Free Speech and Democracy, Opinion and Truth
I have opinions. I don’t know if my opinions are true. It seems unlikely that all of them would be. Because for every opinion I hold, someone else, no less intelligent than me, holds precisely the opposite opinion. There is no reason to think that I am always right and they are always wrong.
Inspecting my opinions more closely, I find they are skewed and biased, based on prejudices I inherited as a child and accrued as I grew up. My views are coloured by resentment and trauma. I gravitate to beliefs that validate my sense of identity. Thus, I am more likely to be a feminist if I am a woman, more likely to be a conservative if I have money, more likely to be a Marxist if I do not. I have an emotional attachment to my beliefs which makes me far from clear-minded. I am forced to admit that my opinion is not a truth in itself.
Democracy is the art of balancing opinions in an attempt to find truth. Just as a fly has one thousand eyes, and if it looks through only one eye it sees in a distorted and unbalanced way, but when it looks through all its eyes together it sees clearly, in the same way, democracy is made of a million opinions, all of which are limited and unbalanced by themselves, but when taken together, balance each other out and form a coherent whole.
Democracy, then, is like one of those team-building exercises you do at conferences, where 10 people stand in a circle and one person stands in the middle. Someone in the circle pushes the person in the middle, who falls into the arms of someone on the other side of the circle, who catches him and pushes him back. He topples and spins, but he is always caught. In the same way, democracy catches society. Society is constantly overbalancing and righting itself, then overbalancing again. Such is the nature of progress. We fix a problem and, in doing so, create a new problem that someone else must fix. A Liberal government follows a Labor government which is followed by a Liberal government again. We overbalance and fall, but someone always catches us, and we never hit the ground
In this metaphor, free speech is the right to raise our arms. It is the right to catch society as it falls. It is the right for a climate scientist to say, “We will destroy this planet if we don’t start using cleaner energy.” And it is the right for an economist to say, “If you convert too fast, the economy will collapse and a billion people will starve.” Free speech is the way in which the eyes of the fly communicate with each other to produce a viable image of our world. Free speech is not just some fancy privilege we inherit by being born where we are born; it is the cornerstone of democracy. If my arms are tied, then I cannot catch the man in the middle as he falls towards me, and his head will hit the ground. If my tongue is tied, then I cannot catch society as it falls towards me, and it will collapse and crumble.
Democracy is the belief that we will find truth in the balance of everyone’s perspectives. It is an act of faith in the goodness of mankind. Totalitarianism is the belief that my opinion alone is true, and must be given precedence. In democracy, people who disagree with me are seen as collaborators in a search for a truth which none of us holds but all of us seek. In totalitarianism, they are seen as obstacles to the expression of a truth which I alone hold and they are seeking to undermine. Totalitarianism is like one eye of a fly claiming to know best, and demanding that all the other eyes see the world how it sees it.
Democracy saves us from totalitarianism, and totalitarianism is prone to produce atrocities. Free speech is the cornerstone of democracy. Any attempt to curtail free speech is an act of totalitarianism. Thus I would say it is vital that we investigate claims of election fraud in the United States, vital that the press be held to account, and vital that we do not give in too easily to demands to punish people for the nature of their opinions. Voltaire is reported to have said, “I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That must be our attitude: we must think freely for ourselves, and demand that others be allowed to do the same.
Too many people see democracy not as a forum to share and discuss points of view, but an arena in which they must fight to impose their beliefs onto everyone else. Both sides of politics are becoming increasingly dismissive of the other. This is not democratic thinking; this is a push towards totalitarianism. It is much better just to express what we see, as the eye of a fly expresses what it sees, and trust in democracy to find the right balance, just as the fly’s eye trusts in the brain.
People seem to imagine that they will find peace at the end of a protracted political struggle. They say, “When society is perfect, then I will rest.” But society will never be perfect. There will always be something to amend, something to improve. Such thinking is only evasive thinking. It says, “I cannot create a happy life for myself, but must lobby for someone else to give it to me.” But I would say the opposite is true. Regardless of whether Biden or Trump is President, regardless of whether Adani opens its coalmines or not, still I retain the power to be kind, to listen, to love, to live with dignity. There is more happiness to be found in these things than in any product of politics. Materialism says that happiness will be found in the perfect arrangement of things. But experience tells us that happiness is never found in things, but only in ourselves.
Acknowledging this, we can relax. We can let go the impetus to fight. It is only because we imagine we will be happy if we make the world conform to our beliefs that we fight so hard on their behalf. Because we think we will be happy if Biden is President, then we are willing to fight, lie, smear, denigrate and insult in order to make it so. But if we see that we can be happy regardless of politics, we naturally stop fighting. We express our opinion and allow others to do the same. We listen and try to understand. We do not try to meddle with results. Under such circumstances, democracy flourishes, and so do we.
Cover by Paweł Czerwiński