be saving immortal souls. Alternatively, if you see absolutely no reason to consider the proposition that God exists as a serious one and much evidence of harm being done by people who think otherwise, why allow them to continue spreading that belief? Surely trying to stamp out the conviction that one knows the divine will of the creator of the universe is what will really save lives?

Or: ‘Why allow people to misgender a trans person when it is so easy to just use their stated pronouns and could make all the difference to the emotional wellbeing of a vulnerable minority group and even reduce suicide? It costs so little to the speaker to use certain words, while having one’s gender identity recognised means so much to the trans individual,’ a trans activist will argue. Alternatively, a gender critical feminist may ask, ‘Why let people use wrong sex pronouns when it is this very failure to consistently recognise biological sex classes that underlies very real threats to women’s spaces and sports and children’s mental and physical health? Protecting people’s right to choose their own words comes at the cost of protecting safety and fairness for women and obtaining evidence-based treatment for gender-confused kids.’

‘Fine’, some dogmatic materialists will argue, ‘but the whole God thing has never been definitively established and the sex/gender issue includes political disagreements about whether to acknowledge a self-professed gender identity or insist on identifying people by biological sex. To some extent these can be considered open questions or matters of opinion. What about when people are saying things that are just straightforwardly untrue? What is there to be gained from letting people deny the Holocaust? We know that happened and remembering it is essential to ensuring it never happens again. Why let people claim the world is 6,000 years old and humans were created as humans when we know it is far older and that we evolved from earlier species as surely as we can know anything? Vital fields of science rely on these basic realities about the physical world and biological organisms. Why let people claim that vaccines cause autism when the problems with that original study have been demonstrated so clearly and further evidence refutes this claim as decisively as it is possible to refute anything? Why should freedom of belief and speech include the freedom to misinform others in ways that put children’s lives at risk?’

Even when something is supported by mountains of evidence so vast that it is incredibly unlikely that it will ever be falsified, we must always keep open the opportunity for someone to falsify it, because every so often, they do.

There are three reasons to protect freedom of speech and belief and keep the liberal system known as the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ open to ideas that are subversive, hurtful, and untrue.

Firstly, we can never be entirely certain that we know what is true. Even when something is supported by mountains of evidence so vast that it is incredibly unlikely that it will ever be falsified, we must always keep open the opportunity for someone to falsify it, because every so often, they do. In an example contributed to my and James Lindsay’s book Cynical Theories by Alan Sokal, we cite John Stuart Mill making the argument that we can only be so confident of the truth of Newtonian physics because it has withstood so many attempts to find flaws in it. Less than 50 years after Mill made this argument, Albert Einstein found flaws in Newtonianism and introduced us to special relativity (soon followed by general relativity). We must leave that door open, on principle.

Secondly, we can never know how the power to make exceptions to laws and social norms for freedom of belief and speech will be used in the future as different governments take power and different ideologies rise and fall. The only way you can protect yourself from censorship if a shift occurs in which your own ideas are considered appalling and deemed unspeakable by those with legal or social power is to consistently protect the right to express ideas that you find appalling. Atheists and religious and sexual minorities are among those whose expressions of views or attractions have been deemed most appalling and penalised most severely, so it is particularly disappointing when they justify censorship on the grounds of offence.

Thirdly, even if it were ethical to shut down freedom of belief and speech in this way (it isn’t) and even if wannabe censors could be trusted to identify, correctly and consistently, bad or false ideas (they can’t), this simply won’t work. No attempts to regulate free thought have ever been successful. That is why we have 45,000 denominations of Christianity even though Christian authorities have been among the most stringent in enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy. Having ideas and disagreeing about them is what humans do. I repeat: we cannot close down the material reality of the Marketplace of Ideas. We can only close down the liberal system for managing it in ways that make it maximally productive and minimally violent. When people attempt to shut down certain ideas by making them unspeakable, either socially or legally, we see the emergence of alternative marketplaces of ideas, including black markets where the ugliest and most hateful ideas can fester unchecked.

When attempts to ‘cancel’ certain ideas from mainstream society and make them unspeakable or ‘not up for debate’ are imposed socially rather than legally and there are enough people who hold them, we will see the growth of alternative media. We saw this with the Critical Social Justice ‘woke’ phenomenon. As those who held views that ran counter to Critical Social Justice were removed from mainstream institutions and platforms for airing opinions and debating ideas, a complex network of alternative media began to form and grow—an Alternative Marketplace of Ideas. Podcasts, talk shows, think tanks, magazines, and even an academic journal and a university all dedicated to airing the ideas that could not be discussed in mainstream outlets proliferated at an astonishing rate.

When attempts to silence ideas are imposed legally, so as to eradicate them from society, what will then form is a Black Market of Ideas.

While some of these were and are very good and provide thoughtful and balanced coverage of issues and attempt to include a wide variety of ideas, including Critical Social Justice ones, the cultural problem that drove their formation resulted in serious limitations. Fear of being ‘cancelled’ or of ‘guilt by association’ limited the range of guests such alternative outlets could attract and consequently the conversations they could have. Critical Social Justice activists who took a ‘not up for debate’ stance would certainly not come. With the best will in the world, echo chambers formed as various clusters of alternative media could only attract certain ideological subsets of guests and had great difficulty in including enough viewpoint diversity to balance and challenge each others’ ideas effectively.

In addition to this problem, many platforms did not operate with the best will in the world but deliberately chose highly biased and partisan speakers who would reinforce and escalate each other’s ideas to new extremes. Much of this was exacerbated by the funding structure required to operate this kind of alternative media, which incentivised ‘audience capture’ as platforms needed to feed increasingly biased and partisan audiences what they wanted to hear so they could remain solvent. All the ideas that had existed in society still existed and were still accessible, but now they were siloed and people with different views were not speaking to each other. Without checks and balances, political polarisation, tribalism, paranoia, and extremism could only grow. (I recently discussed this problem in some detail with John Cleese.)

When attempts to silence ideas are imposed legally, so as to eradicate them from society, what will then form is a Black Market of Ideas. Historically, these have sometimes been very positive as when gay men, atheists, or religious minorities have used systems of codes and secret meeting places to connect and find solidarity, friendship, or romance. (Suppression was entirely useless at making any ideas or sexualities go away.) However, sometimes the ideas found on the Black Market can be genuinely dark and being forced underground can make them both more twisted and more enticing. The best description of this process, I would argue, is to be found in Greg Lukianoff and Nadine Strossen’s article asking whether censorship would have stopped the Nazis from gaining power. Lukianoff and Strossen track the effect of government censorship on the rise of Nazism, showing how crackdowns on publications and speech enabled the leaders of the fascist movement to use the (failed) attempts to censor them to their advantage:

‘[I]t is not surprising that the Nazis were able to spin government censorship into propaganda victories and seeming confirmation of their claims that they were speaking truth to power, and that power was aligned against them.’

We can see how this mentality manifests in the thinking of extremist groups that exist today, which can find each other much more easily via social media. Very Online conspiracy theorists who post that they are being silenced by global elites who do not want the people to know The Truth and who express radical suspicion of governments and expertise can take this paranoia into existential threat mode in the real world. There, they combine it with pre-existing prejudices to produce a volatile and violent mix of hatefulness, including anti-Semitism and ethnonationalism. Here is just one nasty example of this sort of thing, from a tweet: ‘Actually many Jews are behind the decline of western civilisation through their cultural marxist [sic] degeneracy like promoting Transgenderism [sic] etc. Jews love it when black [sic] & whites are at war with one another.’

Those who believe we can somehow ever be without some form of a marketplace of ideas should look outside their ideological bubble and reacquaint themselves with our species.

We can also see how the least principled and balanced corners of the Alternative Marketplace of Ideas can tip into the Black Market of Ideas. This is a toxic brew of multiple, divided, and polarised marketplaces that is causing significant social dysfunction and escalating tribal tensions to a dangerous degree. It must be noted that attempts to remove ‘problematic’ ideas that run counter to those of Critical Social Justice from mainstream discourse have not caused any of them to go away. Instead, it has forced them into alternative forums where, in some cases, they have morphed into dark, extreme, and twisted variations of themselves due to the lack of productive, collaborative critique (as, in some ways, has happened to Critical Social Justice itself—see, for example, the embrace of Hamas terrorism by some of its advocates).

Those who believe we can somehow ever be without some form of a marketplace of ideas should look outside their ideological bubble and reacquaint themselves with our species. The only choice we have is how to manage the sheer range of different ideas and the need to argue about them that characterises homo sapiens. We could make the same mistake humans have made for most of history and allow a dominant moral orthodoxy to try to dictate an acceptable range of speaking points and socially or legally penalise all others out of existence. This will enable the proliferation of many mini-marketplaces of different groups speaking only among themselves, some proportion of which, without the benefit of counterviews and critiques, will surely go mad and generate highly biased, partisan, and polarising narratives. Meanwhile, extremist groups will be driven underground where they will paint themselves as the brave speakers of truth to oppressive power and attract increasing numbers of those who have gone mad due to being alienated from mainstream society. They will then become a danger to it.

Alternatively, we can decide to uphold the liberal system that protects the free exchange of ideas that has acted as the best system of conflict resolution and knowledge production that the world has ever known. We can keep a mainstream Marketplace of Ideas open to as many widely held views as possible to act as checks and balances to each other in a spirit of civil but robust debate. Society will benefit from the knowledge generated by this process, a process conducted with an expectation of evidenced and reasoned argument and through which institutions can be reformed via democratic processes and human rights and freedoms can be protected and advanced. Alternative media for special interests will still always exist but, without the pressure of cancel culture or guilt-by-association, it will also be able to attract and benefit from a wider range of views and thus be of additional value. At the same time, we can keep fringe and extreme views legally expressible where we can see them, get at them, counter them, and deny their advocates the glamour of claiming to be censored for speaking the truth that the powerful don’t want you to know. We can arrest those who threaten or commit violence and allow the rest to be clearly recognisable as pitiful fringe lunatics.

I strongly recommend we take the liberal route.

Further reading

Free speech at universities: where do we go from here? by Julius Weinberg

The Satanic Verses; free speech in the Freethinker, by Emma Park

Secularism and the struggle for free speech, by Stephen Evans

Is all publicity good publicity? How the first editor of the Freethinker attracted the public’s attention, by Clare Stainthorp

On trial for blasphemy: the Freethinker’s first editor and offensive cartoons, by Bob Forder

‘The best way to combat bad speech is with good speech’ – interview with Maryam Namazie, by Emma Park

The return of blasphemy in Ireland and Is the spirit of liberty dead in Scotland? by Noel Yaxley

Race: the most difficult subject of all? Interview with Inaya Folarin Iman, by Emma Park

The Enlightenment and the making of modernity, by Piers Benn

Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’: liberty and licensing, by Tony Howe

On sex, gender and their consequences: interview with Louise Antony, by Emma Park

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