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Op/Ed: What do we have a right to believe? A counter-argument

Believe in horoscopes? Swallow fake news whole? It's up to you.

Having read the challenging piece on May 14, 'You don't have the right to believe whatever you want to', I feel that since the piece was intended to be challenging, perhaps it should be challenged.

The basic premise of the text by Professor DeNicola was that some beliefs are too toxic for people to be allowed to hold them.  ‘Some beliefs are also dangerous. And to those, we have no right.’  At first glance this seems to be a reasonably straightforward, even common-sensical approach. We have all heard of those idiots who believe that the Sandy Hook shootings were fabricated by the anti-gun lobby, or that Hillary Clinton was connected with a paedophile ring, and similar. Some other beliefs are scary, and we are right to be scared not only of them, but also of the people who hold them.

Yet the good professor's proposed solution is far worse than the problem, and here's why.  Professor DeNicola says in his text,  ‘If we find these [beliefs] morally wrong, we condemn not only the potential acts that spring from such beliefs, but the content of the belief itself, the act of believing it, and thus the believer.’  Because the text is well-written and very persuasive, there is an automatic assumption that the 'we' who condemn this belief is 'you and I'. But is it?

When we look at the beliefs which the professor condemns, we discover that these are all causes against which the 'progressive' left campaigns most strongly. We don't see much here about belief of the rights of the individual (except that these rights should be restricted in terms of what people should be allowed to believe), or belief in free speech. There's nothing wrong with that in itself.  But have you noticed that with a certain kind of right-on 'woke' progressive, as soon as you know that person's views on, say abortion or climate change, you also know – without asking – how they feel about the '#metoo' movement, homophobia, Israel and gun control?

That is because, whether it is right or wrong, we are nevertheless looking at a pretty rigid ideology which insists on conformity of belief.  As a result one begins to suspect that the 'we' who condemn 'unacceptable' beliefs are not 'you and I' but Professor DeNicola and his like-minded colleagues. 'Morally repugnant' beliefs are deviance from what this group believes in.

The article has a shot at side-lining this suspicion.

‘Who are you to tell me what to believe?’ replies the zealot. It is a misguided challenge: it implies that certifying one’s beliefs is a matter of someone’s authority. It ignores the role of reality.'

It's a bit of a giveaway that someone challenging Professor DeNicola's belief is a 'zealot' rather than a reasonably sceptical individual.  The Professor goes on to justify his stance by maintaining that the thingshe believes in are not really beliefs at all. They are facts. And obviously anyone who does not accept facts is misguided, and ignoring 'reality'.

The problem with this is that the Professor's 'reality' has changed a lot over the last hundred years. Not so long ago, if you believed in racial equality in the American south, this was a 'dangerous' belief. If you believed in feminism a century ago, this was a dangerous belief. It was an accepted 'fact' that women and some races were inferior. Only a 'zealot' would challenge that 'reality-based' belief.

Now I'm quite happy to accept racial and gender equality as fact. I'm less happy with shutting down people who do not believe the same, and here's why. Over the last century, racial and gender equality have made great strides. This is because, by and large western society has been open-minded and tolerant enough to allow 'dangerous' and 'anti-social' beliefs – such as that the sexes and races are equal - to be freely expressed.

Consequently, because people overall were open to reason, beliefs that once challenged society have now become mainstream. It's a bit odd that, now that we have reached this position through openness and tolerance, the Professor now wants to close down debate by using censorship and intolerance.

Let's start by pointing out that this position is also patronizing. It suggests that enlightened people such as Professor DeNicola can see the weakness in repugnant beliefs, but the ignorant masses cannot distinguish the beliefs of these 'zealots' from reality, and therefore the general public should not be exposed to them.

Seriously, does he have so little faith in the good sense of western society that he feels all ideas cannot be aired and debated, and the good ones developed and the bad ones discarded? Because that's how societies evolve. We do not know what ideas and beliefs might be coming down the pike in the next century. What I do know is that if those ideas are sufficiently challenging to the Establishment, articles such as the Professor's provide the moral justification and intellectual toolkit for shutting those ideas down. This is certainly not the author's intention, but apropos of that, I invite Professor DeNicola to examine the paving on the road to Hell.

So with all due respect, yes sir, we have a right to believe whatever we want. We may not have the right to act on those beliefs if they break our laws or encourage others to break them, but if someone wants to air his beliefs, however misguided they may be, that person should be free to do so. Actually, in your article, that's what you just did.

As a parting shot, let us examine the Republic of Plato. In his ideal Republic, only the Guardians can know the unvarnished truth, which is censored and adapted for the masses. Children should be separated from their parents early, lest they learn false beliefs. Eugenic selection should improve the citizenry. Who should these Guardians be? Well, says Plato, philosophers, actually. Perhaps our Professor of Philosophy should note that philosophers too can have dangerous beliefs.


Philip Matyszak B.A., M.A. Doctor of Philosophy (lit. hum.), Oxford.

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