Freedom of Thought

The importance of freedom of thought is easily underestimated.

George Orwell, in his novel 1984, discussed it in an interesting way by presenting its opposite:

It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality Control,” they called it; in Newspeak, “doublethink.”

And what is doublethink? As Orwell wrote:

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. … To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.

It is very easy to fall into such a mental trap, where one becomes scared to allow one’s thoughts to proceed wherever they might go, where one constantly battles against one’s own mind. The story is told of the five year old girl in Sunday School class. The smiling teacher asked, “Sally, what is gray, with a big bushy tail, that eats nuts?” Sally was silent a long while, and finally said quietly, “I want to say it’s a squirrel, but I know the answer has to be ‘Jesus.’”

That’s the way a breakdown in freedom of thought manifests itself. In a place like the United States, we don’t need to worry about being arrested for our thoughts, but social expectations can be just as stifling. There are dogmas that seek to constrain the heretics among us. The emperor’s new clothes are lovely and bring out the color of his eyes so well, and we dare not disagree or ever suggest or even think that maybe he forgot to get dressed this morning.

At work, we sometimes must pretend that the project really will work out; we must be team players, we must abide by what the group believes. We must never be disagreeable or let our thoughts run rampant.

Occasionally sanity prevails. Six years ago Amaani Lyle alleged that raw sexual remarks during work sessions and conversations in the writer’s meetings for the TV show Friends amounted to sexual harrasment and sued the writers and producers. She had been hired to transcribe the writer’s meetings, when the writers came up with ideas and dialogue for the weekly scripts. She was fired after only four months for not being able to transcribe quickly enough or to capture the flavors of the meetings.

The California Supreme Court ruled against Lyle’s lawsuit. It decided, 7 to 0, that trash talk was part of the creative process and, therefore, the studio and its writers could not be sued for raunchy writers’ meetings.

Justice Marvin Baxtor wrote that no jury would believe the writers’ assistant was the target of harassment during profanity-laced script sessions “for an adult-oriented comic show featuring sexual themes.” After all, she’d been warned when she was hired what the writer’s meetings where they hashed out their scripts were like. And one would think that she had likely watched an episode or two of the show, so she should have known just from that, anyhow.

A ruling in favor of the former assistant Lyle would have made it virtually impossible to produce TV programs or any other creative works. How could a writer work creatively if she had to worry that anything she said might get her sued? Lyle didn’t care. She wanted to make the writers conform to her way of thinking, her way of doing things. She wanted it mandated that the writers could not allow their minds to go just anywhere at all. They must be forced to control what they were thinking; they must be made to be polite at all times.
I’m really glad she lost her case.

Of course, the whole “politically correct” thing is generally just a way for the censorious to try to justify being prudes. There are a whole flock of people on both the left and right who just can’t abide letting people say and do and think what they want. They must force people to not say words they find offensive, not to express ideas they disagree with, not to think thoughts they find unpleasant, and not to eat or drink or otherwise injest products that they have decided are bad for them.

Teaching people to be polite is usually a good thing. But legislating it? Sueing people over it? Banning stuff? That’s insane. And oppressive. But Fascists always think they have everyone’s best interests in mind.

Many years ago I briefly taught at an institution with rather strict guidelines on what their professors and students could think. They called it a “statement of faith.” In order to teach there, one had to abide by every point on the detailed list of dogma.

Now the problem with a “statement of faith,” at least from my Baptist point of view, is that as a Baptist I had always been taught that the only authority for faith and practice was the Bible. But there, as a condition of employment, I was being commanded to think in one way, and one way only. Not only must the Bible take second place to the list, so my reason would have to be demoted as well. The “statement of faith,” the list of dogmas, had to be accepted if I wanted to keep working. There was no thinking allowed, no questions, no wondering. The list was the answer to everything. I no longer needed to think at all.

The consequence of having to sign that “statement of faith” at that school I taught at so many years ago was that I was constrained from thinking about or studying certain issues for fear that in my studying, I might arrive at conclusions opposed to the statement and thus I would jeopardize my employment.

Wherever such statements are required, freedom, by nature of the beast, has been compromised. Only where one is free to examine everything, to think about anything, and move to any position that the facts might lead, can one be said to be truly free. Otherwise, there are shackles upon the mind.

I do not like shackles. So I did not last there for very long.

Most of us, at least in the United States, will never face such blatant, objective constraints on our thinking. But sometimes social pressure, worry about getting promoted, concern about maintaining a friendship, can be just as constricting.

As the daughter of a close friend commented, “God decided that it is more important for us to be free than for us to be good.” Reread the story of Adam and Eve if you think otherwise. According to the biblical account of things, God thought giving Adam and Eve the freedom to choose badly was worth all of the suffering their bad choice would bring both them and the human race as a whole.

Freedom is a good thing. Shackles are not.

Send to Kindle

About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *