How is it that some people feel energised by the thought of fierce debate and keen to have their beliefs challenged and their minds potentially changed, while others appear unwilling to listen to even the most benign differences of opinion, even regarding the experience as violent or oppressive? What makes some of us free speech absolutists, while others demand ever more limits on language?
For those of us who believe that freedom of speech is foundational to a democratic society, it’s all too easy to ascribe malicious intent to those who argue otherwise. We’re certain of their intentions: right-wingers who refuse to engage with progressives must be bigoted and authoritarian; while any leftist who exhibits such intolerance is probably an ignorant snowflake intent on bringing western democracy to its knees.
But what if a person’s stance on free speech—her willingness to tolerate opinions she doesn’t like—is linked to her brain function, and how she perceives the world? Perhaps opposition to free speech is less based on malevolence than on mindset.
In his lecture “The Infallible State Of Mind,” Norman Doidge unveils the intricate relationships between political correctness, free speech and the biological functions of the brain. After carefully examining the functional differences between our left and right brain hemispheres, Doidge demonstrates how over-reliance on one side can affect our ability to mentalise, listen to others and ultimately tolerate opinions different from our own. This article draws heavily on Doidge’s lecture throughout. Please note that, due to the embryonic nature of the field of neuroscience, all descriptions of brain states and mechanisms here are conjectural.
So, what may be going on in your mind when you can’t bear to hear alternative opinions?
The Divided Brain
The idea that people are either left- or right-brained is far too simplistic. However, the two brain hemispheres specialise in different tasks, take very different approaches to the world and process what they see in different ways.
While the right hemisphere sees things as a whole, the left, Doidge explains, has a narrower focus: instead of perceiving complex individuals and relationships, it tends to work with categories of people, making abstractions and divorcing things from their context. “Whenever people are over-generalising about people,” claims Doidge, “it has a left hemisphere flavour.” Since it schematises the world into familiar categories, the left part of our brain is probably linked to bigotry.
The right side of the brain is far better at connecting things and seeing them holistically, taking in their intricacies and complexities. The right hemisphere seeks novelty, remaining open- and broad-minded in its vigilant search for the unknown, while the left hemisphere tries to reduce all experience to something it already knows. The right side better understands context, humour, metaphor, subtlety and nuance, Doidge explains, and possesses a greater capacity for empathy, the understanding of emotions and the reading of body language.
When it comes to free speech, whether you see the world as a series of complicated, unpredictable individuals or abstract categories matters.
Today’s social justice culture, for instance, is a prime example of left-brained thinking. It wrenches individuals out of their more nuanced context, ranks them according to their degree of societal privilege and divides them into categories based on arbitrary characteristics like race, gender or sexuality. By carving the world up into two classes—the oppressors and the oppressed—today’s identitarian left justify speech restrictions and the shutting down of debate in the name of equality and fairness, in order, they argue, to give a voice to the marginalised and stifle the speech of the culturally privileged. Rather than being curious about the unknown, they try to condense the wide variety of unique human experiences into a single narrative, ostracising anyone with an opinion that doesn’t neatly align with theirs. They see only power and oppression, and—evocative of the left hemisphere—often seem unable to empathise with people as individuals.
In the absence of context, the left hemisphere also tends to interpret language literally and is therefore humourless. Because it sees things in the abstract, rather than embedded in their real world context, it’s more likely to misinterpret the intent of speech and become prone to paranoia.
By contrast, the ability to interpret the non-literal context of statements requires right-hemisphere attributes like indirect interpretation and empathy. The right hemisphere therefore appreciates narrative, rather than just seeing it as a mass of discrete episodes jumbled out of sequence.
Many acolytes of the modern social justice movement also tend to misinterpret the intent of speech, viewing the opinions of their ideological adversaries as violent, traumatic or a personal affront. For instance, after Yale professor Erika Christakis sent an email suggesting that students should be free to choose their own Halloween costumes, protestors described the message as “an act of violence,” and told Erika’s husband Nicholas “you strip people of their humanity” and “have created a space for violence.” Unable to see the wider context—a liberal professor listening earnestly, speaking calmly, apologising for hurt feelings, curious to hear their side—the students misinterpreted Nicholas’ words as violent and racist. Embodying the left hemisphere, which is unable to accurately interpret facial expressions, the students yelled “wipe that smirk off your face!” to a straight-faced Christakis, acting out the kind of contextless paranoia to which the left hemisphere is prone, seeing hostility in his every mannerism—whether he faced them, turned away, lowered or raised his voice.
Maps of Reality
When something new and important is perceived, the right hemisphere tasks the left with mapping it out. The map it produces is often mistaken for the real world, although it contains isolated parts lacking in context (Doidge believes that the map is experienced as a kind of virtual reality). So, while the right hemisphere experiences a dynamic and complex world of individuals, the left hemisphere sees a “re-presented version of reality,” containing “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based.” The result is what Doidge calls a kind of “know-it-allism” and infallibility.
In debates over the role and limits of free speech, different sides of the political spectrum often appear to be perceiving alternate realities. While conservatives can’t understand how civil discussion can make someone feel unsafe, progressives can’t comprehend how somebody could tolerate hateful speech. For instance, when Christakis asked the Yale protestors, “If you don’t believe that I can ever understand what you’re saying to me, then why do you stand here demanding to be heard?” one student screamed back, “Because we’re dying.” This kind of hysteria seems completely detached from reality. But perhaps the student was acting consistently with her map of the world: one that is ordered into rigid categories, sees only power and subjugation and perceives threats separated from their context?
The left-hemispheric tendencies of over-generalising, misinterpreting language and confusing maps of reality for the real world may underlie some people’s adamant refusal to accept other points of view. Taken too far, this over-dependence on left hemisphere categorisation may not only affect a person’s ability to listen and relate to others, but could lead to the development of mindblindness.
Mindblindness: A Delusion of Infallibility
Most of us mentalise in a healthy, automatic way. We recognise that the inferences we make about reality are prone to bias and error. We realise that other people have different mental states from us, and that the only reasonable way to gauge what they’re feeling is to inquire. As a result, Doidge argues, we can focus on other people, form stable relationships and cultivate a consciously fallible state of mind.
The absence of healthy mentalising results in mindblindness. As Doidge puts it, a person with mindblindness has a “limited awareness that other people have minds, and more importantly, there is a limited awareness that they themselves have an invisible mind that is interpreting reality.”
We’re all mindblind when we’re young, but as our brains mature we begin to realise that we’re prone to false beliefs. We start to use inductive logic as we become aware of the existence of other people’s minds and the fallibility of our thoughts. Abstract reasoning kicks in and we don’t take language so literally anymore.
But, we can also regress into mindblindness as an adult (or never grow out of it). Several things can contribute to this, including mental illness, a failure to form secure attachments, and experiences of high stress or trauma, in which our right hemisphere, as Doidge puts it, “literally goes offline and disconnects.” We can also be trained to rely on left-hemispheric tendencies by ideologies that rely on categorisation, generalisation and taking things out of context.
Mindblind adults are humourless, likely to take language literally and predisposed to sweeping generalisations about groups of people. They suffer from all-or-nothing thinking and usually stick to the first explanation that occurs to them. The mindblind person is unaware that her mind is prone to error; her subjective experience seems like reality, rather than merely her take on events. She becomes egocentric, assuming that others see the world as she does. Her mental reality feels just as real as the external world, to the point at which she can become terrified by her own mental experience. Mindblindness can cause a person to become thin-skinned, fixated on what other people say. Unable to pause and reflect, the mindblind person becomes hypersensitive to even the most innocuous or constructive of criticisms, until disagreement can feel like an act of violence or an invalidation of her very existence.
A Left Hemisphere World
In his book Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist argues that “we have ended up prisoners of … the left hemisphere alone.”
“What would it look like if the left hemisphere came to be the sole purveyor of our reality?” McGilchrist asks. In such a world, he posits, the impersonal becomes the personal; material things are prioritised over the experience of living; higher moral values are derogated; morality is judged on the basis of utilitarian calculation and self-interest, and the virtual favoured over the real. “There would be a complete failure of common sense, since it is intuitive and relies on both hemispheres working together,” McGilchrist observes, “There would be a rise in intolerance and inflexibility, an unwillingness to change track or change one’s mind”:
The bonds between person and person … the context in which each person belongs, would be neglected, perhaps actively disrupted … Exploitation rather than co-operation would be … the default relationship between human individuals … Resentment would lead to an emphasis on uniformity and equality, not as just one desirable to be balanced with others, but as the ultimate desirable, transcending all others. As a result individualities would be ironed out and identification would be by categories: socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on, which would also feel themselves to be implicitly or explicitly in competition with, resentful of, one another. Paranoia and lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals, and between such groups, and would be the stance of government towards its people.
This all seems disturbingly familiar. In many ways, modern society has come to be ruled by the left hemisphere: intolerant of nuance and ambiguity, intent on categorising people at the expense of social cohesion, and now—with the ubiquity of social media—increasingly confusing a virtual reality, devoid of depth or context, with the real world. Doidge concurs:
aspects of modern life and activities, such as the modern workplace, and our computer technologies, are now also neuroplastically exaggerating and reinforcing left hemisphere functioning, at the expense of the right … This leftward shift is also one of the reasons adults feel battered, wired, and often treat themselves like, or are treated like, machines, and often feel devitalized, and out of touch with feelings, and meaning in their lives.
While both sides of the brain are necessary for healthy mentalising, the two are not equally valid. Sequential, logical analysis leads us to the truth: giving us, McGilchrist argues, “results that approximate far more closely to—which in fact confirm the validity of—the right hemisphere’s way of understanding the world, not that of the left.” While the left hemisphere is crucial to an important intermediary process—taking in the more complete picture from the right and unpacking it—it can’t lead us to the truth on its own.
So, how do we move forward, towards truth and free discussion, in a world with the left hemisphere at the helm?
First, we have to see intolerance as a human fault, rather than a political trait. I’ve focused on the threat from the social justice left, as, in the west today, it is leftists who are more likely to support greater legal restrictions on free speech, to deplatform speakers and to judge an individual’s opinions by her group category. This intolerance has seeped into academia, mainstream media and other institutions, inhibiting free discussion through both official policies and a general culture of conformity and self-censorship. Studies also suggest that left-wingers have greater difficulty understanding the conservative mindset than vice versa.
But intolerance also pervades the western right—even if it’s not as obvious or overtly influential. Anyone who reduces people to categories, negates context and nuance, refuses to debate others or mistakes their personal social reality for everyone else’s reality, is failing to adequately mentalise. If we can see intolerance as a human failing rather than as something endemic only among our political opponents, we can recognise and prevent it in ourselves.
We also have to accept that people inhabit different realities. If we want to sincerely understand each other, that means trying to perceive the world as those we disagree with do. We must ask ourselves, How could they come to that conclusion and how best can I can show them that their reality doesn’t match mine? Rather than evil communists or irredeemable racists, we have to see our political opponents as individuals. For most, intolerance is a product of mindset and of the perversion of good intentions.
Just educating people about free speech won’t cut it. We need to educate them about the mind. Neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can rewire itself, suggests that we can change our thinking and should form the focus of education. Imagine how much discussion would improve if we were all deeply versed in the fallibility of our own thought processes, the different ways in which we perceive the world and the cognitive distortions endemic to certain ideologies.
Any meaningful advocacy of free speech has to start with individuals. We will only be able to secure freedom of expression when we endeavour to listen to others, improve our own thought processes, live curiously with broad and open minds, see people as individuals and question our personal realities. That means rejecting dogmatic ideologies that reward neuroses and all-or-nothing thinking and thinking critically about modern technologies that wrench us out of our real world context.
Much of the progress we’ve made in western society has been due to free and unfettered discussion. Truth, freedom and justice for the marginalised won’t be achieved by avoiding debate or placing limits on language. Society will only progress if we each commit to engaging in fierce debate, welcome the possibility of having our minds changed, and cultivate a consciousness of the fallibility of our own minds, even in a world that demands infallibility.