Thursday, September 22, 2016

Freedom, Expression, and Danger: Race, Religion, and Politics

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In a free country, certain choices are available to all people -- theoretically, at least. In practice, various pressures do limit the choices of many individuals. But the essence of a free country lies in the fact that certain options are legally open to everyone.

In particular, a free country allows a range of political philosophies, and every free citizen has the right to adopt and support the political philosophy of his or her choice -- or to invent a new one!

Similarly, a free country allows a variety of religions, and every free citizen has the right to adopt and practice the religion of his or her choice -- or to create a new one! -- or to choose no religion at all!

Without these rights, no country could ever be truly free. As we are often reminded, the Founding Fathers of the United States could see that this was the case, even though they had never experienced such freedom personally, and they created not only a new and better nation, but a new and better type of nation, which owes its special place in the world to the wisdom of their vision on this very point.

In a free country, there are also people of different races. And in theory a free citizen may have the legal right to change his or her race, but in practice there is no way for anyone to do so. For this reason, we regard race as fundamentally different from religion or politics.

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In a free country, there are people of many (and vastly different) political philosophies: thus we have Communists, Fascists, Liberals, Conservatives, Socialists, Libertarians, Progressives, Populists, Zionists, Anarchists, and so on. A free citizen can adopt any of these political philosophies, and can openly express his or her opinions of each, identifying as pro- or anti-Communist, pro- or anti-Fascist, and so on, all the way down the list.

Furthermore, we can change our political philosophies, and many people do. Thus we have Liberals who used to be Conservatives, Conservatives who used to be Liberals, Democrats who used to be Republicans, and many others who have changed their political philosophies and/or affiliations over the years, as they learned, or matured, or developed dementia, or whatever.

Similarly, there are people of many (and vastly different) religions: we have Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and so on. Most religions appear in a variety of forms, and a free citizen can adopt any of them, or none at all. People are free to change their religion, and they do, although not as often as they change their politics.

There may be fewer religious converts among us than political converts. But there are still many people who have switched from one religion to another, or abandoned religion entirely, or adopted a religion after having none.

A free citizen can also form opinions on each of the religions, but these opinions are usually trickier to express than opinions about political philosophies. In general, it is considered more acceptable to criticize others over political differences than religious ones. Presumably this is because our culture recognizes that it's easier for most people to change what they think than what they believe.

There are also people of many races, but no one can choose his or her race, let alone change it. So we have no Asians who used to be Latinos, no Blacks who used to be White, and so on. Our ancestors are our ancestors and our DNA is our DNA and there's nothing we can do about it.

Legally, a free citizen has the right to form opinions on the basis of race, and clearly many people do so. But expressing such opinions is almost always considered intolerable, and acting on them in certain ways is illegal. Presumably, this is because our culture recognizes that people cannot change their DNA any more than they can change their ancestors.

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I think it's stupid to judge other people on the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, the texture of their hair, or any other physical characteristic. Some of the best people I've ever met looked nothing like me, and I'm grateful to live in a free country where people of different backgrounds and with different physical characteristics can cooperate (most of the time) in peaceful ways (most of the time). But I do wish to point out a potential danger in the suppression of expression about racial matters. Think hypothetically with me for a moment or two, if you will.

What would happen if the people of a free country became so confused that they no longer understood the fundamental differences between race, religion, and politics? What if they knew that political criticism was acceptable, religious criticism was tricky, and racial criticism was intolerable, but they didn't know why?

In such a situation, if a political group -- that is to say: a group organized around a shared political philosophy -- could convince the others that their political philosophy was actually a religion, they would be difficult to criticize, because of the cultural pressure against criticizing people on religious grounds.

And if they could convince the others that their political philosophy was actually a race, they would be impossible to criticize, because of the cultural taboo against criticizing people based on race. So simply by calling their critics "racists," they could obscure the fact that the criticism was political, if they didn't silence the critics altogether.

Of course such a state of affairs could only come about by the merest coincidence, as no one could foresee, let alone engineer, such a situation. But if by some chance it did come about, the political group in question could implement vicious policies, with virtually no public opposition.

And if those policies were not only vicious but also racially motivated, we would have either the most bitter irony in human history or the greatest scam ever devised: a political group implementing vicious racist policies while suppressing political opposition by calling its opponents "racists."