The more certain you are, the more you should resist the temptation to silence those who disagree

The more certain you are, the more you should resist the temptation to silence those who disagree. By Richard Dooling.

If you are absolutely certain that President Trump is or is not an idiot, that climate change is or is not the most pressing problem of our age, that abortion is or is not murder, that football players should or should not be allowed to kneel during the national anthem, that our nation needs more or fewer gun laws, welcome! Most of us feel the same way. Absolute certainty is common, as is the suspicion that anybody who is absolutely certain of the opposite view must be evil, ignorant or a gullible consumer of fake news.

Along with absolute certainty comes the understandable impulse to regulate or ban the speech of your opponent. Why allow evil and ignorant people to infect others with falsehoods and dangerous ideas? Why not take away the licenses of broadcasters whose news departments have the wrong slant? Why not make hate speech illegal? …

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. realized in 1919 in a famous US court case:

The problem … is that we are almost always absolutely certain of our premises, but sometimes we are wrong. …

Holmes’s radical idea was that we are too often wrong. When we are wrong, the consequences can be dire. When we are not only absolutely certain but also right, what is the harm in allowing other views to be heard? The truth needs no protectors and will eventually win out …


Consider the contemporary example of gay rights. The American Psychiatric Association publishes a reference guide, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, currently in its fifth edition. Originally published in 1952, the DSM listed homosexuality as a mental disorder of one kind or another until 1987. These days, some psychiatrists are pushing to have “homophobia” listed as a mental illness.

They were either correct in the 1950s, correct now, or incorrect both times. Their certainty was definitely misplaced at least once.