Doctor Frankenstein began with good intentions: he wanted to see if he could reanimate life in body parts that had died. He sort-of succeeded. In the famous scene from the James Whale classic film, he cries out, “It’s alive!”, but not the way he thought it would be. Everyone knows the rest. He ‘created’ a monster that then wreaks havoc on the Doctor’s scientifically ordered world. The Doctor was a good man that tried to be God, and hence did great evil. Such is the moral of the story. Political systems can create monsters as well. Some emerge from the ‘Right’ and some from the ‘Left’. Nazism came from the Right, and Stalinism and Maoism from the Left. Often the Monsters of the Right have a Nationalist form and agenda, seeking to ‘purify’ the blood, so to speak, of the patriotic.
Even today here in America there are the possibilities of beginning with good intentions and ending up having created a monster.
One of the hallmarks of the great liberal tradition in America is the respect for free speech, even when it goes against our patriotic sensibilities. Some of you may remember the debates about the American flag and the freedom to disrespect this great symbol of our nation. Although it is reprehensible to burn this symbol, it must remain legally possible, but not encouraged. Freedom of speech, however, is not absolute. One cannot scream ‘Fire!’ in a crowded place just for fun. But we must allow people the freedom to say things about which we may disagree strenuously. The friendship and mutual respect of Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a great example of two great minds who disagreed about virtually everything in law; yet they went to the Opera together! This friendship is a secular icon of what is best about our nation.
But like in all things, a very laudable movement on the Left can grow into gigantic and frightening proportions. It all began with the need to be sensitive to people who are marginalized and need to have respect shown them. So it became very looked-down upon to criticize or to make fun of some classes of people. This was a very good development. Some very cruel and hurtful things were said to people who were already down and out. So was the ‘politically correct’ world born. But then the labels began and the social stigmatization of any hint of candor grew even in discussing social issues.
For instance, I was speaking with an author of note who teaches a class in creative writing on a postgraduate level. She read aloud to the class the first chapter of a book dealing with a Middle Eastern Immigrant coming to America and being detained at one of our airports. They discussed the chapter fruitfully, but when this author revealed that the chapter had been written by a white woman, a few in the class got angry and said she should not have written it since she had no right, as a white woman, to do it! The author who was leading the class was shocked at their brazen rejection of the work of this woman simply because she was white and a woman writing from the point of view of a Middle Eastern Man. When this author tried to lead a discussion on this newly emerging and somewhat surprising controversy, all 15 participants went silent. They became silent since they did not want to say anything that could be labeled racist or sexist. These liberal-minded students censored their own thoughts lest they be labeled on social media with some of these negative terms. Being tried on the screens of Facebook and other social platforms is a kind of popular inquisition that has long-lasting and very damaging consequences for the person being attacked. And one can never be absolved when this happens. The charge against a person lasts on the internet and anyone anywhere can find out about it, no matter how false, no matter how damaging. Hence, the fearful reticence of those in that group. Better to be silent rather than say one word that could initiate this digital Inquisition.
This is truly a monster that can squash self-expression and in the land of freedom of speech censor free thought and communication. It is a world built on fear. The fear is well grounded since there is great power in the Internet and anyone can wield it. When one adds that we live in a world with no moral boundaries and where honesty is hoisted above charity, you can see why all 15 remained silent. This distrust can become pervasive. Honesty without charity, when combined with a crusaders quest to ‘purify’ the world, can usher in some pretty destructive possibilities, nay probabilities. Once again, the Internet has changed everything.
So when a speaker that I disagree with is asked to come to a University, I can call a protest that threatens with violence anyone who attends their talk. This in a place dedicated to learning and to the free exchange of ideas! This is where a liberal-turned-radical meets the Nazi book burners. Left meets Right.
Freedom of thought and freedom of speech, along with freedom of religion, thrive in an atmosphere of mutual respect and careful consideration of the value of all people. This environment of understanding is only possible when it grows in the soil of humility. I must be open to the other because I know I do not know it all. What little I know I must share with others so that together we may help the community grow and prosper. Humility, respect, and charity work together to make sure freedom serves the community and does not degenerate into tyranny.