| by Callum Gold |
“Man is a rational animal — so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favour of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it. I have seen cruelty, persecution, and superstition increasing by leaps and bounds, until we have almost reached the point where praise of rationality is held to mark a man as an old fogey regrettably surviving from a bygone age. I have been driven to study the past, and have found, that folly is perennial and yet the human race has survived. The follies of our own time are easier to bear when they are seen against the background of past follies.”
Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays
Truth, goodness, and liberty are ideas that citizens of even the most democratic states are forever at risk of losing. With politics now entering precarious territory since Brexit in June, the U.S election of Trump in November, and a so called rise in “alternative facts,” that loss is fast becoming reality. Effects, as we will see, have no alternatives, only causes. To begin with — led by a very dedicated elite, we have seen almost half a century of rising inequality throughout Western nations, this extraordinary accumulation of wealth by less than a percent of our planets population has been accompanied by an unethical commitment to the destruction of our biosphere, no alternative there! Furthermore, excessive war and armament through a volatile and rigid Middle East under various banners, has aroused, or arguably created, radical Islam.
A playbook so successfully divisive that public opinion now oscillates between inflammatory rhetoric on the one hand and grotesque apologists on the other. Meanwhile, a rise of identity driven politics mostly on the Left has, and is, attempting to reject open dialogue — an effort in its infinite wisdom, that has now given rise to its very own nemesis — the “alternative” Right. No added fuel was necessary for the Trump’s and Farage’s of this world, but the Left has felt obliged. Now operating fearlessly under a pretense of “candid” speech, these alternative-humans fan the flames of prejudice and give an air of certitude that the working class have so desperately pined for after their long line of sterile neoliberal predecessors. What else did we expect?
Truth — respect for the scientific method, goodness — the preservation and extension of universal human rights, and liberty — protection from increasing violations of privacy and freedoms, all are steadily under attack. Nevertheless, we need not be driven to despair just yet, as Russell maintained, “The follies of our own time are easier to bear when they are seen against the background of past follies.” Looking back through history can settle the nerves about current affairs, and so too can an understanding of our core human values — including the historical context surrounding their development. Securing a set of principles through a historical lens allows us to challenge those who wish to distance themselves from the light of public scrutiny.
To understand how we can combat the present, we must look to the safeguards of the past. One particular safeguard is, On Liberty — by John Stuart Mill, a guiding light through modernity. Mill was an English philosopher, political economist and naturalist and his essay is arguably one of the most eloquent defenses of individual freedom to date. Mill argues that people tend to believe having strong feelings on a subject makes having reasons for that belief unnecessary, failing to realize that without reason, beliefs are mere preferences that often reflect self-interest. This has intensified over the last few decades with the rise of “identity politics” — often a pretext for dogmatic sensitivities or political correctness. Apparently feeling outraged or offended gives someone permission to violate the rights of others, sometimes with intimidation, other times worse. The Salman Rushdie case amplified this in 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran launched a sordid bounty known as a fatwa, on the author of the novel The Satanic Verses. This led to the murder of many innocent people, as well as attempts on Rushdie himself. Not to mention the tens of thousands that demonstrated throughout the Western world commanding that his novel be banned. Advocates of art, freedom and spontaneity came to Rushdie’s defense, with over a hundred Arab and Muslim intellectuals from around the world, some risking their lives, collaborating in a book of essays called, For Rushdie — In Defence of Free Speech.
Mill crystallized the value of listening to those we disagree with most, to avoid refusing “an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” The light of truth shines brighter on a diverse landscape and we create more damage censoring opinions we are averse to than by attempting to understand them. Often the hardest point to swallow is the inherent license to criticize and ridicule. This double-edged sword is analogous to all technologies — the hammer can be used to build a house, or smash a skull. There are inherent limits to freedom of speech such as defamation or incitement to violence in front of an excited mob, “No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute a positive instigation to some mischievous act.”
An example of our failing to observe this principle was clear this year with the leftist riots at U.C Berkeley that shut down the outlandish “alt-Right” speaker Milo Yiannopoulos. Oblivious are these violent participants that their actions only increase alternative popularity. If we allow opinion the light of day it can be scrutinized and challenged rather than caught up under the surface. Outrageous and false claims suffer unavoidable social and political costs. Reason therefore demonstrates that sanitizing is not only counter-productive, but problem producing. As free agents with a native capacity for truth, we must learn to think and judge for ourselves, lest we discover a world where the lines between truth and an alternative are made to blur.
Stifling and suffocating dissenting opinion in the name of social good has led to some of the most horrible mistakes in human history, Socrates and Jesus, two illustrious figures, were put to death for blasphemy because their beliefs were radical. Galileo was made to recant for asserting that the earth was not the centre of the Solar system. History is rampant with examples of thought crime. Take for instance the “Priestly riots” in 1791, where Joseph Priestly, who incidentally discovered oxygen, had his laboratory in Birmingham burnt to the ground by an angry orthodox mob. Priestly eventually fled England and headed for America.
From truth and liberty, to an alternative goodness, the heart of our ethical lives. The right to privacy and solitude allow one to determine the beliefs and convictions that shape one’s world view. With fear of oppression, peer pressure or societal observation, this task soon becomes very difficult. Since whistle-blowers like Snowden and Manning, we have become more conscious of democratic governments undermining the constitution and individual rights, without probable cause, and using the invariable pretext of security. We ought to observe the fact that a balance must be struck between freedom and security, nevertheless, democratic governments were thus arranged so that transparency of public representatives could enable dialogue between citizens and ensure decisions could be reached democratically, subject to checks and balances. Mass surveillance pre-Snowden, was neither checked nor balanced. As the lead journalist on mass surveillance leaks, Glenn Greenwald said, “The way things are supposed to work is that we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what they ‘the government’ do: that’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that’s why we’re called private individuals.” To say that one does not care about privacy because one has nothing to hide, is like saying one does not care about freedom of speech because one has nothing to say.
Evidently there is a lot to be understood from great minds of the past and present, with a resounding similarity in convictions; we once again find no alternatives. Harbor no resentment toward anyone with a difference of opinion, alas! Sprinkle a little upon oneself if lacking the courage to adopt a new truth when presented with counterevidence. One need not avoid talking about religion and politics, or any so-called taboo, especially out of fear of offending. Instead one ought to push and pull at them frequently with as reasoned a temper as one can muster. Our objective is to hear and interact with conflicting ideas and opinions wherever possible. Even in the darkest of times, with an increased commitment to open and honest discourse we would all benefit from physics 101 — without heat there would be no light.
“You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall. Your affectionate friend and fellow-citizen,”
Thomas Paine, Age of Reason
Callum Golding is an autodidact and philosopher in the making. He is an active member of the humanist society of Canberra, Australia. You can connect with him on twitter @gold_australia or email email@example.com
[Editor’s note: this article was also published by the Rationalist Society of New South Wales, Australia]