One of the perennial bones of contention in our society has been the seeming inability of our people to find a ground of commonality that would allow us to see ourselves as one people; one nation and fulfilling one destiny. Many believe that this lapse has been the bane of our post-independence history; relegating us to the bottom of the barrel on so many indicators that are supposed to measure “progress”.
The politicians have taken the bulk of the blame for this sad state of affairs, but we believe that the reality is a bit more complicated than that. It is our contention that a significant factor in our lack of social cohesion is the constraints we place on ourselves when we interact in the public sphere.
These restrictions prevent us from sharing our views and opinions in a frank and candid manner. We smile and nod with each other in the various marketplaces, but when we retreat into our private spaces and enclaves, a different and more divisive discourse emerges. If we are to escape the morass into which we have been mired for so long, we must remove our self-imposed barriers to initiate open and sincere communication.
The philosopher, John Stuart Mill, is very well known for his arguments on freedom of speech, which form the very essence of a modern democratic order. Mill, of course, proposed that individuals must be free to express their thoughts and opinions in an unencumbered manner, excepting for when harm may result to others.
The latter caveat is very apposite in light of some of the discourses that are swirling about us today. Since Mill’s seminal text, “On Liberty” was published in the 19th century, the restraints on free speech have been accepted to emanate primarily from the government – the Leviathan. And all our efforts to secure that right have been concentrated against the state.
Mill, however, saw the problem as being much more nuanced and was concerned not only with arbitrary laws and actions of governments, but also with the actions of society. He identified the restraints not only on an intolerant government but also an intolerant culture. We believe that the point is so important in our efforts at nation-building that Mill’s explication deserves to be quoted at length:
“Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries.
Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.
Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.”
In our situation, the advice of Polonius to his son Laertes is apt: “This above all: to thine own self be true”. Let us shake off the fetters of fossilised opinions and really get to know each other.
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