The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Let’s not ban ideas we don’t like. Let’s confront them instead.

Books cut from high school reading lists in Rapid City, S.D., are on sale June 17 at Mitzi's Books, an independent bookseller. (Dawnee LeBeau for The Washington Post)

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” — Oscar Wilde.

One would think that a liberal democracy in the middle of its third century would by now be joyously basking in the broadest possible spectrum of ideas and opinions. One would be mistaken.

Conservatives, for instance, are routinely discovering new threats in books. In Missouri, “books containing anything that is considered sexually explicit” are banned from school libraries, albeit with some exceptions for “artistic” or “informational” material. In Texas, one school’s staff members were instructed to “pull all copies of a list of more than 40 books” until further review. In Idaho, Christian conservatives have demanded that 400 books, many on LGBTQ or occult subjects, be banned from a public library — even though they’re not on the shelves.

When it comes to schools, reasonable parental input on required studies is appropriate. But if sons and daughters cannot be trusted to conform to parents’ instructions regarding the perusal of library books, staff should not be blamed. Besides, parents who fear that exposure to controversial ideas or images will corrupt their youngsters are perhaps demonstrating, as the notorious Mr. Wilde observed, their own shame. After all, considering new ideas and then accepting, dismissing or occasionally reconsidering them should be everyone’s lifelong journey.

But many on the left are no better, as evidenced by crusades to scrub the internet of “disinformation.” Insisting on restricting “inaccurate or misleading” information disrespects the right of people to be wrong — which is indeed something we all have to tolerate — or to acknowledge that what appears wrong today is sometimes proved right tomorrow. Examples abound.

In 2020, the story of the notorious Hunter Biden laptop was deemed likely “disinformation” in a letter signed by more than 50 former intelligence officials. Facebook and Twitter severely limited users’ ability to share the New York Post’s reporting, and Twitter eventually banned it outright (a move that backfired). We know now (and many said then) that those decisions were wrong. Recent comments by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg raise troubling questions about a possible FBI role in suppressing the story.

The recent admission by the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the coronavirus pandemic response included serious mistakes, “from testing to data to communications,” demonstrates that the social media companies were misguided in their policies of funneling people to what they considered “authoritative” health sources (as Twitter put it) when users searched for information about covid-19. But decisions on who is trustworthy shouldn’t be left to social media bosses. For example, The Post reports that Twitter has even recently been guilty of labeling factual tweets as misinformation.

Social media companies are constantly urged to blunt the effect of former president Donald Trump’s debunked claims of 2020 election fraud. But policing online opinion, especially on political issues, is a patronizing action based on the supposition that Americans who are smart enough to identify falsehoods should be empowered to ban them for the protection of their more gullible neighbors. Based on polling, herculean efforts to suppress Trump’s fraud theories are not working. Why? Because, like religion, what people believe about politics is based more on faith than on demonstrable fact.

When it comes to Trump, the lies are hardly one-sided. Falsehoods about him flourish online. Many still insist he was installed by the Russians in 2016. To this day, reporters and columnists often repeat the debunked claim that Trump suggested people ingest bleach to fight covid. The list goes on, but the world, and democracy, will survive lies about Trump and lies from Trump.

Rather than playing a futile game of whack-a-mole with lies, we should recognize that the intrinsic power of truth remains the best and most powerful weapon against deceit. Lies can never be obliterated, but repeatedly countering them with truth is a necessary task, especially for respected fact-checkers. Yes, spreading lies on social media can lead to ill effects, but countless books have inspired deadly real-life crime and violence, too. Censorship is not the answer. The marketplace of ideas has always included false or misleading claims and opinions. But as Shakespeare assured us, “At the length truth will out.”

There are signs that social media companies are tiring of playing “truth police” and are curbing their efforts to de-platform users over political statements. Though such moves are criticized by those who insist on some kind of truth brigade enforcing what are inevitably subjective standards, we eventually might return to the days of social media giants being what they intended — the mere aggregators of information and passive platforms for wide-ranging voices.

Whether considering best-selling books by renowned authors, or spurious posts by basement bloggers, Americans should be frequently reminded that protecting their own freedom of expression is dependent on tolerating and defending the rights of others to express their ideas and opinions — especially those they find the most objectionable or even untruthful.

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