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freedom of thought

September 19, 2007

I’ve been giving some thought to the matter of free speech following the incident at the University of Florida this week. I don’t want to over-emphasize the event itself, but I feel strongly that it is a symptom or an indication of something pernicious about the increasing acceptability of violence to ensure order in our society.

slaveKant wrote a fantastic short essay entitled “What is Enlightenment?” that I recommend to anyone with an interest in philosophy and freedom. One theme is his assertion that Enlightenment thinking signaled the shift from the old motto, “Don’t think, obey!” to “Think as much as you like, and as freely as you like, just obey!” In our democracy we seem to have a forced choice: obey the specific liberal democratic order of our nation or risk anarchy/terrorism/fundamentalism. In other words, you can be as radical a thinker as you like, but we’ll bite you if you try to seize the mic longer than we permit.

In his book Orthodoxy, Gilbert K. Chesterton finds that the very principle of freedom of thought (and hence freedom to act) paradoxically has an antidemocratic tendency:

We may say broadly that free thought is the best of all safe-guards against freedom. Managed in a modern style, the emancipation of the slave’s mind is the best way of preventing the emancipation of the slave. Teach him to worry about whether he wants to be free, and he will not free himself. (1995, p. 114)

Think for just a second whether this is true. We’re so free to express ourselves – obviously blogs show that! We can protest and think and have all the heated discussions at the dinner table we want. But when we are really faced with the choice of being free, are we up for it? Or are we just as willing as any other muted and enslaved soul to stay in our place?

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