Freedom to Listen

“It’s a free country, so shut up!”

On Thursday, February 16 of this year (2017), at Bosphorus University, a talk on the subject of freedom of speech was given by a Guardian columnist who was a history professor at Oxford. This was Timothy Garton Ash, who observed that freedom of speech and of the press had been severely curtailed in Turkey. For a defender of the regime, the accusation might be belied by the speaker’s freedom to make it. Academics can still come from abroad and give their critical talks. However, as Professor Garton Ash detailed, many Turkish academics have been fired from their positions; many journalists have been imprisoned; other journalists cannot get their articles published.

I wish the defender of the regime would say further that the fired academics were not real academics, devoted to the search for truth and to the free sharing of this truth; rather, as devotees of Fethullah Gülen, they had given special help to their comrades in securing academic jobs, regardless of qualifications. I wish the defender of the regime would say this, so that I might grant his correctness, as far as Gülenists were concerned; but not all of the fired academics have been Gülenists, and (as far as I know) none of them have been specifically accused and allowed to defend themselves.

I don’t think regime supporters are too concerned with the methods whereby Gülenists achieved what power they did; otherwise those supporters ought to explain how the Gülenists could have been allowed to use those methods as long as they did. As I wrote in “Pyrgos Island” last August, during the presidential campaign in the United States,

Current troubles in Turkey may be traced to two conflicting views of education, both of them wrong. One is that doctrinaire religious instruction is the best education. The other is that technical education is important, but only for the purpose of running the state according to the principles of a supreme leader. One may criticize Atatürk’s ideas of education as well, and I have done this elsewhere [in “Mîna Urgan on alphabets & Atatürk”]. But these days, I think criticizing Atatürk is like criticizing Hillary Clinton: there may be more urgent concerns.

For both the Turkish regime and its erstwhile Gülenist allies, the university is merely a tool. Some superficial carping might be made about Professor Garton Ash’s use of freedom to decry a supposed lack of freedom. The carping has no merit. As is being pointed out to Americans by persons who know, falling under authoritarian rule does not mean most people cannot go on living their normal happy lives: this does not mitigate the evil of the authoritarianism.

Shut up and listen

During Professor Garton Ash’s talk, there remained some empty seats in the lecture hall. They should have been taken by students. Though students did attend the event, a lot of listeners were older people. As one of those, I enjoyed the talk. I managed to have a word with the speaker afterwards, during the reception, when he had finished talking with a group of students. I wanted to suggest what may have been implicit in his talk, but could have been said more forcefully: an important aspect of freedom of speech is freedom to listen.

This idea had been brought to my attention by an article on the “Free Speech Debate” website. The site had been on the screen behind the stage, before the talk of Professor Garton Ash began. I looked up the site on my mobile, and I found the article, “Free speech as seen by a believer in an Abrahamic religion,” by Dominic Burbidge.

I would recommend the article as dealing with an important issue. However, I do not understand the article’s point about distinguishing the believer from the belief:

Free speech arguments in Western Europe or North America often demand that persons subject their beliefs to rational discourse and debate. This is supported in Abrahamic religions but not through the separation of believer from belief that is characteristic of liberal individualism…For someone of an Abrahamic faith, beliefs are subject to rational evaluation as coherent wholes, which are therefore refuted by an alternative system of thought that is able to display greater unity, coherence and breadth of application.

If the problem for the believers lies in treating doctrines abstractly, this makes sense. Beyond what I say, what I mean must be understood; and this may require an understanding of my whole life. But have Christian fundamentalists tried to achieve such understanding when they say they “love the sinner, hate the sin”? The supposed “sin” could be homosexuality. The fundamentalists may say that being homosexual as such is no sin; the sin is acting it out. How then can they separate this action from the person committing it? The fundamentalists may love their misbehaving children; how much does this love depend on a presumption that the children will come to see the error of their ways?

Let it be stipulated that the fundamentalists are hypocrites. If it is offensive for them to say, “I love you, but hate what you do,” perhaps it is just as offensive to respond, “You have a right to your beliefs, but they are bullshit.”

That could be Burbidge’s point. What I appreciate most about his article is the observation,

For descendants of the faith of Abraham, the question of free speech starts not with demarcating what can or cannot be said, but instead by asking what it means to listen. The Tanakh, Bible and Qur’an are believed to be accounts of God’s teaching, recorded by those inspired to hear, understand and recount their contents.

I live in a country whose president would like to be the world leader of one of the Abrahamic religions, just as the head of the ancien régime in this country was, until he was deposed by the new secular government almost a hundred years ago.

I think what the president really wants is to ensure that he will never leave his enormous palace. There is nobody he can trust to take his place. Leaving the palace would mean prison or exile, as has now been the case for President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia. The Turkish president will use religion, nationalism, and whatever else it takes to achieve his ends. “Westerners don’t understand us,” he can say; “Western ideas do not fit us.”

In that context, I imagine asking his religious supporters: Is not our first duty to listen to God? Must we not therefore learn to listen? In order to listen, must we not be able to speak?

I know there is no surefire argument against the dogmatist. I would just ask: is it not blasphemy to arrogate to oneself the right to speak on behalf of God? Prophets may in fact so speak; I am talking about asserting that one is so speaking.

People must have the right to decide whether the words of a prophet are authentic. I know no way around this. We have to be free to make up our minds.

On the other hand, my attention was recently drawn to the following passage in the Nicomachean Ethics (1.3.5–7, 1094b–5a), where the emphases are mine:

Again, each man judges correctly those matters with which he is acquainted; it is of these that he is a competent critic. To criticize a particular subject, therefore, a man must have been trained in that subject: to be a good critic generally, he must have had an all-round education. Hence the young are not fit to be students of Political Science. For they have no experience of life and conduct, and it is these that supply the premises and subject matter of this branch of philosophy. And moreover they are led by their feelings; so that they will study the subject to no purpose or advantage, since the end of this science is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether they are young in years or immature in character: the defect is not a question of time, it is because their life and its various aims are guided by feeling; for to such persons their knowledge is of no use, any more than it is to persons of defective self-restraint. But Moral Science may be of great value to those who guide their desires and actions by principle.

It should be noted here that “Moral Science” is a gloss; the Greek refers only to “knowledge of these things” (τὸ περὶ τούτων εἰδέναι). Moral science is political science, ἡ πολιτική—we might then call it “politic,” in parallel with “logic.” Earlier in the section of the Ethics, Aristotle refers to “the fine (or noble) and the just (or moral), concerning which political science makes inquiry” (τὰ δὲ καλὰ καὶ τὰ δίκαια, περὶ ὧν ἡ πολιτικὴ σκοπεῖται).

Collingwood referred to the quoted passage in a course of lectures at Oxford of 1940 called “Goodness, Right, Utility.” The lectures are appended to the revised edition of New Leviathan. Collingwood tells his students that they may lack the moral experience to understand what he and other professors are telling them.

Could that really mean the students were wasting their time to listen? A year-long public reading of War and Peace started with the calendar year of 2017, and I have been enjoying following along. I imagine I can now see things in Tolstoy that I could not, thirty years ago, as a rising senior at St John’s College, reading the novel over the summer in preparation for the first week of seminars in the fall. I am glad now to have the opportunity to contemplate my ignorance then. This gladness can only come from having had a youthful opportunity in the first place: a chance to test my ignorance against a book like Tolstoy’s.

Would that the regime in Turkey were not bent on discouraging young people from testing their ignorance by questioning their elders. A “pious generation” are wanted who will do what they are told.

4 Trackbacks

  1. By Duty to Nature « Polytropy on February 28, 2017 at 8:40 am

    […] « Freedom to Listen […]

  2. By Romance « Polytropy on October 8, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    […] If most of the article is behind a paywall, I reached the whole thing from the link in a tweet by Steven Pinker, embedded in a tweet by Timothy Garton Ash, whose talk in Istanbul last winter, on freedom of speech, I responded to in “Freedom to Listen.” […]

  3. […] other countries. This is by Timothy Snyder (apparently a student of Timothy Garton Ash) in the Guardian (Wed 16 Sep […]

  4. By The Ideal « Polytropy on November 12, 2022 at 9:16 am

    […] is what I say (and I said some of it in a post called “Freedom to Listen” in 2017). I don’t know whether Plato says it; however, what he has written for us is not […]

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