Skip to comments.Stray Thoughts: My Two Cents on the Power of Free Speech
Posted on 10/06/2006 4:53:20 PM PDT by Natty Bumppo@frontier.net
Whether you believe Darwin or not, there is ample evidence that, at least in small ways, living things evolve. They adapt, adjust, and learn. Facing external pressures, the many processes that lead to change or mutation in living things permit new options and strategies for survival. The ones that survive are, de facto, the successful traits, and become part of the new standard.
In one theological discussion of evolution, a pastor of my acquaintance once said that these mutations were the stray thoughts of God, no different than the impulses of the artist who modifies and refines an artistic composition. Like the artist, God doesnt act on every stray thought, he said, just the ones that work. Similarly, natural selection ensures that only successful changes survive: Only the best ideas get to wear genes, so to speak.
Western thought has long been sustained and matured by the stray thoughts that arise from within and without the cultures of the West. New ideas and philosophical views arise daily some survive, but many are discarded as too incoherent or unproductive. Others limp along and grow, analogous to cancers in the Western body of thought. Mostly, they are rooted out and cauterized, although not always quickly.
Fascism is one of these cancerous thoughts, one that keeps popping up no matter how many times it is defeated. Once it galvanized a nation, nearly destroyed a continent, and paralyzed a planet with warfare, but it was defeated. Yet, if history teaches anything, it will re-appear. That is the inherent risk in the free exchange of ideas.
But it is this seemingly random emergence of stray thoughts that has fueled the philosophical development of Western cultures since ancient Greece. From pan-theism to monotheism, from divine rights to human rights, the living body of philosophy that defines what we mean by Western Civilization has been evolving and adapting for at least three millennia.
This genetic model of thought is not new. Theorists refer to spreading ideas as memes packages of thought that infect individuals and populations no differently than a virus, for better or for worse. Malcolm Gladwell wrote extensively on this idea in his book The Tipping Point, which examined not only how ideas spread, but how some ideas catch on very quickly.
All of this is possible because ideas spread pretty freely in Western societies, due largely to a single dominant meme in Western thought: freedom of speech, which is by no means a guarantee we have long struggled - since well before Socrates had to drink hemlock for his ideas - with what, if any, limits should exist on the right to say anything.
But that right to say anything is exactly what supplies our intellectual pool of potential mutations. From whatever sources and for whatever reasons, the concept of freedom of speech works to create an ever-renewing source of stray thoughts that might one day mature into a new standard, another step in our continual journey of cultural maturation.
This is why cultures that suppress thought and speech are doomed. Fascism, for as formidably as it may be employed, is not revolutionary, but counter-evolutionary: it denies the very process that sustains the viability of any system of thought. A fascist society shuns new ideas, and refuses to adapt. As the world changes, the creatures who cannot change with it tend to perish.
As in genetics, not every meme survives. This is why fascists fail both in the short term and the long run. The current crop of jihadists peddle the notion that imposing their exclusivist vision upon the world will perfect it, when all they will really achieve is stagnation, stasis, and death. But, as with cancers and viruses, this meme can only succeed by overwhelming the host. Without direct opposition, such ideas, like diseases, can kill.
But one failing meme can be sustained by others. Jihadists get a pass when we treat their intellectual pathologies as equivalent to other errors of our own, or even worse, as quaintly irrelevant or excuse them, explain them away, or politely ignore them. History is replete with examples of how such ideas can lead to disaster, can be failed memes as well.
A culture which condemns a Fallaci and celebrates a Sheehan; which curtails discourse in the interests of cultural sensitivity, or even out of fear; and which treats as trivial a deadly idea while treating as deadly the trivial that is a culture whose stray thoughts have simply gone astray, and will be going nowhere.
David J. Aland is a retired Naval Officer with a graduate degree in National Security Affairs from the U. S. Naval War College.
I recommend drinking only rainwater and and pure grain alcohol.
Outstanding article. Thanks for posting.
Dr. Samual Johnson said, "You are free to say anything you like, Sir, and I am free to knock you down for it."