The United States Navy and The Communist Manifesto

Viewpoint diversity is honorable and necessary.

Posted May 05, 2017

Recently there has been much discussion of free speech, disinvited campus speakers, and viewpoint diversity. Ann Coulter (The Editors, 2017) and Charles Murray (Williams & Ceci, 2017) were both prevented from giving their invited talks on campuses. The Heterodox Academy is a collection of academics who promote the utility of viewpoint diversity. Here I provide an example of viewpoint diversity at its best.

I received my undergraduate degree from Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. It was at Westminster that Winston Churchill gave his famous “The Sinews of Peace” speech with Harry Truman that marked the beginning of the Cold War in 1946. It was at Westminster that Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan closed the Cold War with speeches together in 1992. Every day I walked past a large imported section of the Berlin Wall, and I wanted to truly understand communism before I criticized it.

I read my father’s copy of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels (1848). Unlike most copies of the book, mine had been issued to my dad in 1969 by the United States Navy during his service in the Vietnam War. During the Cold War, sailors taking a particular leadership course were required to read the book to understand the violent revolution promoted by communism. In today’s echo chambers, social media feeds and search engine algorithms protect citizens from opposing viewpoints by carefully crafting options that align with their likes. It is now hard to fathom forcing U.S. sailors to read The Communist Manifesto during the Cold War as a patriotic act. But isn’t it the ultimate expression of how viewpoint diversity is important in a society of free speech?

Rather than blindly telling soldiers to fight an enemy that is “bad,” the leaders were asked to read the book and form their own opinions. The instructors knew that critical thinking was essential to leadership training. They were not afraid that their sailors would all convert to communism and abandon their country. They were confident enough in their own viewpoint to hand the opponent’s materials to their sailors and just say “read this.” That is an excellent example of the utility of viewpoint diversity. Today’s equivalent would be if the United States unflinchingly printed ISIS materials and distributed them to our own soldiers, confident enough in our own ideas that we did not fear converts from within.

Attitude certainty is a person’s confidence that they hold the correct attitude on an issue, and this is a precursor to persuasion vulnerability. When a person resists an attitude that is perceived to be strong, they gain attitude certainty (Tormala & Petty, 2002). A person will process a message more when they lack attitude certainty, and gaining certainty can increase the strength of the attitude (Tormala, 2016). The experience of resisting persuasion is necessary to form strong attitudes and increase the likelihood that they are based on facts.

Do not fear subversive speech if you believe your ideas to be better. Listen to the argument, think critically, and win the intellectual fight. If you lose it, rethink your position and try again. If you keep losing, consider reevaluating your position. Fighting dirty helps no one in the long run. Seek the truth and allow the strongest arguments and the best ideas to emerge. The only way to get there is to gain exposure to opposing viewpoints. Society benefits from the product of such discourse. Universities are an excellent setting in which to engage these processes. The Heterodox Academy has a good vision for this, assuming that confident, competent representatives of various viewpoints agree to engage in civil discourse.

References

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). The Communist Manifesto.

The Editors. (2017, April 26). Cowardice at Berkely. National Review (online)

Tormala, Z. L. (2016). The role of certainty (and uncertainty) in attitudes and persuasion. Current Opinion in Psychology, 10, 6-11.

Tormala, Z. L., & Petty, R. E. (2002). What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger: The effects of resisting persuasion on attitude certainty. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1298-1313.

Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2017, April 15). Charles Murray’s ‘provocative’ talk. New York Times (online)