Wholly repugnant to the general freedom are such devices as enthralling men’s minds with prejudices, forcing their
judgement, or employing any of the weapons of quasi-religious sedition; indeed, such seditions only spring up, when law enters the domain of speculative thought, and opinions are put on trial and condemned on the same footing as crimes, while those who defend and follow them are sacrificed, not to public safety, but to their opponents’ hatred and cruelty. If deeds only could be made the grounds of criminal charges, and words were always allowed to pass free, such seditions would be divested of every semblance of justification,and would be separated from mere controversies by a hard and fast line.
Benedictus de Spinoza
Sometimes you have to walk through a dark, terrible tunnel to reach the light available on the other side. Entering the tunnel, you do not see the light; you see only a few steps before you.
The tunnel promises some sort of safety.
You are fleeing something. Perhaps you do not even know what you are fleeing. But you see an opening, a door, a place that looks like a refuge, perhaps safety, perhaps a path you can keep walking without fear. Or, at least, with less fear.
Perhaps there are even other people there.
Maybe that’s what beckons you in: the person at the door, waving a hand: “Come on! It’s okay in here. You’ll be safe. You’re one of us.” That’s a more powerful call than any other.
Maybe you understand what the tunnel is when you walk into; maybe you don’t.
Maybe you enter the tunnel full of vengeance and hatred, sure of your righteousness, sure of your positions, self-justifying and eager for violence against your enemies.
Maybe you enter the tunnel full of confusion and uncertainty, unsure of your position, unsure of your identity, following a voice that promises some sort of clarity, eager for help, eager for wisdom from a source that seems to know what it’s talking about.
We crave freedom, growth, and light; we also crave safety, comfort, and belonging.
These desires war within us, constantly.
Every choice we make is, in some sense, a choice between these two desires, a contrast, a measure of which craving matters more to us at that moment. Neither desire is wrong or bad; but either one, in an extreme, can lead to terrible consequences. (This is the only balance we really need in life: a balance of these desires. If I followed my craving for freedom to its extreme, I would abandon my family and set myself up in pure autonomy. If I followed my craving for belonging to its extreme, I would put aside all ambition, all individuality, and form myself into a pseudo-servant running to fulfill the ‘needs’ of others.)
Some people will enter a dark and terrible tunnel and get lost in it for a lifetime.
Some, however, will begin to understand what it is and what it means and will slowly, painfully work their way out. When they step into the light at the other side, they carry with them empathy and wisdom, hard-won, and a humble understanding of their own weakness and need. This kind of person does not just live in the light, but is the light.
We condemn these dark and terrible tunnels of thought, and rightly so: they are unstable, limiting, and dangerous. There are combative thoughts in these tunnels, such dark and deadly thoughts: they grow like mushrooms on the floors and walls and ceilings, are crushed by the thoughtless movement of those huddled there for seeming safety. Their poisonous powders fill the air and seep into hungry, ignorant minds.
When these thoughts, ingested in one way or another, lead to acts of violence, the acts must be stopped and those who did them restrained. This is common sense and a matter of public safety.
But we want more.
We are terrified by what comes out of these tunnels. Smoke and stench, groaning and noises, screams and threats, clanking of chains and snapping of whips, and sudden eruptions of searing hate. Life is already hard. The path over this mountain is hard to follow. We are doing our best, clinging to the side, edging our feet forward, one small step at a time. Afraid of getting lost. Afraid of falling.
We are terrified, and we want to be safe.
We want to punish the violent act, the person who did it, and the thoughts that provoked it.
We want to chase the action to its root and kill it there, forever.
How arrogant to think we can trace the line of a single choice, understand its every connection, and reroute all of humanity to a ‘safer’ path.
If we condemn a person for being in a tunnel, we sentence him to remain in it. For there’s a stupid, childlike element in all humans that is the same, that does not go away even once we should have grown out of it: as soon as you tell us we can’t have something, it becomes precious.
A person may despise the tunnel they’re in, may be making their slow and treacherous way out of it: you cannot know their inward journey. You cannot know their motivation. They may not yet know. They may be doing what we all do, instinctively—self-preserving—in the only way they know. They may be looking for options, taking one faltering step after another, finding a new footing, climbing up and out of a hole, out of the tunnel you despise. They may despise it more than you can understand. Condemn them for being in it, though, and suddenly the tunnel becomes home. The prison turns into a refuge. The stinking pit in the ground becomes a sanctuary when you punish them for being in it and threaten to take it away, because of what is thought, what is felt, and what is believed in the tunnel. Threaten to dismantle a person’s reality, even a reality they despise, and every instinct of survival—an historical, evolutionary imperative, coded in our DNA—will rise up and dictate that they fight to preserve it.
To condemn a person for their thoughts is to chain them to those thoughts forever.
To punish someone for an opinion is to ensure that the opinion will matter to them, always; will become their treasure; will, in many cases, become the foundation they build the rest of their life upon. To attach a consequence to speaking a word—however hateful the word—is the one certain way to ensure that the word can never die a natural death, and that those who value their right to speak any word, hold any thought (in short, all of us, if we are honest; what we want most in this world is safety, and once we have that, we want its opposite: freedom) will align themselves behind that forbidden word or thought or idea as the symbol of their rights and freedoms.
Words do matter, of course.
What they mean, how we use them, what they provoke in us, how they manipulate us into viewing ourselves and others: words are powerful, and that’s why it’s tempting to try to control them.
Thoughts and beliefs are internal. Actions are external. Words live in the in-between, the space between internal and external.
(All art lives in that space.)
Trying to govern, subdue, limit, punish, forbid, legislate, eliminate, or otherwise control words is an attempt to prevent some undesired external behavior before it happens. It’s a misguided attempt to limit the possibilities of the future, to erase the possibilities you don’t like from even a hypothetical existence, by taking away the words that could validate and energize them.
But the effect is the opposite of what is intended.
To make the world better, we must allow more options, not less. Control is never a path toward freedom.
It can only bring a sad, temporary kind of peace, like a thick layer of asphalt over a bumpy, potholed road. You may smooth the surface for a while, but the shiny top layer will wear and break; the small cracks will widen.
There is a mountain to cross, for all of us.
There are many mountains.
Sealing off the tunnels that run through them does nothing to make our journey over this mountain, or the next, easier. It traps those who are inside, and leaves the rest of us with too-few hands to bear the weight of this humanity to the other side.
There is no safe path forward.
There is only a choice: to keep moving our feet along this uncertain ground, shuffling toward the light, or to stand still as we shovel dirt into a vast and terrifying darkness.
Header photo by Rene Böhmer