Expose bad ideas; don’t stifle them - Businesslive

Jan 17, 2021
17 January 2021 - Of the two books I received as Christmas presents, I am well into Martin Amis’s unusual, thrillingly revelatory autobiographical novel Inside Story. The second, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, is first on the to-be-read pile at my bedside.

Michael Morris
Of the two books I received as Christmas presents, I am well into Martin Amis’s unusual, thrillingly revelatory autobiographical novel Inside Story. The second, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, is first on the to-be-read pile at my bedside.

So it seems a bit of a cheat to share lines from page 453 of Pinker’s volume, spotted while idly flipping through it after shedding the wrapping: “We will never have a perfect world,” he writes, “and it would be dangerous to seek one.”

If this seems to set a tormentingly disappointing limit on our earthly endeavours, it is immediately followed by the more consoling notion that “there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing”.

All it takes, Pinker concludes, is “the power of reason and the urge to persist”, cleaving to “the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance”.

The ticklish thought is that in agreeing on, and pursuing, all these good things, might we be tempted to give credence to an achievable perfectibility, and thus court the danger Pinker warns of? In fact, I think the insurance against this risk is built into the essential convictions themselves, in the phrase “freedom is better than coercion”.

The case for freedom is that though mistakes are not only possible but probable, its dynamism always serves people better than the sterility of unfreedom. Which is why I have found of the responses to recent events in the US unnerving. President Donald Trump is doubtless a deserving target: he has always seemed to me a smug, overbearing magnate whose beaming Napoleonic ego belies a streak of viciousness, always a danger in a soul apparently unperturbed by doubt.

But every bit as disquieting as the megalomaniacal impulses of this complete stranger to caution or consideration is the widespread approval of his summary removal from arenas of public conversation. This is not necessarily an assault on free speech. Social media platforms have every right to debar anyone they judge to be engaged in inciting violence, and, anyway, Trump and his devotees remain free to speak their minds.

But if it’s right to limit free speech to protect human flourishing from the spectre of violence and coercion, it is every bit as dangerous to imagine that freedom is safe and unchallenging. In a recent exchange, AfriForum’s Ernst Roets ventured that “liberalism, despite its good intentions, has become the root of Western civilisational self-destruction” (illustrated, he felt, by the case in point; our refusal to place religious belief beyond scrutiny).

We said in our reply that freedom “is always difficult because it is always, by definition, a risk”, but that liberty was fundamentally the “courage of conviction and stamina of reason to address error, to persuade ... and be always willing to test the verities which, from time to time, sway whole masses of people to the point that they cede their choices to those who would rule or mislead them”.

This is, as Pinker suggests, indispensable to human flourishing. Amis, incidentally, was a signatory with about 150 other writers, academics and activists, to a letter published in Harper’s Magazine last July that cautioned against the “stifling atmosphere” of “censoriousness” and “intolerance” in public debate. It concluded: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.


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