Dealing With Bad Ideas: Problems With Suppressing Them

frozen flowers

In my previous post on the subject of dealing with bad ideas, I left off with the question of whether we should seek to suppress the expression of bad ideas through the application of social pressure or if this was something to avoid. Of course, I've already tipped my hand repeatedly by stating that I do not believe that suppressing bad ideas is the best way to deal with them and suggesting that we instead expose them to the light of day, reveal their shortcomings, and offer reasonable alternatives.

In On Liberty, Mill provides us with three reasons to avoid the suppression of ideas we consider to be bad ideas. I'm paraphrasing here since he goes into quite a bit of detail. I'm also adding a fourth reason that he does not address (#4) because it strikes me as worthy of consideration.

  1. None of us are infallible. When we suppress the expression of an idea we consider to be a bad idea, we may be suppressing something that turns out to be at least partially true and/or valuable. That is, our judgment of the idea may be wrong.
  2. Even in the cases where we are probably correct that the idea we want to suppress is a bad idea, it may still contain some small part of the truth, some kernel of wisdom, or have some utility that we may lose by suppressing its expression. Moreover, by suppressing this even mostly bad idea, we give up any benefit that may come from the conflict between it and our preferred ideas.
  3. Even if our viewpoint is largely correct, we lose something valuable by not allowing it to be publicly challenged, criticized, and debated. We cannot claim to fully understand or appreciate our own viewpoint if we've put ourselves in a position where we've seldom had to defend it. Instead, we risk the scenario where our viewpoint turns into dogma and is stripped of its vitality.
  4. When we suppress the expression of bad ideas, we risk driving them underground so that we end up with a false sense of security that they are less influential than they are because we are hearing less about them. Perhaps some bad ideas can be even more detrimental when they are hidden like this (e.g., racism).


When I think about these reasons for not suppressing ideas we consider to be bad ones, differing political opinions quickly come to mind. As my political views have developed, I have come to see far more value in the opinions of those I used to consider my enemies. Not only have I recognized that some of my left-leaning judgments have been wrong, but I have also become much more aware of how the public expression of political ideas I still consider to be bad improves my understanding of those I consider to be good. And perhaps most of all, I have come to appreciate how the presence of political opponents expressing different ideas helps to rein in some of those with whom I generally agree.

I'm not nearly as quick to dismiss political ideas with which I initially disagree as I once was. I'm far less likely to fall victim to mindless outrage. I'm also unwilling to demonize the people who hold different political views. I have found it far more helpful to focus on the ideas they express in order to understand them, allow them to impact my perspective, and make sure I understand why I disagree when I disagree. Suppressing the expression of the political ideas different from my own seems counterproductive.

Some will object that politics is too tame an area and that it makes a poor test of how we deal with bad ideas. They'll point out that if we are serious about seeing whether we should resist the use of social pressure to suppress bad ideas, we need to focus on things like religious fundamentalism, racism, sexism, and the like. I'll get to these issues eventually, but I have to disagree that political disagreements are tame and not a real test of our impulse to suppress speech with which we disagree. I'm thinking here about political issues such as reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, and gun control. None of these strike me as trivial or overly tame. But since we can anticipate this objection, we might as well go ahead and address racism.


Should we seek to suppress the expression of racist ideas and/or punish those who express them? Racism does provide an interesting test because some of Mill's reasons for not suppressing bad ideas initially seem tricky to apply here. I doubt anyone is going to be too worried about whether we may be wrong about racist ideas being bad ideas or containing something genuinely useful. And yet, we might be wrong about whether an idea we label racist really is racist. Additionally, we might be so quick to banish someone for expressing what we consider to be racist ideas that we miss out on other good ideas the person might have that aren't racist.

While I don't like hearing racist ideas, I think it is a mistake to suppress their expression. Not only is there a risk of us incorrectly labeling things as racist or missing out on good ideas because we've labeled the source racist, but I'd like to be aware of racist ideas when they are present. Social pressure has been very effective at getting some people to keep their racist ideas to themselves until they are intoxicated or think they are among friends, but I'm not convinced that it has changed the racist attitudes some of them may hold. I worry that this buried racism can sometimes do more damage than it would if we were aware of it. And yes, I also think that those of us on the side of equality benefit from learning to articulate and even defend our views.

None of this strikes me as the most important reason for not suppressing the expression of racist ideas though. For that, one has to consider that what most of us would really like to see is a genuine change in attitudes. Someone with racist views changing his or her views is a far better outcome than simply learning to hold his or her tongue. By allowing the expression of racist ideas, we're in a position to publicly demonstrate what is wrong with them. The goal when we shine the light on these ideas shouldn't be to suppress their expression and drive them underground but to help people understand what is wrong with them. Thus, I'd far prefer to challenge these ideas publicly and provide alternatives than to drive them underground through public shaming or other means.

One of the most common ways that we punish people who express what we consider to be racist ideas involves labeling them as racist people. That is, we take an isolated comment or two and jump to the conclusion that the person who made the comment(s) is a racist. Once labeled a racist, we hope that this person loses all credibility and that others will cease to listen to him or her. In this way, we use the racist label to suppress the expression of ideas we consider to be racist. But does making a racist comment or two really mean that someone is a racist? And if so, does that really mean that the person should be silenced? Again, it seems to me that we have better options here.