Free speech – but how free?

Free speech – but how free?

Certain phrases, pieces of music can reduce most of us to tears. A photograph or movie provokes feelings you prefer to keep to yourself. We each have our triggers.

Early childhood experiences condition us most. A dear uncle was generous with his cigarettes – the Surgeon General had yet to make his historic pronouncement. So I spent the next twenty-five years happily puffing away with the intensity of a Humphrey Bogart. We are all radicalised as children – it is called ‘education’, sometimes ‘religion’, mostly just ‘growing up’. Our early, lasting, values are taught as dogma.

Worst of all the dogmas we receive is guilt. Based on blame for real or imagined wrongdoing, guilt is the albatross we carry around our necks. The intellectually bright and fortunate may learn how to rationalise it away but even they seldom lose it altogether. Made to feel guilty enough we will look as far and as absurdly as a scapegoat to offload the loss of self-respect we suffer from blame. Or we focus our shame onto another cause and live, and possibly die, to assuage it. We are all radicalised one way or another.

Small wonder, then, that for some their radicalisation turns nasty. After all, we are surrounded by excessive violence, noise, competition, greed, fear of failure, images of ugliness, thrills that require exaggeration to impact, drugs that destroy our physical and emotional balances. Never to learn the beauty of what we create, only its crudeness or material value is to miss an aspect of life valuable beyond wealth. But we have gone down the path of excess. What are we to do to recover from the results of that?

We accept that getting tough is the only practical way to conquer the fad of terrorism. But what is tough to someone begging to be a martyr? Threats of incarceration, death, or torture (God forbid we should even think it) do nothing to deter a belief in our own rightness of purpose if we believe it to the exclusion of all other thought. Devoting more and more resources to pry into people’s minds and hearts may be a poor response to misguided belief and behaviour. But we cannot stay supine.

I offer two solutions. [1] Ask everyone before they cast a vote in a political election to write 300 words describing their purpose for the next ten years. Make it a condition of voting. Many will spoil their opportunity, and that tells you something. Some will give a frivolous response – equally telling. These people will not be disenfranchised. Most will think before they respond. The quality of their answers will tell us something about what sort of government we need. But it will also tell us something about the governed. [2] Make everyone carry an identity card. The British don’t like it but did it in WWII. Those who live in countries that require it accept without giving it a second thought. Terrorism is war.

Intrusive? Of course. We are never going to solve terrorism unless we are. Involves judgment? Yes but what are we electing politicians for anyway? Pointless? Not if the experience we have had asking these questions for the last 25 years is anything to go by. People want to reflect on who they are and why they are here. They seldom get the chance to do so.

Let’s give them that chance. It is not perfect but it will be a start.