He drew a circle that shut me out — Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in!
Edwin Markham (1852-1940)
As regular readers here know, I am a strong advocate of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. As such, it is obvious to me that one cannot have a healthy democracy in any country in which both of those fundamental freedoms are absent. Nor can one have a healthy democracy if women are denied rights equal to those of men, freeing them from any subservience to or oppression by the opposite gender.
That means, of course, that a healthy democracy also requires the separation of religion and state. We have abundant examples in history of the disastrous results when state and religion are joined and religious law becomes mixed with state law. And we are still seeing the catastrophic and unnecessary results of the mixing of religion and state in the ongoing tragedies in the daily news. There can be no true freedom without government guarantees of freedom of and from religion.
Some never seem to learn from the past. Sad to say, the Russian government, under the strong influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, has now made it virtually illegal to support equal rights and equal freedom for those whose orientation is toward the same sex. That is appalling at the beginning of the 21st century, a reversion to the days when the Russian State was the punishing and persecuting arm of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian people have been forbidden to simply express a desire for such equality of rights in any public or visible manner. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill (often seen in photo ops with Putin) has even made the ridiculous and astonishingly intolerant and backward statement that the legalization of same-sex marriage is “a very dangerous sign of the Apocalypse.” That is something that should shock everyone who advocates freedom of speech and expression, as well as universal human equality of rights.
Religion can sometimes be a force for good in the world, but all too often it has placed backward doctrine above spirituality and compassion, and has become instead a deadly force for evil. We see abundant proof of that every day in those countries combining religious dogma with state law, and it is something that anyone who advocates human freedom and equality should deplore. Without the separation of religion and state, humanity will simply revert to the doctrine-based wars and persecutions of past centuries, the great difference being that now even the most backward and fanatical of religious dogmatists have access to the most up to date and deadly of technical weapons.
It makes one think of Carl Jung’s statement that the welfare of humanity “hangs by a thread.” To keep that thread from breaking, it is crucial that an advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and equal rights, along with a staunch advocacy of the separation of religion and state, should be strongly held and publicly promoted by both individuals and governments. This is of vital importance in a world where so many are daily threatened by persecution and violence incited and supported by those holding fanatical religious and political dogmas of one kind or another.
In spite of her cleverness and uniqueness, I have never been very fond of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, though I respect it for what it is. I know she has earned her own place in the history of poetry, but I find her in general too abstract — too much living in her mind — which is no doubt due in part to her rather reclusive and withdrawn lifestyle. One cannot help but be impressed, however, by her insistence on the right to her own individuality.
Today I would like to discuss one of her “didactic” poems. A didactic poem is one that has teaching as its purpose rather than aesthetic pleasure alone. And what this poem teaches is very important. It is called Much Madness is Divinest Sense.
Much madness is divinest sense To a discerning eye; Much sense the starkest madness. ’T is the majority In this, as all, prevails. Assent, and you are sane; Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous, And handled with a chain.
To me, the chief application of this poem is to the distinction between the thoughts and beliefs and actions of the masses in contrast to those of the individual.
It is all too common in human history, that when the majority of a society were set on a given course of belief or action, any individual who spoke out against it did so at his or her own risk.
We can trace this lesson back far in human history. The Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death in Athens for “corrupting the youth” and “impiety.” His method of reasoned questioning and its results ran contrary, so the authorities held, to the best interests of the people of Athens.
There are countless examples of the persecution of individuals who have held opinions contrary to those of the dominant religion, particularly when that religion had (or has) strong state or political support.
However, many of the great advances of humankind have come about precisely because of individuals who held opinions contrary to those held by the masses in general. We need only recall Galileo, who found by observation that the traditional view of the earth being the center of the Solar System was quite mistaken; and Charles Darwin, whose investigations revealed unquestionably that all creatures were not created in a few days time a few thousand years previously, but instead had evolved from lower forms of life over eons of time.
Then too, there were those like the Quaker John Woolman, who spoke out very early against the abomination of slavery. And there were the women who first began speaking for the right of women to vote, and often suffered terribly for it.
One can think of innumerable causes in which individuals stood against the majority, much to the eventual benefit of society. But for those few who speak out, life can be very difficult. They are often stigmatized as radical or as mad. In the Soviet Union and Communist China, one way of treating dissidents has been to remove them from society and shut them away in psychiatric wards, as though they were mental patients.
Dickinson points out in her poem, however, that the madness of such people is often actually the most heavenly of common sense, to the “discerning eye,” that is, to those who can see clearly and rationally, distinguishing what is real from what is merely illusion and mass opinion.
She tells us further that “much sense” can be “the starkest madness,” that is, what the majority finds sensible and “true” can be the plainest, strongest insanity.
We do not have to look far for examples of that. Look at the people of Nazi Germany caught up in the idolization of Hitler and his lunacy. It was very risky to take an individual position then against the position of the masses. Look at the American South at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and how those who spoke in favor of equal rights did so at peril of their lives.
It still goes on today. Those holding a view different from that of the masses, particularly in any matter relating to politics or religion, are often stigmatized, stereotyped as “crazy” in order to discredit their ideas and push them out of the public mind and view. But it is often precisely these individuals, who think for themselves and not by what everyone else is saying and doing, who lead humankind forward in sudden, bold steps.
Individualism in thought has always been, and still is, in some societies, dangerous. Whether someone is perceived as sane or mad can depend on whether his or her views fit those of the majority or not:
’T is the majority In this, as all, prevails.
It is the majority — that is, the beliefs and will of the majority — that prevail, that have the stronger position. If the majority decides that supposed witches are to be burned and homosexuals put in prison, or women kept isolated and at home, then that is considered “sane” and all opposition madness or impiety.
’T is the majority In this, as all, prevails. Assent, and you are sane; Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous, And handled with a chain.
So, those who want to be accepted, those who don’t want trouble, know which way the wind blows, as did Dickinson:
Assent, and you are sane; Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous, And handled with a chain.
Agree with the masses, with those in social, political or religious power, and you are considered “sane.” But if you “demur,” if you show reluctance or refusal in going along with the accepted belief or behavior, you suddenly become perceived as dangerous, like someone with severe mental illness, and you are “handled with a chain,” treated accordingly.
“Handled with a chain” takes us back to the evil days when the mentally ill could be placed in asylums and chained.
Take the case of Plympton House Lunatic Asylum, in England:
“In July 1843 a woman who had given birth to a child but five or six weeks before was found to be confined in ‘a straight waistcoat and chained by the arm and leg to a bench’. Ten curable patients and two idiots were being looked after by a lunatic who was himself kept in chains to prevent him from escaping. As if that was not bad enough, later that year the lady mentioned above was found to be chained not only by her leg but by another passing around her waist and an iron ring with two hand locks restraining her hands. In total, two private patients and nineteen paupers were found to be chained to their beds each night at that time.”
Of course Dickinson’s poem applies also to the person in ordinary society who is “different” in opinions and actions, like Dickinson herself, with her seclusion and her “innovative and unorthodox” beliefs and opinions. It is likely this smaller scale she had in mind, given that no doubt many in her time and place considered her odd, but it applies as well to the greater scale, in which a person who stands against the prevailing beliefs often pays for it dearly. And yet it is often these same people who have led humans to transcend pettiness and ignorance and irrationality.
That is why freedom of belief (including freedom from belief) and freedom of speech and expression are so critically important to a free and progressive society. And we should include in that universal freedom of education — the right of anyone, male or female, to learn to read and write, and to be exposed to all kinds of contrary views and opinions in the open marketplace of ideas. And of course the right to come to one’s own conclusions and personal beliefs, and to express them freely and openly.
For a free society, free intellectual advancement, and a creative and open marketplace of thought and ideas, freedom of speech and expression are essential. They are the foundation of a free society.
Freedom of speech is the right not only to express one’s views on a subject, to discuss that subject, to disagree with the opinions of others on that subject, but also to satirize it. This applies no matter what the subject might be, including religion. Consequently, in a society that honors freedom of speech in practice and not merely in theory, no one has the right not to be offended by others speaking or writing or painting or filming their views. Any individual may say what he or she likes about another individual’s religious beliefs or views or activities or venerated figures.
Any effort to limit such freedom of speech or free expression is fundamentally dangerous to the principle of free speech itself. That is why in a free society, there is no freedom from offense with freedom of thought and speech, and no real freedom of thought and speech where there is legalized freedom from offense.
There are those who think that this basic principle should not apply to one or another aspect of religion — to this or that religious figure, or to a particular religious text or “scripture,” or to a particular religious activity. But they are very wrong. All people should have not only freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion if they choose.
Whenever any religious decree is taken as the final word, that means a door has slammed on the human mind, chaining it into a fixed position on that matter, a position in which no further progress is possible and no further investigation is allowed. That, of course, puts a stop not only to advancement in science, but also to advancement in countless other fields.
Any assumed fact must thus always be open to potential investigation, criticism, discussion and disproval.
There was a time in the West when such investigation was not only forbidden but actually dangerous to one’s life. From this, Western civilization learned a very important lesson — that with freedom of speech and expression one is free to investigate any matter, whether it be of science or of religion, history or folklore. And that is as it should be.
It is critical to the survival of a democratic society that this freedom of speech and expression be vigilantly watched over and protected. We are very fortunate in the West. Such freedom of speech does not exist in all parts of the world and in all segments of society in various countries, which still have outmoded and backward “blasphemy” laws, but freedom of speech in its various manifestations is one of the greatest gifts of Western Civilization to the world, and it is one which must be cherished and protected.
Consequently, a sensible person will regard any statement offered as fact as only fact in a provisional sense. It may be tentatively accepted as accurate given what is presently known of the evidence, but nonetheless such a “fact,” whether in science or religion or any other field, is never immune to the possibility of being disproved by further investigation and evidence.
That means it is the height of nonsense to persecute or prosecute or harrass someone simply because they disagree with one’s views on a given matter, or express their disagreement in some written or visual or audio form. And of course that means everyone should be free to choose a religion, or to leave a religion, or to have no religion.
Suppose, for example, one thinks the world was created only a few thousand years ago by an all-powerful deity. Unfortunately there are large numbers of people who accept that as fact, then close their minds to any possibility of another option. Why they do so is immaterial, because they have stopped all thinking on the issue, as do all those who adhere to such a dogma. They consider the matter closed. Imagine the results if this had been adopted as the attitude of science!
Suppose now, that there is in society a law that keeps one from offending such closed-minded people; a law that prevents suggesting that their view may are wrong — a law that forbids one from putting disagreement with such “creationists” into speech or into writing or visual format — a law that forces one to keep one’s opinions to one’s self, secret. Then that is a society in which the principle of free speech has been seriously damaged and limited — a society that is no longer truly free, a society that actively hinders the advancement of knowledge.
There are two great dangers to freedom of speech, and they are two sides of the same coin: the first is the forbidding of speech that offends the views of another. That alone is serious and damaging enough. But the second is even worse: it is limiting the free speech of others through intimidation — through threats of violence. Both result in a society that is unable to think and speak freely and openly, a society that is regressive and ultimately unhealthy.
Free speech in the United States is the result of an immigrant society that had experienced, in the past, religious intolerance and violence in the mother countries. That does not mean, of course, that simply coming to America made them automatically supporters of free speech. There was a great deal of intolerance in certain segments of early immigrant America, for example among the New England Puritans, who came here for freedom of religion, but who did not wish to grant the same right to anyone else. Fortunately, however, freedom of speech and freedom of religion were a part of the founding of the United States out of the original thirteen colonies.
In the years since then, freedom of speech and of religion have not been uniformly protected in practice, but historically one can say that certainly great progress has been made. It is all the more important, then, that we should be aware of the inestimable value of these freedoms, and should be ever vigilant that we do not lose them through ill-considered new laws that may damage them or through fear of intimidating violence that hinders or prevents their free practice.