I visited Oslo a couple of years ago and during a guided walk of the city, went to the Nobel Peace Centre. I enjoyed the display of portraits and accompanying texts that acknowledged every single annual Nobel Peace prize recipient since the award’s inception in 1901 by Alfred Nobel. Whatever your view of the Nobel Prize tradition, for there are, inevitably, a range of both positive and negative positions, it is a rich testimony to the industry and idealism of humanity.
I bought a postcard in the Centre’s gift shop that consists of ten quotations from ten of the Nobel Prize laureates. The first is by Lui Xiaobo, writer, literary critic, human rights activist and philosopher:
‘Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth.’
These words speak to me for I know, from my studies, reading and lived experience that I, and billions of other people, have been born with incredible brains; ones that are fed by five senses, maybe six if you believe in intuition. And yet, despite arguably being one of the most neurologically and cognitively sophisticated
creatures on earth, we are also, at birth, the species that is most undeveloped and least fit to survive. For many years, throughout childhood and even into young adulthood, to different degrees, our parents/carers have to be and function like external brains whilst our own develop and we learn the many lessons required to help them do so. And because of this, what we do with our brains expresses who we are and makes us human and therefore it is a fundamental human right to think, question, learn, express, believe and protest however seems most right and true.
There have been times in the history of humanity when those who hold positions of power, whether at personal, local, national or global levels, have misused that power and tried to harness and/or destroy the incredible power of individuals’ minds. It works for a while until, inevitably, a person or group breaks the thrall into which they have been cast. In more primitive times, that thrall might mean physical entrapment, torture and killing. In more recent times, the thrall is more often psychological. We live in times where new ideas are subject to scrutiny by those in power and original thinkers have to prove that their new idea builds upon the approved ideas of the past. The idea cannot emerge without sanctioned and already established foundations and should an attempt to scale the walls of the academic fortresses created to guard existing knowledge empires be made, derision and rejection are all too often waiting.
At present our world is governed by ‘evidence-based science’ and ‘strong research bases’ that produce the data and technology serving economic, political and legal interests of a global nature. The age-old accusations of mad and/or bad of dissidents of the past have now been ‘re-branded’ as conspiracy theorists. This cultural double-bind* that dismisses and takes away freedom of expression, i.e. “if you question my truth you must be crazy”, reminds me of Bateson’s ideas formulated in the 1950’s, about the communication style of dysfunctional families of people diagnosed with schizophrenia. Just as the parent may tell their child they are being physically chastised for their own good because their parent loves them so much, the electorate is told, via the media and social media in particular, that to think in any way that is not officially sanctioned is an act of dissent arising from individual psychological malaise/deficit and is an inevitable threat to the common good.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc with every aspect of individuals’ lives and the idea that they should not question, let alone disagree with government’s strategy, is a threat to freedom of thought and expression. Even those who belong to the kabals of science, politics or commerce are at risk and at a time when we need to be and feel strong, mentally and physically, curtailing this basic human right and allowing only some highly protected and specific groups to define ‘truth’ and “common good’ is surely counterproductive?
*A double bind occurs when an individual can neither confront/disagree nor resolve or opt out of a situation or position.