Thursday, May 03, 2007

Intellectual Freedom

I was going to write a post about the ideal of intellectual freedom. I’d argue that it’s essential to any representative democracy, where there exists a free exchange of ideas.

It’s necessary because, while at first sight, some ideas may seem disgusting or inappropriate, we must always keep a rational and impartial perspective. This perspective would help us effectively dismiss such ideas, if they really were so absurd or repugnant.

Disallowing the expression of such ideas gives their originators a “persecution” veil, and would generate sympathy. So, if we really wanted to expose such ideas, suppression isn’t the answer. It backfires.

Of course, what ideas are “really bad” or “dangerous” can get arbitrary. Debate in an open society and higher education can very well be inhibited by suppressing disliked ideas.

That was what I planned to say. Of course, I’d add some concrete examples. Like how Bertrand Russell, a competent and excellent teacher, was prohibited from teaching at New York City College because religious organizers hated his ideas. So, the New York City College lost a potentially good professor, who’d bring prestige and over-qualification to the college.

Peter Singer, as well, would be another example. Had he been prohibited, like Russell, from teaching, critical debate and dialogue would have been stifled.

I’d go on to espouse the Canadian Library Association’s Statement on Intellectual Freedom. I’d be particularly pleased with how it mandates libraries to uphold intellectual freedom.

Then I thought some would say it’s either too abstract or that the examples were too historical. Then I found this lovely recent event.

Cary-Grove High School Student, Lee, was arrested for penning a violent-themed essay. The English teacher, Nora Capron, found it disturbing. Police chief, Ron Delelio, won’t release the essay. That’s a lovely way to avoid critical analysis, keep the public ignorant of the cause of the whole controversy.

Fortunately, bits and pieces of the essay are in this article. It’s an awfully distasteful essay, especially considering it was written in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting.

The whole case, nonetheless, reeks of conflicts of interest. It’s hardly surprising that the teacher was more disturbed with Lee’s essay, which criticizes her, than say Jameson Emling’s violent essay, which didn’t reference the teacher.

This brings me back to intellectual freedom. Our own dislike is just that, a taste we have. Ideas aren’t actions and there is no good reason to suppress the expression of them. We may argue against them or call certain expressive writings “disgusting” and explain why. But prohibiting them is getting onto a slippery slope, both ethically and constitutionally.*

* By constitutionally, I’m referring to the constitutions of Canada, the United States and most Western European Nations. All the constitutions of these countries contain provisions protecting freedom of expression, which make the suppression of ideas slippery at best.

Comments: Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]