Freedom guarantees bad ideas will be challenged - Businesslive

5 December 2021 - I began my first column of the year with a brief extract from a book, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which for me defines an essential mental hurdle on the path to thinking about political and social change. “We will never have a perfect world,” Pinker observes, “and it would be dangerous to seek one.”

Michael Morris

I began my first column of the year with a brief extract from a book, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which for me defines an essential mental hurdle on the path to thinking about political and social change. “We will never have a perfect world,” Pinker observes, “and it would be dangerous to seek one.”

Given how much is said to (and, doubtless, often does) ride on confronting and reversing imperfections — racism, inequality, state abuse, environmental degradation, tyrannical fundamentalism, corporate greed, corruption, erosion of the rule of law, to mention just some of the more prominent themes of popular argument about policy-making — Pinker’s insight may seem dispiriting to the more ardent devotees of one or another course of corrective action.

Yet he goes on to argue that if perfectibility is off the table there is the entirely credible and rewarding objective of “human flourishing” — and that there is “no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance” it.

Armed with “the power of reason and the urge to persist”, success is ours if we subscribe 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”.

It sounds so simple that you can’t help thinking there must be a catch, and of course there is one. No-one anywhere would disagree that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.

 

But if in their own daily lives most people would insist that “freedom is better than coercion”, too many are willing to endorse the very reverse if it means their own ideas about how society ought to think and behave have a better chance.

As freedom doesn’t guarantee that the best ideas always prevail, it is always necessarily a risk — but it does guarantee that bad ideas will always be challenged, and so it is always the best counter to poor choices.

But it does mean people have to recognise how easily their own sense of “freedom” can be contaminated by ideological fixity, or by flippancy (disregard, for instance, for the idea that knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance).

Some years ago, an interviewee told me that he thought “South Africans expect far too little of their freedom”. “For most people,” he went on, “freedom is being able to eat ice cream for breakfast ... and that’s not ... smart behaviour. Freedom demands responsibility and vigilance.”

The mere idea that having a democratic government would lead SA to the promised land was “preposterous”, and the “great mistake” at our dawn of democracy “was the idea of outsourcing our responsibility and freedom to the government”.

He added: “I have absolutely no faith in groups of South Africans, but I have enormous faith in individuals, their depth and sophistication. What I think we have lost in the storm is our sense of individuality, and that’s what we have to rediscover.” Vigilant individuals, he said, “are the checks and balances”.

Some readers may be surprised to know that the interviewee here was filmmaker, author and journalist Richard Poplak. It is a reminder to avoid the trap of judging ideas by their authors’ supposed location on the ideological spectrum, and to recognise that freedom is ill-served by the complacent unanimity of the like-minded.

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

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2021-12-05-michael-morris-freedom-guarantees-bad-ideas-will-be-challenged/

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