Monday, February 4, 2008

Dissent is the heart of a free people

Dissent is the heart of a free people
Deepak Seth Guest essayist
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(February 4, 2008) — "Your freedom ends where my nose begins'' is a pithy aphorism that describes the extent to which personal freedoms such as the right to free speech should extend.
Unfortunately over the years, peoples' noses are becoming increasingly longer, thereby significantly impacting the ability of freethinkers to speak their minds. Every group, community, religion, country has a whole plethora of issues on which they would like no open discussion. Anybody who has the temerity to do so will have to undergo the modern equivalent of being attacked by a mob. The wisdom of "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,'' arguably attributed to Voltaire, seems to have been cast into the dustbin.

Each of such groups generally says that you as an outsider cannot comment or are not qualified to comment about the internal workings or history of the group. Their experience is so unique that nobody outside the group can truly fathom what it is and how it has shaped them. Some do not even allow members of their own group to speak freely about what they perceive as shortcomings of their group. Others even go one step further, where the ban not only encompasses free speech but extends to physical appearance, too.

It is for society at large to decide whether free thought, speech and a spirit of inquiry are to be cherished or if human endeavor is to be restricted by the boundaries established by the thought-police of each group. Checking behind one's shoulder should not be the prerequisite for speaking out in a free society. Dissent and criticism are inevitable in any society and should not be curtailed.

The truths of today have been established because someone in the past had the courage to dissent from the prevailing thought. We might still be believing the Earth is flat, sun revolves around the Earth, foul air causes malaria, storks bring babies, etc., if not for the power of dissent, criticism and the logic and reason that they led to. Similarly, some of the truths of today will not stand the test of dissent and will get replaced.

Today, people seem to be scared of linking their opinions with their identity. They rather prefer the anonymity of the blogosphere. This yearning for anonymity is brought about by the fear that a single identifiable statement from them, if misconstrued or taken out of context, can destroy their entire life, career and reputation.

The dissenter/critic is not always right but the very fact that dissent/criticism is allowed speaks of the maturity of a society.Take a look again at the one document that truly rises above this petty mindedness: the U.S. Constitution and its promise of "freedom of speech." I draw inspiration from it and my faith in the principle of "live and let live.''

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