Sunday, 25 February 2007

Why single out the freedom of discussion

It’s exasperating when quite distinct ideas are conflated to make a mockery of a crucial principle. Just look at how the important case made for the freedom of discussion has been thrown into confusion by interpreting it as a license for every kind of irresponsible behaviour imaginable.

You start by defending the value of allowing people to exchange ideas and evidence, then suddenly someone pulls along a bandwagon and on to it jumps advocates for the unrestricted freedom to do just about anything. The essential freedom to discuss the merits of any given claim – so that its justifiability can be openly and rationally tested – is in no time stretched beyond all recognition to cover the freedom to insult, deceive, provoke, threaten etc. But why should anyone be free to ‘express’ oneself irrespective of the harm that could cause to others?

It is vital to remember that the very specific freedom of discussion came to be championed as part of the 17th century intellectual and political movement against authoritarian attempts to stamp out rival claims to knowledge. On the one hand there were the monarchs and religious leaders who had for centuries invoked what they claimed to be indisputable truths to justify their authority over all around them. On the other hand there were the new breed of philosophers and political activists who dared to challenge the veracity of these ‘truths’. What made the latter revolutionary was that they declined to back their own claims by the traditional ‘might is right’ route of scaring people (through the sight of amassed troops or threats of eternal damnation) into submission. Instead they pointed out that the only reliable way for intelligent people to assess if any given claims deserved to be believed was through an open, calm, rational process of evidence-based discussions.

To the extent that what one has to say, how one collaborates with a wider group to decide what to say, or when a group gathers together to give their views, contributes to the quality of the discussion, then it was paramount that people should have the freedom to participate accordingly. Without this foundational freedom to discuss contested claims, there would no non-arbitrary basis to show up the groundless assertions of the powerful and pave the way to overthrow them.

However, this precious freedom must not be perverted into a license for abuse and exploitation which have nothing to do with the rational examination of contested claims. All too many people who have forgotten why the freedom for discussion is really uniquely important have already acquiesced in its mutation into a catch-all freedom of expression whereby individuals can confront others with nasty and hurtful language and symbols, media barons can propagate misleading views to suit their own corporate interests, businesses can promote addictive craving for their products, dogmatists who loathe the freedom of discussion can set up their own schools to instruct children to believe untenable claims, and extremist groups can circulate vile fabrications.

To safeguard the freedom of discussion, we must re-focus on why it needs to be protected in any society which values democratic openness and continuous learning, and weed out the irresponsible behaviour which undermines rather than supports the public and reasoned examination of claims to truth.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Belief is not enough

If someone said he wanted someone locked away because he believed the person posed a threat to him, would we allow him to do that, or even help him just because that was his belief? Of course not. And in anticipation of those raging cries of “Are you calling me a liar!”, we can calmly remind them everyone can make an honest mistake. People can sincerely hold a belief but nonetheless get it wrong. There is nothing problematic with that unless someone starts to behave as if his belief is all that matters in how he behaves.

If we permit people to do whatever they want on the basis of what they happen to believe – regardless of the evidence available – then chaos beckons. Beliefs can be spectacularly wrong. People can believe utterly harmless individuals to be the most dangerous enemies who must be struck down. People can believe that they have a uniquely correct view of what the social order must be and others must conform to it or face retribution. People can believe the deranged voices in their heads to be divine commands to bring misery or even death to others.

Sadly when a few rhetorical speeches about the pride and glory of someone’s unshakeable belief ring out, all too many people start to hesitate about challenging the behaviour of the believer and his followers. Worse still, they even fall backwards and concede that their sincere belief gives them a right to act in accordance with their beliefs.

For centuries, women, children, those in poverty, racial minorities, have been mistreated by others who hide behind their self-righteous belief that they have God, tradition, or whatever else they want to invoke on their side. But the stupidity, nastiness, callousness, in how they deal with those weaker than themselves are as real as their deeply held beliefs are erroneous.

The post-modern anti-enlightenment culture which embraces any kind of groundless belief totally beyond the validation of objective evidence, so long as the belief is held faithfully has enabled people to brush aside restrictions to their actions, however misguided and harmful these may be.

Children can be taught that human babies first arrived on earth courtesy of a few mysterious storks or created through any equally absurd means with no reference to actual biological processes. Girls and women can be instructed to be submissive and let the men folks take charge of the public as well as the private domains. People who resent the aggressive stance of groups who pick on their appearances or private behaviour can be told to accept their lot. All this can go on so long as someone says “In good faith, that is what I believe.”

No, no, and no again. Belief is not enough. Beliefs which cannot be justified – and let’s not forget, the grander the claims contained in a belief, the higher the critical threshold should be set for its validation, not lower – have no place in paving the way for ill-conceived and hurtful activities in society. And the next time you hear people try to hide behind “But my belief transcends evidence”, tell them they can indulge in their groundless belief so long as they do not try to ruin other people’s lives in its name.