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Freedom of Speech / Freedom of Thought

by on January 18, 2015

                                                 Freedom of Speech / Freedom of Thought

                                                                 by Marco M. Pardi

Note: All comments are appreciated, read, and responded to accordingly.  The comments sections for all previous articles have been opened for use.  I will certainly look forward to your comments. 

“You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.” John Morley. (1838-1923).  On Compromise. 5. 1877

In the past few days much of the world has watched the events in Paris unfold as cartoonists, editors, and others were murdered in part for their depictions and in part as retaliation for the killing of  Anwar al-Aulaqi.  Neither the motives or the acts were new.  The scale, the brazen daylight attack and the initial escape of the perpetrators were new.  Interestingly, al-Aulaqi was the central (external) spokesperson for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and an originator of Inspire magazine, devoted to depicting the West and its central characters as deserving of the ridicule so feared by radical Muslims themselves.  Through its depictions it encouraged the killing of non believers. The phrase “dose of your own medicine” comes to mind when thinking of al-Aulaqi.  

These events were unfolding just as I was writing a previous post which included consideration of efforts to control the cultural narrative.  They brought out thoughts which are at the same time broader, more focused in principle, and personal.

After four voluntary years in uniform I returned to college to continue my education.  I was still in government service (attached on paper to a facility in Colorado),  just another form of it.  As I exited the Student Center at a Florida university one day I had to thread my way through a loud group waving signs and shouting denunciations of the draft and the Viet Nam conflict.  After I had returned Stateside from a conflict zone I had volunteered for Viet Nam but was denied since the Air Force then had a policy of not linking two conflict zone assignments without an interim assignment.  My disappointment was muted however by an offer for another type of select, voluntary duty, on a global scale not designated as any particular zone.

Looking at those kids I wondered if any of them had any sense of what lay at the foundation of the freedom they were shouting about.  The “cause” seemed only a foil; I felt they were as likely to demonstrate if the university mandated 8:00 am classes for everyone.  My reaction was probably also informed by the signs they waved.  “I am not conditioned!”, and similar ones.  Had they not experienced some form of conditioning they would not have been able to write the signs, or dress themselves for the occasion.

But realistically, what is freedom of speech – or expression, as it is increasingly defined, and is it limitless?  We all know the proscriptions on yelling “Fire!” in an enclosed public venue such as a theater.  And we know, though perhaps not the details,  the proscriptions against slander and libel.  And, unless the laws have changed, public denial of the Holocaust can bring a stiff prison sentence in some parts of Europe.  Nude dancers are thought to be exercising their rights of expression, but walking nude to one’s car after the show doesn’t count as expression.

I could go on, but that would merely be putting more leaves on the tree; I’m interested in the trunk and the roots.  The idea of freedom of speech does not seem to always go with the right to speak freely.  Social conventions mediate much of our intercourse even if we are consciously unaware of them.  I knew a man who seemed to always speak his mind.  He did not do this in a confrontational or angry way; he just never indulged in the “social niceties” that characterize so many of our interactions.  If you looked like yesterdays’ vomit, he would tell you.  On the other hand, you could be sure you never left his company with spinach on your teeth or something peeking out from your nose.  If ever there was a modern day Auriga, whispering “memento homo” (remember, you are but a man) it would be him.

How much do we think and say because it is “expected of us”? How free are we in the fabric of our daily social lives?  This can take an odd twist.   In the military I was closing in on someone I suspected of certain improper dealings with classified materials.  As I cultivated the relationship he told me of his youthful habits of shoplifting and other petty theft.  Never having been caught, it was not on his B.I., his background investigation.   I asked him why he would take such chances for such small returns and he said, “Because I would be accused of it anyway.”  In fact, the charges I filed once I had the appropriate evidence were probably the first real accusations he experienced; his returns for his actions included a stretch in federal prison.  Perhaps he never shoplifted. Perhaps his false “confession” to shoplifting was a way of bleeding off the stress and guilt over what he actually was stealing.  Perhaps I should leave that to psychologists.

I have a sense that our criminal justice system is edging more toward presumed thought crime, especially in areas of concern which are often poorly understood and result in simplistically reactive measures.  A kid caught with a few ounces of marijuana is charged with simple possession.  The same kid caught with a kilo of marijuana is charged with possession with intent to distribute, a far more serious charge.  But what if the kid swears it was only for his own use?  So the prosecutor can get pleasantly swacked on one bottle of wine.  If we go to his house and find 1,000 bottles in his wine cellar should we conclude he intends to distribute? 

By extension, we too frequently see the actions of people claiming to be motivated by “radical Islam”.  And throughout our societies we see individuals devoutly speaking and behaving in accordance with their Muslim beliefs.  Should we presume they are in possession of that faith with intent to distribute, with intent to perpetrate extreme acts on its behalf?

While living in Muslim countries I was never approached by a Muslim friend with intent to bring me into the fold.  But my doorbell rings frequently with Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christian denominations trying to save me from my evil ways.  Yes, there are those who attempt to propagate Islam through the ultimatum: Convert, pay special taxes, or flee.  That increasing numbers in the U.S. are advocating this same ultimatum in the name of their version of Christianity is barely if ever mentioned.  And this carries over into the political arena when these people conflate politics with religion.  In Georgia, where I live, a Republican bumper sticker is a sure sign you’ve gotten right with God.  Anything else is almost tantamount to inflammatory speech, asking for vandalism or worse.

Some years ago I explored an organization touting itself as “Free Thinkers”.  A stridently anti-religious, anti-metaphysics group, they adhere strictly to what is increasingly known as “scientism”, a remarkably narrow and ill informed interpretation of what they think science is.  Indeed,  anyone who strayed from the “what is” to the “what if” was, in their strident view, not free.  Completely unwilling to question the foundations of their “thinking”, they were ardent and confirmed believers – not thinkers, compounded by the fact that what they worshipped as science would be almost unrecognizable in the scientific community.  When my background in the field of death, dying, and related phenomena became known I was asked if I would address a meeting of the “Free Thinkers”.  Having spoken to many other groups, including several church congregations,  I recognized that these other groups were immeasurably more willing to listen, to consider, and to think.  I politely declined the offer.

So, without delving into epistemological intricacies of what causes people to think they are free,  I accept that words such as freedom of speech and freedom of thought simply float on the surface of social acceptance and convention.  I am not a rigid Behaviorist.  Although called an iconoclast at an early age, I try to assess my freedom to speak freely, assuming – perhaps unfairly at times, that not every listener is willing to freely consider what I say, or my freedom to say it.

How about you?  If you would care to speak your thoughts freely, I would be happy to engage and consider your thoughts.

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  1. This dissertation brings to mind the several discussions we had back in the day on the subject of free…anything. The conclusion to which we came was that there is no such thing as absolute freedom. Free will, free thought, free speech, free action; all are delusions.

    The constitution guarantees us freedom of speech and press, theoretically. As you point out, there are many instances in which these freedoms do not apply. We do not have the right to perpetrate a falsehood which causes harm to other people. We can and do say things which hurt people’s feelings or make them angry; while not a kind act, this is allowed. Of course, to do so might cause others to go past their (just shy of the tip of my nose) freedom to take action.

    Freedom of religion falls under the notion of freedom of thought. Not being one of the faithful of any given tradition, I tend to believe that people find their own truth, and this should be allowed. I have certainly found bits of mine in a variety of places, including some of the more traditional sources. I tend to avoid religious discussions (that and politics), but I have shared my beliefs with others on the occasions when they insisted on sharing theirs. When we lived in Germany, the local Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door with regularity for a time. We shared our beliefs until they gave up and simply stopped coming. What we choose to think, to believe (if anything) is as personal as it gets.

    While we certainly should be free to think what we will, and to express those thoughts, it is obvious in many situations that this is not so. What we are truly free to share is dictated by the social environment in which we abide. I have a friend who fears she will lose her job if it is discovered that she is Wiccan. I myself do not feel free to express my social and political beliefs for fear of ridicule. Life isn’t free, and it often isn’t fair.

    People who define themselves as “free thinkers” are sometimes the polar opposite; open only to the echo of their own beliefs. To truly be free, one must be open to the possibility that there are other thoughts out there which are equally as valid as their own. One must be open to change.

    Thank you, Marco, for once again giving me something to think about, and the venue and freedom to express those thoughts. Rose


    • Dana permalink

      Rose, I sympathize with your Wiccan friend. For me, living and working in the Bible Belt has always presented some challenges due to the sort of industries in which I have been employed. Very often, I have been the only non-theist and non-right-wing employee. Is it scary? Absolutely. Sure, an employee can keep to themselves, but this becomes increasingly difficult with any sort of tenure. And, the types of companies wherein everyone hired is religiously and politically conservative tend to drag opinions out of people. I have been there, and do not wish to be there again.

      Sometimes I find it scary, as you know, merely contributing to blogs. Unethical potential employers can and do conduct “background screenings” (I use that concept very loosely) of candidates simply through basic Internet searches. This is perfectly lawful, although an ethical Human Resources Manager would not be as likely, if at all, to do this.

      I maintain this: If I were independently wealthy, I would be all over the Internet until my fingers were worn from typing (and whether anyone was listening or not!).


  2. Thank you so much, Rose. Your thoughts and experiences encourage one to think and speak freely – with the understanding that one is also free to disagree (although I don’t disagree with you at all). I miss those talks, and am so glad we at least have this venue in which to resume.


    • If we expect to be allowed to express ourselves freely, then we must allow that same freedom to others. This is true even if their thoughts and beliefs are different than ours; sometimes especially when they are different. How else are we to learn and grow?


      • Thanks, Rose. The worst part of teaching lower level college courses was the need to get through so much material we didn’t have much time for in-class discussions.


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