In my commencing article for this series, I posited that we in America have taken freedom for granted and now need to defend it, starting with freedom of speech. At present, the stereotypical view is that those who raise this issue must be conservative in ideology and Republican in politics, and their legitimate concerns are often dismissed as such. I have maintained that strengthening each of the three pillars of freedom, justice, and peace that underpin a good society should be considered a nonideological, nonpartisan effort and that all have a duty to buttress the weakest pillar—in the present case, freedom. We can argue about the meaning and application of this triad of ideals, but not their necessary function in sustaining a good society.
In light of the above, it is worth noting the publication of a recent article by the New York Times editorial board that is aptly titled, “America Has a Free Speech Problem.” It starts with a serious claim: “For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.” Unsurprisingly, the article elicited varied reactions from the public. For our purposes, the important thing is that an influential American newspaper pointed to what can be viewed as one of the country’s most serious problems.
Given today’s topic of choosing courage, we should especially notice one word contained in that quoted sentence: fear. A new national poll from The New York Times and Siena College revealed that 84 percent of respondents consider Americans’ reluctance to exercise free speech due to the threat of retaliation or harsh criticism a serious problem. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who moves about in the world and is observant of it. Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, has long been concerned about the erosion of freedom in America and last year helped establish The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), which is “dedicated to upholding the principle of free speech in academia.”
I was reminded of the reality of the woke movement (what some view as an intolerant “religion”) after the publication of my last article, “Living in Truth Amid Ideological Falsehood and Political Hypocrisy.” The piece, which dealt with Václav Havel and touched on the problem of wokeism in general and critical race theory in particular, had a mostly positive reception from readers in the United States and overseas—some of which was expressed privately. It was brought to my attention that my article was shared by the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation on Twitter, which pleasantly surprised me.
But there were also some negative reactions. Political scientist Kieran Williams, a Drake University professor who wrote a book on Havel, shared my article on Twitter with the comment: “This article is part of a growing trend on the US right to claim Havel against ‘woke’ critical race theory and anything else that makes white people uncomfortable. The very essence of Havel’s idea of truth—as demonstrated in his plays—is that it should make you uncomfortable.” It was retweeted by a number of Williams’ connections, including a CNN executive liaison, a professor from University College London, and an Irish journalist. Williams’ tweet had 33 Likes, mostly from academics, journalists, and other professionals.
Several people commented under the tweet, including Timothy Garton Ash, whose book The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague I enjoyed reading many years ago. In 2019, I wrote an article in Slovak about how an unlikely friendship between professors Robert P. George and Cornel West was possible despite their ideological and political differences. In the article, I quoted from Ash’s book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World,where he advocates the “liberal virtue of tolerance,” which “makes the remarkable demand that we should accept others continuing to hold and (within the limits of the harm principle) act upon convictions that we think both intellectually mistaken and morally wrong.”[i] I wish—and dare say Havel would too—everyone would accept this principle and consistently apply it to their daily interactions, including on social media.
But let us return to what I consider to be Kieran Williams’ hasty dismissal of my piece from last month. In the not-too-distant past, such a public reaction from an academic (especially one educated at Oxford) would have been difficult to imagine or comprehend. One of the first things I learned as a new immigrant to this country pursuing theological education was that criticism should meet certain standards. No one explained it better to me that Gordon Fee in his book New Testament Exegesis:
Before you can say, “I disagree,” you must be able to say, “I understand.” It is axiomatic that before you level criticism you should be able to state an author’s position in terms that he or she would find acceptable. After that, you may proceed in any of six directions: Show where the author is misinformed; show where the author is uninformed; show where the author is inconsistent; show where the author’s treatment is incomplete; show where the author misinterprets through faulty assumptions or procedures; show where the author makes valuable contributions to the discussion at hand.[ii] [Emphasis in original.]
I do not know Dr. Williams as a teacher, but until proven otherwise, I will assume he is a good one. What I know for certain is that there are professors who do not encourage their students to think critically and criticize gracefully but use the classroom as a platform to promote their radical leftist ideology. Considering the severe paucity of intellectual and political diversity on our college campuses, especially in the humanities and social sciences, students are deprived of an authentic educational experience in which their ideas are challenged and honed through rigorous debate and civil discussion. This problem is not limited to the university environment, but also exists across the legacy media, corporations, Hollywood, and other major loci of political, economic, and cultural power in the United States.
Condemning seemingly (or realistically) heretical views instead of critically and kindly engaging them is now a widely acceptable practice in the United States, something that was not the case when I first arrived here in the mid-1990s. Tweets are rarely used to invite people to dialogue about the important issues of our day and often merely serve as a means of expressing disapproval or outrage toward people who are viewed as hindrances on the road to progress. Naturally, many operating in these spaces find themselves in a quagmire as they fear that “living in truth” may jeopardize their career advancement, fracture their relationships, or trigger uncomfortable feelings.
The basic solution to fear is courage—in our context, moral courage. A prerequisite for speaking and acting courageously is an ethical backbone, which includes the willingness to pay the necessary price for one’s expressed opinions—especially if those opinions dovetail with those in power. Václav Havel is not only an example of a person who was able to approximate “living in truth” better than most but also a man who, despite his natural diffidence, was able to act boldly at important moments and thus contributed to the fall of a totalitarian regime and helped build a free and democratic society in his country.
Havel was unafraid to speak truth to power, as emblematically demonstrated by his letter (in fact a lengthy essay) addressed to Gustáv Husák, the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, in 1975. In the early part of the essay, Havel discusses fear as a “building block in the present social structure” and something that permeates the entire culture. “For fear of losing his job,” Havel writes, “the school teacher teaches things he does not believe… out of fear for their livelihood, position, or prospects, they [people] go to meetings, vote for every resolution that they have to or at least keep silent… Fear of being prevented from continuing their work leads many scientists and artists to give allegiance to ideas they do not in fact accept, to write things they do not agree with or know to be false.”[iii]
There are two basic ways in which one can respond to the “existential pressure” induced by the ruling ideology and party or face our fear in the ethical sense of the word. The first is to succumb to it, resulting in living in a lie and benefiting from the mask one wears. Havel, referring to a period euphemistically called “normalization,” which followed the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, writes:
Seldom in recent times, it seems, has a social system offered scope so openly and so brazenly to people willing to support anything as long as it brings them some advantage; to unprincipled and spineless men, prepared to do anything in their craving for power and personal gain; to born lackeys, ready for any humiliation and willing at all times to sacrifice their neighbors’ and their own honor for a chance to ingratiate themselves with those in power.[iv]
But one can also respond to fear by choosing courage over cowardice and opportunism. Havel’s courage was grounded in a sense of responsibility for promoting ideals and values that transcend material goods, confront human decadence, and endure beyond our earthly existence. He understood that the future of many often depends on the courage of a few who will sacrifice the lesser for the sake of the greater. Albeit being an unusual profile in courage who often doubted himself in public and did not put on airs, Havel was a courageous man as demonstrated by his willingness to surrender his self-interest for the sake of the common good. This even included time in prison—the longest sentence lasting nearly four years (1979–83), during which he penned Letters to Olga.
In his 1994 Foreign Affairs essay “A Call for Sacrifice: The Co-Responsibility of the West,” President Havel asserts that “the West lost its ability to sacrifice” and attempts to explain why this might be so.[v] If it was a problem then, it is a greater problem now. It would also partly explain why so many Americans are afraid to express currently unpopular ideas. Successfully confronting the kind of fear we are talking about requires courage, but courage is only possible if we are willing and able to sacrifice the easy path. Havel, following the footsteps of his teacher Jan Patočka, was convinced that “a life not willing to sacrifice itself for what makes it meaningful is not worth living.”[vi] Freedom was for Havel such a meaningful thing and should be the same for anyone who aspires to live a good life.
The United States of America will be able to remain the “land of the free” only as long as it is also the “home of the brave.” Not only Republican President Ronald Reagan, whom I quoted at the end of my previous article, but also Democratic President John F. Kennedy understood that freedom must be defended at a high price by both those in political leadership and citizens themselves. Therefore, in his inaugural address, Kennedy entreated his fellow citizens to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Only those who love their country—despite its many imperfections—will be able to ask this question and identify ways to make it a more perfect union.
[i] Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 282.
[ii] Gordon D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis A Handbook for Students and Pastors,third edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 33.
[iii] Václav Havel, Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965–1990, selected and edited by Paul Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 52-53.
[iv] Ibid., 55.
[v] Václav Havel, “A Call for Sacrifice: The Co-Responsibility of the West,” Foreign Affairs 73:2 (March/April 1994): 2-7.
[vi] Havel, Open Letters, 265.