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Herb Rothschild: A meaningful freedom

Walter Lippman (1889-1974), perhaps the greatest U.S. political commentator of the last century, was an eloquent defender of free speech, but not on the grounds of personal expression. He wrote that 20 people speaking simultaneously from 20 soapboxes in Hyde Park wouldn’t be a meaningful practice of free speech. A meaningful practice would be 20 people speaking in turn from the same soapbox to the other 19.

Lippman’s point was that free speech has a collective purpose — to further the quest for the best understanding of a subject that we can attain at any given time. He felt such a quest was essential for a healthy society, and he wrote to that end.

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t been as single-minded about the First Amendment as Lippman was. At times it has protected speech from government repression on the grounds of personal expression. I wouldn’t want it otherwise, but if our nation had to make the unhappy choice between speech intended for the public good and speech intended for self-expression, I’d unhesitatingly choose the former.

I don’t write this column to express myself. I write it to engage your minds and hearts. I’m grateful to those who tell me that you read Relocations with interest and pleasure. Sometimes you add, “I don’t always agree with you.” That gratifies me as well. Given the breadth of my subject matter and the limits of my knowledge, I would be stunned if we were always of the same mind. But I wish you would specify our disagreements. How can I improve my understanding if you don’t help me?

The importance of achieving the best understanding we can depends on the subject and the circumstances of our inquiry. But what strikes me as invariable and important beyond any specific inquiry is a habit of mind such inquiries inculcate. That habit is compounded of curiosity, self-discipline, work, humility and delight in exercising one’s own mind. All those traits are required to free ourselves from received opinions and move us toward considered judgments. The terminal degree in most fields of scholarship, not just philosophy, is the PhD because the word philosophy means “lover of truth.” It takes years of practice to become an accomplished lover.

So Relocations is my way of courting you. You needn’t respond publicly, although I encourage you to send letters to the paper or post comments below the on-line version. Also you could send me a note via Peace House. But if you were a quiet student (the talkiest aren’t always the most thoughtful), then explore for yourself why something I have said strikes you as wrongheaded. At a minimum, doing so will help you put your differing opinion on a firmer basis of understanding. Lippman argued that we should protect the expression of even mistaken opinions because they serve that constructive purpose.

Showing respect for differing opinions doesn’t just entail acknowledging people’s right to express them. It means assuming they are trying to help us. And that assumption moves the relationship beyond the intellectual to the more fully personal. It takes us to mutual care, which must be added to mutual respect if we are to build a healthy community.

I don’t mind thinking of this column as Lippman’s shared soapbox, but I’d prefer to think of it as a congregation of care that all of you are invited to join.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.