Thomas Paine said “the mind once enlightened, cannot again go dark.”
The precondition of enlightenment is liberty. Enlightenment only dawns when we are free to argue. Democracy allows us to vote. But freedom allows us to think.
And yet, in every generation, censors want to repress free thought. Indeed, Paine — one of the great defenders of liberty in the American tradition — was threatened with censorship and worse.
So recent events are not so surprising. Last week, people called for a Fresno State professor to be fired for what she said on Twitter. This week Christian groups warn that a proposed California law (AB 2943) will censor Christian teaching about homosexuality. And so it goes.
The details in these cases are complicated. But the bedrock principle is liberty. Conservatives have a right to speak, as do progressives. The solution for bad speech is better speech. The cure for weak arguments is stronger ones. If you disagree with what someone says, say something more persuasive. The fact that we continue to talk about all of this is a wonderful sign of a vibrant public sphere. Discord and dissent are democratic. This raucous cacophony is what freedom sounds like. In other parts of the world, there is silence.
In China, the Internet is censored and the Bible cannot be sold online. In many countries, dissenters are jailed or disappear. Those with public platforms — lawyers, professors and journalists — are often most at risk. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that since 1992, nearly 1,300 journalists have been killed.
But here, we have planted the Liberty Tree, as Paine once described it. The root of this tree is the First Amendment, which gives us religious liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government.
Liberty was limited in the early years to the privileged classes. But freedom has spread along with enlightenment.
Our liberties have created world-class universities. Our freedom allows for spirited discussions about politics and religion.
Not everyone who speaks is thoughtful. People are free to speak in uncivil and unproductive ways. Thus we have Twitter wars, pornography, vulgarity, and fake news. Freedom is noisy, messy, and often uncomfortable.
What is true for you may appear as blasphemy to another. Some speakers needle, vilify, insult, and belittle. Others lie and exaggerate. But that’s the way it goes.
The noise of freedom can be overwhelming. The censors want it all to stop. But the louder the buzz, the better the honey.
It is not possible to limit the lies, insults and vulgarity without also stifling creativity and critical inquiry. Citizens should work to develop civility and self-restraint. But self-regulation cannot be imposed. Orthodoxy cannot be created by coercion.
The powerful have a special obligation to resist coercive speech codes. The weak, the young, and the marginalized already find it difficult to make their voices heard. The powerful have a responsibility to listen to and encourage the disenfranchised.
Intolerance has a long and notorious lineage. Socrates was put on trial, as were Jesus, Galileo, and Martin Luther. The powerful routinely censor those who question the status quo. Sometimes the result is outright repression. In other cases, the inquisitions of the powerful have a subtle chilling effect.
Censorship and intolerance are often based upon the patronizing worry that stupid people will be swept along by false ideas. Defenders of liberty believe people are not innately stupid. We think false ideas are swept away by true ones.
But truth — and thought — are complicated and difficult. Real thinking requires solitude and silence, as well as substantial freedom. Truth is not revealed in reactive responses. It grows out of doubt and curiosity. The censors are afraid of curiosity. They prefer conformity.
Free speech does not guarantee clarity of thought. People will use their liberty to express malice and nonsense. But one person’s nonsense is another person’s deepest conviction. We need to hear bad ideas in order to argue against them and understand what we truly believe.
Liberty is a precondition of enlightenment. It generates religious insight, scientific inquiry, artistic creation, and philosophical wonder. These fruits don’t grow on a tree that has no thorns.