This post first appeared on the opinion page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Friday, September 5, 2008.
If John Stuart Mill were alive, he might well be at the Republican National Convention this week, providing the British with pithy commentary about American politics. What the author of On Liberty would have found most impressive about his visit is the vibrant marketplace of ideas that is playing out in our arenas, parks and streets.
Liberty is the watchword of the week. It is not just Republicans and Democrats who are exercising their freedoms of speech, association and assembly. The Libertarian, Green and Independence parties are passionately promoting their agendas. Supporters of Ron Paul and Ralph Nader are also busy hawking their heroes.
Perhaps most noteworthy, tens of thousands of ordinary citizens have gathered throughout the Twin Cities to peacefully protest the RNC. Oh, and if you hadn’t noticed, there are a few hundred anarchists rioting in the streets.
When it comes to our constitutional liberties, these political parties and activists have very different ideologies and agendas. Nevertheless, there is one liberty that no political group really wants its members taking too seriously — intellectual liberty.
The sociologist Joel Charon argues that liberty of thought is a precondition for those “action” liberties like speech, association and assembly:
To act without thinking is to act without freedom. To act with thinking that is controlled by others is to act without freedom. Without freedom to think, freedom to act is an empty freedom.
Intellectual liberty is not free. On the contrary, freedom of thought is like a sown seed, requiring a citizen to nurture it.
Why is free thinking such a rare commodity? Conservatives and libertarians will assert that the enemy of intellectual liberty is government coercion. Liberals and leftists counter by arguing the real threat to free thought is corporate media manipulation.
I concede that each of these claims has an element of truth. I contend, however, that the most significant obstacle to independent thought is neither governments nor corporations.
No, the danger is closer to home. The Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing disconcertingly suggests that our friends can also be the foes of our free thought:
The hardest thing in the world is to stand out against one’s group, a group of one’s peers. Many agree that among our most shameful memories is this, how often we said black was white because other people were saying it.
A wide variety of experimental studies, ranging from simple sensory perception to judgments about politics and morality, demonstrate that the peer pressure of group membership dramatically alters a person’s private opinions.
When individuals know their conformity or deviance will become public knowledge, they are more likely to conform. In other words, people are prone to suppress contrary perceptions and opinions when they must take a public stance in the presence of fellow group members.
After reviewing this extensive literature, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein concludes that “many people, of all political stripes, go along with political orthodoxies despite their private reservations.”
Why do we silence ourselves? Sunstein suggests several reasons.
·We do not want to risk the wrath of friends and allies.
·We fear that our dissent will weaken the reputation of the group.
·We blindly trust that our group members are right.
Sunstein asserts that groups unified by bonds of affection and solidarity can make serious errors in judgment. What does he see as a solution?
The clear implication is that if a group is embarking on an unfortunate course of action, a single dissenter might be able to turn it around, by energizing ambivalent group members who would otherwise follow the crowd.
As an example he points to “Twelve Angry Men,” a movie about 11 jurors who are hell bent on convicting an innocent man. A single dissenting juror, played by Henry Fonda, persuades his fellow members of their erroneous conclusion.
In closing, I invite you to join an ancient party. This party requires no registration, no dues and no meetings. It does not even ask you to relinquish your other party affiliations. In fact, it encourages dual allegiances.
I’m talking about the party of free thinkers. “Such people, such individuals,” writes Lessing, “will be a most productive yeast and ferment, and lucky the society who has plenty of them.”