The Importance of Free Expression

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A fifteen-year-old California boy has been sentenced to one hundred days in a juvenile prison for writing a poem that school officials interpreted as a threat to kill fellow students. Part of his poem reads: "For I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school," and "For I am Dark, Destructive & Dangerous." His case is on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

For a culture that regards "discrimination" as a statutory offense, it is not surprising that state school officials and prosecutors were unable to make a distinction between the expression of words and behavior. But if the state perceives words to be of sufficient danger to allow for the prosecution of those who speak them, how twisted are the priorities that focus attention on what is, at most, boyish boastfulness? How did this child’s words rise to such a magnitude as to surpass the lies and forgeries of a president and his neocon advisors who were prepared to say anything to produce a war that has thus far killed at least ten thousand people?

While I have not read the full text of this teenager’s verse, what I have seen suggests that there is probably no nascent Shelley, Blake, or e.e. cummings being repressed in this case. Still, judging by today’s literary standards, his words might become part of the assigned readings in undergraduate college poetry classes.

But the quality and depth of his writings are not what interest me. I have always been the defender of individuals to express their thinking without any restriction by the state. Some of my friends who are staunch "First Amendment" supporters have presented me with hypotheticals to see if there are any limits to my defense of free expression. If one has freely entered into a contract with another to withhold information — e.g., the maintenance of trade secrets — that person would be obligated to not make such revelations. Any such violation would give rise to civil remedies for breach of contract. But in my view, individuals should be unreservedly immune from criminal punishment for the expression of any opinion or statement of alleged fact.

The importance of an unrestrained freedom of expression is not simply to benefit intellectuals, encourage political debate, or, in the case of pornography, to protect people with perverted tastes. Its value is central to the very survival of man as a species. Whether we have been blessed or cursed with consciousness is a question that remains to be answered, but the fact of the conscious direction of our lives is undeniable. Unlike instinct-driven species whose behavior is programmed from one generation to the next, we humans are able to — and, indeed, must — create new tools, organizational systems, analytical skills, and concepts by which we can better understand the nature of the world. We are biologically fated to be the creators of the values and the environments in which we live; our survival demands that we remain creative in a sense unknown to other species.

This creativity permits us to devise technologies, systems, and ideas that help to solve an immediate problem, increase our productive skills, or give us a better insight into the nature of the world. But such continued vibrancy is dependent upon an openness to change. When the established is continually challenged by the new, existing ideas or systems must either make an effective response, or will be replaced. To remain creative, this process must continue without interruption, no matter how comforting it might be to call for a time out. As we can intuit from sexual reproduction, the creative process arises out of cross-fertilization, not from cloning. Clones, like Xeroxed copies of a text, do no more than repeat an existing form.

Having seen the benefit of such creations, we often succumb to a temptation that short-circuits our creativity: institutionalizing what we have generated. We become attached to a production method, an organization, or an idea that proved fruitful to us, and believe that our well-being depends upon the preservation of these forms. In so doing, the product of our creative nature takes on greater importance than does the continuation of the spontaneous and autonomous processes that engendered it.

As I have written in previous articles, various historians have suggested that institutionalization — with its insistence on regulatory conformity, standardization, and the protection of existing organizational interests — has been a principal cause of the collapse of previous civilizations. "The essence of history is change," wrote Jacob Burckhardt, while "the way of annihilation is invariably prepared by inward degeneration, by decrease of life." Will and Ariel Durant observed that the decline of civilizations arises from the failure of "leaders to meet the challenges of change." Civilizations that fail to respond to change can, at best, expect to "linger on as stagnant pools left by once life-giving streams."

The institutional order resists such change. It is premised on the maintenance of the status quo; but a vigorous and creative society depends upon resiliency, the capacity to make effective responses to a changing environment. The state — as enforcer of institutional rigidity — loves the cloned mentality. The government school system and military training camps are the state’s mechanisms for fostering the uniformity and obedience that benefit its interests while helping to destroy the vibrancy of a free and productive society.

This phenomenon is not confined to the demise of civilizations. Individuals who insist upon insulating themselves from unwanted external influences also lose the fluctuation necessary for a creative life. Their behavior becomes like that of brain-injured people who Abraham Maslow described as wanting "to manage their equilibrium by avoiding everything unfamiliar and strange and by ordering their restricted world in such a neat, disciplined, orderly fashion that everything in the world can be counted upon." What better explanation can be offered for those socially un-housebroken misfits who seek to reconfirm their faith in the state direction of people’s lives by concocting legislative schemes to micromanage the details of human behavior? To be obsessed is to be existentially stuck.

Such traits are also found in the behavior of many serial killers or other mentally-conflicted persons who engage in violent acts. People like Jeffrey Dahmer and the "Unabomber" are often described by neighbors as "loners." Those who isolate themselves from others can find themselves listening to no voices but their own. With no one to question their information, provide alternative analyses of events, or challenge their conclusions, they are easily convinced that their opinions are solidly grounded. And why not? From whom do they hear dissent?

We need not rely on speculation to confirm the dangerous nature of insular thinking. Experimental studies have been conducted with individuals placed in isolation tanks and deprived of virtually all sensory input. Their only experiences with the world came from within their own minds, and they soon became disoriented and delusional.

The lesson to be derived from such studies is that we require an energized relationship with the world around us — particularly with other people — in order to maintain our sanity. We need the countervailing influence of others to remind us of the inherently limited nature of our understanding. As anyone who has participated in "brainstorming" sessions can attest, rational and creative decision-making is dependent upon our access to as much relevant information as possible. An unrestrained freedom of expression is more than just a libertarian sentiment for tolerance of others; it is essential to our living well.

To be a changing person in a changing world one must have a mind that remains innovative; that compares and contrasts the novel with the established. But institutionalized thinking resists such openness to change. When the protection of existing interests and arrangements reaches the point at which critical thinking and expression becomes ossified, a civilization dominated by such a mindset is destined to collapse. The American civilization is dangerously close to such a point. One need only review what has passed for thought in these many months following 9/11 to find evidence for this enervation of the mind.

The phrase "beltway thinking" is used to describe the political mindset in Washington, D.C., that regards every conceivable "problem" as a condition to be dealt with through the intervention of state power. Government regulation, extended police powers, increased government spending, and the deployment of military forces, are the major premises underlying this bipartisan "beltway" vision of the world.

Immediately after 9/11, almost all of America became infected with the "beltway" virus. Like a lynch mob that tolerates no dissent, politicians, the media, corporate leaders, academic and "think-tank" minds, along with most Americans, embraced a lockstep mentality that only a few were willing to challenge. Intellectuals and the major media — whose minds ought to be counted upon as a kind of immune system to challenge state power — went into autoanesthesia. Even some make-believe "libertarians" quickly joined in, labeling as "America-haters" those who questioned the Bush administration’s frenzied reactions.

The United States became, quite literally, the world’s "Unabomber," holed away in its retreat, talking only to itself, and inflicting deadly violence on whatever other nations fit the delusional thinking of a twisted administration. America found itself in an isolation tank shut off from all outside influences save that of the cooing words of its president. What countervailing voices questioned any of this? Virtually no one in Congress raised any doubts, as members stumbled all over one another to be the loudest to shout "hurrah!" The major media — which once prided itself on being the watchdog of the political process, obediently took up its role as lapdog. The contrary advice of other nations was dismissed as "meddling," while the isolated dissent of Americans was regarded as "treason."

In such a restricted mindset, why should we be surprised at the atrocities at Abu Ghraib? Why would those who conducted such tortures have felt any more sense of shame in their deeds than did most Americans who seemed willing to allow the Bush administration to rain death and destruction without regard for the consequences? I was reminded of a Life magazine photograph — apparently from the late 19th century — showing a group of men who had just lynched a man who had murdered one of their neighbors. Their faces, like those of the American torturers photographed at Abu Ghraib, bore the same grins, as though they, too, were pleased with their deed.

A free, peaceful, and creative society depends, for its continuation, upon the open pursuit and exchange of ideas and information. In a complex world in which the electronic speed of information and decision-making is both more rapid and far-reaching than even a few decades ago, we need all the dissent and contrariness we can muster, for the sake of both our sanity and survival. It is no accident that repressive and brutal state-dominated societies crush dissent. Like deranged killers, they need the sense of self-righteous assurance — which one-barreled visionary thinking provides — that their course of action is beyond question. "If you’re not with us, you’re against us," is the mindset of both insane men and the societies that sustain them.

To the extent American society is able to reverse its destructive freefall and restore any sense of sanity to itself, its salvation may be attributed to two major influences: [1] independent and foreign journalists and other writers who, having no special interest loyalties to interfere with their reporting, were able to freely communicate information that an establishment-dominated media ignored or suppressed. The efforts of these alternative sources were widely disseminated through [2] the free and unrestrained processes of the Internet, a system in which men and women must daily labor to separate truth from fiction.

The statists will do their best to insulate the institutional order from the turbulence inherent in a free society. To this end, Hillary Clinton will likely continue her efforts to subvert the Internet by providing it with a "gatekeeper" (i.e., herself) who will see to it that not just "anyone" will be allowed to put their opinions out into the free market of ideas. Those who value the pursuit of truth will note the difference. As the New York Times and various establishment journalists perform their mea culpas for having been caught in the act of giving evidential cover to a vicious and depraved administration, there are numerous Internet websites — including this one — whose voices can proudly proclaim "we told you so!"

If America is able to survive its present catharsis, it is only because the open pursuit of truth will have allowed us to identify and confront the dark side of our humanity, whose influences forced their way into our consciousness on 9/11. If we manage to extricate ourselves from the crevasse of mass-mindedness into which we have allowed ourselves to fall, it will only be because of our insistence upon — not simply tolerance for — differing and uncomfortable views. History may well record that, at a time when America flirted with — and was nearly seduced by — the madness of its political leaders, it was delivered from a total collapse into insanity by an uncontrolled, computerized network that owes allegiances to no one.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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