It is hard to think of a philosophical topic that is more revered and challenging than the nature of freedom. And it is equally difficult to think of a social issue that is more consequential than understanding what constitutes freedom of expression. So, it’s not surprising to read about a vigorous reaction to Cambridge University’s recent amendment of its “Free Speech Statement” (in “The Guardian” Dec. 18, 2020). In this article, two concerned academics, Priyamvada Gopal and Gavan Titley, maintain that a recent policy change at Cambridge University will likely result in a limiting rather than expansion of free speech. By banning protests against speakers who promulgate “discriminatory, hateful or discredited viewpoints,” they claim that the university has moved toward a position that treats all ideas as equally worthy of discussion, as in a so-called “marketplace of ideas.” The implicit danger of this policy is that it makes it easier for free speech debates to become platforms for “retrograde ideas that do not really merit debate” in a progressive academic setting.
I share the author’s concerns that obviously flawed or blatantly false ideas—such as those that promote racial and sexual discrimination, or ideologies with little or no moral or intellectual merit—reflect regressive, divisive mindsets, and that facilitating their promulgation is counterproductive in terms of advancing public debates that are non-discriminatory and intellectually creative. Because of their non-inclusive and heavily biased nature, such ideas are generally disseminated in ways that are manipulative, or even coercive. And when manipulation and coercion occur, freedom of expression is clearly limited. As Gopal and Titley remind us, to be genuinely supportive of freedom of expression, we need to “be alert to the damage being wrought by vested interests who seek to engineer specific ideological outcomes.”
Our need to be on the lookout for ideas and activities that compromise our ability to express ourselves freely is, I believe, extremely compelling. Modern communication technologies have made it all too easy to induce conditioned patterns of thinking and feeling in targeted populations as a way of furthering specific ideological or commercially-motivated agendas. And
the more we accept “being conditioned” as a commonplace, relatively benign reality of everyday life, the less likely it is that we will recognize or be bothered by the manipulative conditioning at work in ideas and behaviors that are intellectually regressive, emotionally restrictive, and socially divisive.
Of course, some types of conditioned behaviors are needed for understanding, establishing, and maintaining orderly coexistence with others, at all levels of societal life. But to the extent that they become the driving force for personal, cultural, or societal life, they become dogmatic and dictatorial rather than authoritative and life enhancing, and thereby limit freedom of expression.
As someone who embraces a philosophy of wholeness, my understanding of freedom is indistinguishable from what it means to be fully alive, to be fully in tune with, or at one with, everything that happens, the infinitely varied unity unfolding day by day, moment by moment. In the light of this understanding, we express our freedom to the extent that we act as genuine participants in all the events of our lives. And genuine participation, which occurs in the here-and-now of an immediate experience, is hampered or even blocked by unreasonably coercive policies and conditioned patterns of behavior that operate without due consideration of their underlying purposes. To participate in anything as freely as possible, we need to believe that whatever we are involved with is part of who we are, which implies that we are prepared to respond to situations in ways that express our fundamental interdependence. Naturally, if we are forbidden to protest ideas and behaviors we believe are not compatible our interdependence, our freedom of expression (though not our basic, existential freedom) is curtailed.
Voltaire’s famous maxim, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” does not imply a willingness to facilitate the promulgation of ideas one believes to be false or damaging to the public good in some way. But it does imply an awareness of the fundamental context for freedom of expression: our unity with everyone and everything. We honor our existential freedom when we honor our natural interdependence, but we do not honor it by making it easier for people to propagate ideas and behaviors that impede our understanding of this basic fact of existence.
Common sense tells us that “things are not always what they appear to be.” And I think we need to bear this in mind when we are tempted “to tolerate” obviously divisive ideas and activities in the name of free speech. Genuine freedom, like genuine love, is not about tolerating anything: it is about moving beyond tolerating into embracing what is deepest within us, our togetherness. And honoring our togetherness surely implies responding appropriately to situations that draw us away from it, which is also what a commitment to freedom of expression implies. Such commitment, I believe, is also the foundation of our ability to be of genuine service to both ourselves and our world.
“The truth that sets us free—the truth that keeps us in touch with the ultimate
reality to which we belong—is the truth of interdependent living: the truth of
being of service.”
From: P. D. Crawford, Born into Unity (2018), p. 114.
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness