Thursday, February 1, 2018

Certainty, Censorship, and the Spirit of Liberty

The best thing I've read in the past year is a speech that Judge Learned Hand gave to a group of immigrants who had just become American citizens. He began by pointing out that most Americans are either immigrants or descended from immigrants; from people who gave up their old lives to try to make it in an unfamiliar new country. Then he asked why they took such a perilous step.

His answer: "We sought liberty; freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves. This we then sought; this we now believe that we are by way of winning." (This was during World War II.)

Then another question and answer: "And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias."

Lots of big ideas there, but what really grabs me is the idea that the spirit of liberty is "not too sure that it is right".

So many people these days seem so sure they're right. That might be the one thing that unites the two far ends of the American political spectrum: they're both full of people who are sure they're right. Some are so sure of themselves that they've lost sight of the spirit of liberty, and started trying to suppress the free exchange of ideas. They see opposing views as unpatriotic, blasphemous, politically incorrect, or more recently,  "problematic". They often state opinions on complex, value-laden issues as though they were empirical facts. This degree of certainty and intolerance seems dangerous to me, especially when the two sides keep reacting to each other by pulling harder in opposite directions, as the center starts to pop and fray. What happens when it breaks?

Besides, should either side be so sure they're right? Sure enough to censor those they consider wrong? What are the chances that one political group, in this one particular country, in this one particular moment in time, finally has it all figured out?

And who am I to pontificate? What about that speck in my eye? I can be too smug in my opinions, too, but when I really think about it, the list of things I'm certain about is a short one: I'm fairly certain of verifiable facts and well-supported scientific theories. I'm reasonably sure a few arguments are logically sound (the Pythagorean Theorem and such), and that others are fallacies (and popular ones!). I'm sure we shouldn't trash the planet we live on, or destroy old, irreplaceable things (except stuff like smallpox). I'm sure hard truth is preferable to comforting falsehood, because falsehood causes suffering.

I guess what I'm most sure of is something I can't prove. I'm sure that other humans (not just other Americans or people otherwise like me) have pleasures, pains, and hopes as real to them as mine are to me. So I'm sure I should try to treat them as I would want to treated: with fairness, decency, and compassion. And I'm sure people who destroy good things, lack compassion, and disregard truth should be opposed.

And...that's really about it. I've always had a mad desire to learn as much as I can about this vast, weird, ancient universe in the brief flash of time I'm in it. But I'll never get very far. My brain is just so much smaller than the universe, and my senses so feeble. Reality won't fit inside my head--only a distorted, childlike sketch of it will.

So I guess that's one last thing I'm sure about: that there's a lot I don't know, and a lot I'm probably wrong about. And that's why I have no business trying to script the way others think, speak, or act. Yes, I'll call out unkindness, destructiveness, or dishonesty, and I may show rude people the door, but I shouldn't try to suppress an honest, well-meant opinion because I disagree with it. Argue against it? Sure. Censor it? No. Who am I to be that sure that I'm right?

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