In the 'big tent' of free speech, can you be too open-minded?

Intellectual humility doesn’t mean anyone can change your mind, a philosopher writes – but it might mean learning from the ‘other side’ in surprising ways.

By John Corvino Published on Jan 11, 2024.
In the 'big tent' philosophy of free speech, the more views, the better. But how does that hold up in practice? imageBROKER/Manuel Kamuf via Getty Images

People often extol the virtue of open-mindedness, but can there be too much of a good thing?

As a college dean, I regularly observe campus controversies about the Israel-Hamas war, race relations and other hot-button issues. Many of these concern free speech – what students, faculty and invited speakers should and shouldn’t be allowed to say.

But free speech disputes aren’t merely about permission to speak. They are about who belongs at the table – and whether there are limits to the viewpoints we should listen to, argue with or allow to change our minds. As a philosopher who works on “culture war” issues, I’m particularly interested in what free-speech disputes teach about the value of open-mindedness.

Talking together in the ‘big tent’

Free-speech advocates often find inspiration in the 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argued for what we might call a “big tent” approach: engaging with a variety of viewpoints, including those that strike you as mistaken. After all, Mill wrote, you could be wrong. And even if you’re right, the clash of opinions can sharpen your reasons.

Some critics believe that Mill’s arguments haven’t worn well, especially in an age of demagoguery and “fake news.” Do I really need to listen to people who believe the Earth is flat? Holocaust deniers? My relatives’ crackpot conspiracy theories at the holiday dinner table? Whose benefit would such openness serve?

The primary argument for the big tent approach is rooted in intellectual humility: properly recognizing the limitations to what each of us knows. In one sense, it is a recognition of human fallibility – which, when combined with hubris, can have disastrous results.

More positively, intellectual humility is aspirational: There’s a lot yet to learn. Importantly, intellectual humility does not mean that one lacks moral convictions, let alone the desire to persuade others of those convictions.

Having spent several decades advocating for same-sex marriage – including participating in dozens of campus debates and two point-counterpoint books – I’m convinced of the value of engagement with “the other side.” At the same time, I’m acutely aware of its costs. All things considered, I believe that the marketplace of ideas should err on the side of a big tent.

John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher in 2012, during one of their many debates about same-sex marriage.

The limits of listening

The contemporary philosopher Jeremy Fantl is among those concerned about the big tent’s costs. In his book “The Limitations of the Open Mind,” Fantl notes that some arguments are cleverly deceptive, and engaging with them open-mindedly can actually undermine knowledge. Imagine a hard-to-follow mathematical proof, its flaw difficult to spot, that indicates 2 + 2 = 5.

Interestingly, Fantl sees his stance as consistent with intellectual humility: No one is an expert on everything, and we’re all unlikely to spot fallacies in complex deceptive arguments outside our expertise.

There’s another worrisome cost to engaging with deceptive counterarguments: Some of them harm people. To engage open-mindedly with Holocaust denial, for example – to treat it as an option on the table – is to fail to express appropriate solidarity with Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime. More than giving offense, engaging those views could make someone complicit in ongoing oppression, possibly by undermining education about genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Four people seen from the back stand facing a black wall covered in old black-and-white photo portraits.
Holocaust survivors stand in 2023 in front of photos that belonged to incoming prisoners at the concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz Birkenau II. Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

What about closed-minded engagement – that is, engaging with opposing viewpoints simply in order to refute them publicly?

Fantl grants that such engagement can have value but worries that it is often ineffective or dishonest. Ineffective, if you tell your opponents from the outset “You’re not going to change my mind” – a conversation-stopper if anything is. Dishonest, if you pretend to engage open-mindedly when you’re really not.

Learning while convincing

In my view, Fantl misunderstands the goals of engagement and thus sets up a false contrast between open- and closed-mindedness. There’s a space between these two extremes – and that may be where the most constructive conversations happen.

Consider again my same-sex marriage advocacy. When I debated opponents such as Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family and Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage – a prominent nonprofit group opposing same-sex marriage – did I strongly believe that I was right and they were wrong? Of course I did. And of course they believed the reverse. Did I expect that they would convince me that my position on same-sex marriage was wrong? No, never – and neither did they.

In that sense, you can say I wasn’t open-minded.

On the other hand, I was open to learning from them, and I often did. I was open to learning their concerns, perspectives and insights, recognizing that we had different experiences and areas of expertise. I was also open to building relationships to foster mutual understanding. In that sense, I was quite open-minded.

Audience members who approached the debates with similar openness would commonly say afterward, “I always thought the other side believed [X], but I realize I need to rethink that.” For example, my side tended to assume that Maggie’s and Glenn’s arguments would be primarily theological – they weren’t – or that they hated gay people – they don’t. Their side tended to assume I didn’t care about children’s welfare – quite the contrary – or that I believe that morality is a “private matter,” which I emphatically do not.

Reason and respect

At the same time, there were prominent figures whose position on the marriage question did change.

David Blankenhorn, founder of the think tank the Institute for American Values, had been a same-sex marriage opponent for many years, albeit one who always recognized some good on both sides of the debate. Eventually he came to believe that instead of helping children, as he had hoped, opposition to same-sex marriage primarily served to stigmatize gay citizens.

A close-up shot of one person's hands slipping a gold and blue ring onto another person's finger.
A couple exchanges rings at their wedding held at West Hollywood Park in California in June 2008. Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

So sometimes the clash of opinions can surprise you – just as Mill suspected.

Does this mean that I recommend seeking out Holocaust deniers for dialogue? No. Some views really are beyond the pale, and regular engagement has diminishing returns. There are only so many hours in the day. But that stance should be adopted sparingly, especially when experts in the relevant community are conflicted.

Instead, I recommend following Blankenhorn as a model, in at least three ways.

First, concede contrary evidence even when that evidence is inconvenient. Doing so can be difficult in an environment where people worry that if they give the other side an inch, they’ll take a mile. Blankenhorn’s opponents would often gleefully seize on his concessions, for instance, as if a single positive point settled the debate.

But keeping beliefs proportionate to evidence is key to moving past polarized gridlock – not to mention discovering truth. Indeed, Blankenhorn has since founded an organization with the explicit goal of bridging partisan divides.

Second, strive to see what good there is on the other side, and when you do, publicly acknowledge it.

And third, remember that bridge-building is largely about relationship-building, which creates a space for trust – and ultimately, deeper dialogue.

Such dialogue may not always uncover truth, as Mill hoped it would, but at least it acknowledges that we all have a lot to learn.

John Corvino does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. This article was produced with support from UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center and the John Templeton Foundation as part of the GGSC's initiative on Expanding Awareness of the Science of Intellectual Humility.

Read These Next