Why we shouldn't reject ideas that aren't our own

Matthew Tendam Matthew Tendam
Manager, Environment and Planning
23 June 2021
6 min read

Difficult conversations can be uncomfortable and for Basecamp CEO Jason Fried, having conversations about news, politics, and advocacy is fine… just don't do it at work.

In a controversial public blog, Fried recently announced that the company is banning all "societal and political discussions" at work, immediately driving a third of their employees to express their intent to leave the company.

"It's become too much. It's a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialogue towards dark places," he said. But does this mean these types of conversations should be eliminated in the workplace? According to a recent LinkedIn survey, employees would rather work for a company where they can be their authentic selves and make a positive impact on society. 

A marketplace of ideas

The essay On Liberty by John Stuart Mill meticulously constructs the position that no opinion or idea should ever be rejected at its face value.  

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion," the minority opinion cannot be suppressed or rejected as its value to the pursuit of truth is not known. None of us is infallible and should not be so arrogant to think we are. Socrates, Galileo, da Vinci and countless others were all seen as heretics of their time, although now our society is built on the truths they championed. 

Mill argues that, although an idea may be rejected when it is first proposed, it can arise again in a time and place when society is ready to receive it. Eventually, a suppressed opinion may be found as the truth, or lead to the discovery of truth. Mill adds that no opinion or idea fully encapsulates the truth on a given topic; the combination and exchange of ideas and opinions is what ultimately leads to the truth.

Although the term was not coined until nearly a century later, Mill was proposing the grand 'marketplace of ideas' akin to the free market economy. The pursuit of truth is through allowing freedom of thought and opinion on every nuance of the human experience. The plurality of opinion should be the subject "of the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions," until the truth is established.

These are the foundations of the freedom of speech we enjoy every day – especially in the internet age. Exercising this right and participating in the marketplace of ideas requires exposure to beliefs, opinions and ideas that may be diametrically opposed to our own. At times, these opinions may even be intolerant of our own beliefs, or worse, parts of our identities over which we have no control, such as race or sexuality. This leads to the questions: Should we put limits on freedom of speech? Should we tolerate intolerance?

How we listen to and navigate these conversations is and will always be critical. 

The age of misinformation

The rise of misinformation is posing a great challenge to free speech – the poison that corrupts the exchange of ideas and precludes us from seeking the truth. 

Descend into the comment section of any article on a slightly controversial topic and you will find that access to the internet's infinite knowledge is not being fully leveraged. Unbridled intolerance and discrimination, dismissing of opinion, offering half facts and outright misinformation as truth, pervade the conversations. The medium itself encourages this by carefully sculpting what we consume, which can easily produce echo chambers and conversations based on, at best, half facts.

Living in such a personal internet echo chamber can foster intolerance to a range of opinions, ideas or mantras along the political continuum, and this rejection is often not based on all the facts. 

Countries such as Germany, Malaysia, and France have passed laws against misinformation. Although well intended, human rights champions and legal experts fear that these can be abused by the people who have the power to judge what's legitimate or not. The need to fight misinformation isn't lost on them, but they believe it may not be the best approach to achieve diversity of thought and a healthy marketplace of ideas. 

Uncomfortable spaces

We live in a highly complex, connected world where there is no one solution that fits all. A diverse set of opinions and ideas is requisite to establish the truth or best solutions to a given problem. So, we must tolerate opinions that are intolerant of our own to forward the pursuit of the truth or solutions based in reality. 

Tolerance is a different standard to acceptance. We don't have to accept every idea, but we do need to tolerate it and provide a genuine, critical evaluation. Being static in one's views leads only to the stagnation of the individual and the associated repercussions for greater society. What we have lost in today's electronic age is civility and nuance, as well as robust, rational, fact-based debate. 

It should be clear that we cannot allow intolerance in the form of discrimination, incitement of violence or that which inflicts any type of suffering or disadvantage on any person or group of people. Mill promotes the position that our rights to a particular opinion only extend to the point that they do not injure others or encroach on others' rights. That is where we should draw the line. 

From there, like most things in life, a gradient of tolerance and intolerance is required. In fact, we should all be more tolerant of opinions that are intolerant of our own (noting the above) or else we risk falling into the despotism of custom. For each individual to realise their full potential (or to live their best life in today’s vernacular), every idea and opinion must be thoroughly and thoughtfully considered and interrogated. 

For businesses to harness the power of diversity of thought in their organisations, they need to create a psychologically safe culture where people can voice contrary opinions without fear of negative consequences. People must feel that they can be themselves and are valued for their unique characteristics, otherwise organisations limit their capacity for innovation and continuous improvement.   

If we are going to solve the world's most wicked problems, we must learn to tolerate some or many opinions that are intolerant of our own and harness the crucial skill of critical thinking

According to a UNESCO Courier article, "The critical mind can be exercised and trained, and can also act as a form of resistance to propaganda and plot theory." Deliberate and careful consideration of a diversity of rational opinions always produces a gestalt solution.

Fried and other Basecamp leaders apologised to their employees four days after the announcement, but it caused even more damage as the heated arguments that followed drove more employees to leave. They felt they weren't listened to.

Innovation happens in the uncomfortable spaces. Organisations and employees must be willing to be put in uncomfortable spaces and allow these conversations to happen. We can't sweep uncomfortable societal topics under the rug and pretend their impact to business outcomes do not exist. Otherwise, businesses will risk stagnating into a despotism of custom while others become equipped for the future. 

Listen. Converse. Think critically. See what happens.

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Matthew Tendam
Written by
Matthew Tendam

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