I had the opportunity to stand in the Jefferson Memorial last week. These words are carved in huge letters, encircling the rotunda: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
I've been pondering since then, noting that Jefferson didn't just oppose tyranny, but specified "tyranny over the mind of man." Every one of them.
I suppose that is because the mind and conscience ought to be sacrosanct. Partly because it is right, but also because the freedom of the mind is the fountain and foundation of all other freedoms.
What kind of freedom do you have if you can't think, believe, and speak what you believe? If it means anything at all, freedom must include the freedom to be wrong and even to be offensive. Popular speech needs no protections. The test of freedom comes not when we agree with the majority, it comes when we dissent.
Freedom to believe, to think, and then to speak out according to those beliefs are basic, and we all have a stake in preserving them.
In this diverse world we inhabit, surely all of us will eventually both give and take offense. Consequently, it seems prudent to me to be mild in responding to the latter since I will most certainly do the former.
Most of us understand how dangerous it is for governments to censor speech. But another great danger to that freedom comes from non-governmental sources.
I don't understand the contemporary need to boycott, fine, fire, punish and otherwise destroy people who say offensive things. The best antidote to offensive speech will always be more speech--disagreeing loudly with that which we find offensive. But not shutting down our ideological foes.
The Hollywood Blacklist of suspected Communists during the Cold War is often discussed in my industry as a terrible tragedy. It destroyed lives and reputations. But ultimately, this was a group of private businesses who made economic decisions, based on what a majority of the country believed--not a government action. Legal? Yes. Right? No.
Knowing how often we have made mistakes in the past, knowing how often masterpieces of have been banned, and great thinkers censored, should we not exercise a bit of modesty? We can cling to our beliefs, while allowing freedom of expression from those who deride and demean those beliefs. It is the price we pay for the freedom to hold those beliefs.
I am trying to think of a civilization that was brought down because its citizens were too free to speak and think and write without fear of persecution, private or governmental. I can't think of one. I can, however, think of several reverse examples.
We ought to allow clashes of opinion, belief, and decorum to be contested, while making sure those who do the clashing are not molested. Besides being right, it's wise. Tomorrow, you might be the one with views a majority find offensive. Which precedent do you want to set? (not my photo, incidentally).
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