Monday, April 14, 2014

Freedom isn't Free: A Sad Rumination on the Eve of Pessach

In the 1950s the CIA put a pile of time and money into disseminating Boris Pasternak's novel Dr. Zhivago in the Soviet Union. The assumption apparently was that words can be a powerful weapon, if used well - and, of course, if deployed as one weapon among many against the enemy. Of course, in those days the concept of enemy was different than it is today.

A common meaning of the word "enemy" today is anything that causes distress to nice folks like us. We haven't yet reached the middle of April this year, and here's a collection of people who've been silenced since the beginning of the month for fear their words might hurt someone:

76-year-old Barbara Driver used an unfortunate phrase while making a political point in her local municipal council, which ended her career.

Cambridge University Press, an august institution which has been disseminating ideas for centuries, nixed the publication of a book which might have offended Vladimir Putin. (Honestly).

Mozila, the company which produces the web-browser you may be using as you read this, fired its CEO because back in 2008 he donated money to a political campaign in California which went on to win, but which has since been overturned by a court; the hapless CEO had the temerity to hold on to his belief that same-sex marriage is not a good thing. (To his credit, same-sex activist Andrew Sullivan castigated the lunacy of the decision).

Brandeis University disinvited Ayaan Hisi Aly from speaking on campus because it was expected her appearance might offend some folks who disagree with her politics. (An abridged version of her talk is online here, and any decent person should read it no-matter what their political opinion, simply to demonstrate their decency).

I have no doubt there are other recent examples I've missed. Sadly, Voltaire's sentiment about dying in defense of opinions he disagreed with to ensure freedom of expression is long since done with. In the liberal democracies which would never have been invented were it not for his ideas, it is hardly conceivable that citizens would die for anything; freedom of expression and thus freedom of thought has been canceled so as not to hurt anyone's feelings, should their thoughts turn out to be hurtful to someone. Hurt feelings, we are to accept, are the worst thing that can happen to a person.

(Voltaire, by the way, was a committed hater of Jews; he used his distaste to castigate the powerful Church of his day in the roundabout manner of bashing the Jews. Had he lived in the 21st century he would have been drummed out of town. Fortunately, he lived in 18th-century France, so that worked out). (Then again, hurting the feeling of Jews is actually rather acceptable, even in 2014: an exception to the rule).

Steven Pinker writes about this onslaught of gentleness in his magisterial The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  He puts it into the context of the end of violence, so that while it's a bit silly, it's also basically a fine thing. The problem is, of course, that the world isn't that gentle a place yet, nor are large swathes of it obviously on their way. This was the gist of my review of Pinker's book. The murderers in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, CAR, Nigeria and so on, don't live in a world where anyone cares a whit about anyone's feelings.

Nor does Putin. Or Khamenai and his sidekicks. Assad. Nor any of their henchmen and, truth be told, any of their enemies. None of them would recognize a hurtful sentiment if they saw it in full daylight, nor are any of them likely to fathom the sentiment. Voltaire would recognize their world, though.

The problem with ending free speech so as not to offend is that it portends the end of fee thought. Having lived for decades in an imaginary world where people forbid themselves hurtful thoughts, they have now lost the ability to see the world as others do, to recognize real enemies, and to deploy weapons that might impress those enemies. And so, having trained themselves not to be hurtful, the intellectual leaders of the free world and the political ones too have lost the concept of enemy. Sadly, their enemies haven't.

Back in the 1950s the CIA - even the CIA - knew the importance of freedom of thought.


Aaron Gross said...

Agreed with your point, but note that Ali was disinvited from receiving an honorary degree, not from speaking. The disinvitation made it very clear that she was welcome to express her opinion on campus in the context of a debate or a discussion. An honorary degree is an honor, though, and Brandeis decided not to grant that honor based on certain things that Ali had said before. So Brandeis explicitly stood up for the free speech that you're talking about here.

It wasn't clear to me who the "they" are who have "lost the ability to see the world as others do, to recognize real enemies, and to deploy weapons that might impress those enemies." Maybe you indicated who that is, but I didn't see it. It would clarify your statement a lot if you could name some of the more important "they"s.

Anonymous said...

Actually it was Voltaires biographer who came up with the " die for " quote, by way of explaining how he felt.

SerJew said...

Voltaire was a hypocrite and father of secular anti-semitism. He was also quite intolerant of other people´s views.

Our "post-modern" PC-mentality is just a monstrous hypocritical idiocy masquerading as "sensitivity". It hates critical thinking and it blinds people to real-world threats, so it´s also suicidal. A perfect example of this moronism-in-action is mr. Gross´ posts.

On the bright side: it´s always nice to read your posts! Have you read "Anti-Judaism: the western tradition", by David Nirenberg? I´d love to read your review of it.