3.b.5 – What is opposed to freedom of thought?

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March 21, 2010 — Riccardo Sabellotti - Giacinto Sabellotti

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 What is opposed to freedom of thought?

History teaches us that the main forms of oppression and enslavement have been originated from authoritarian political regimes (from the empires of antiquity to the latest Nazi and Communist dictatorships) or from despotic cultural traditions as the machismo and racism; experience shows us that cultural evolution may take an illiberal and tyrannical direction and that is undoubtedly one of the strategies of survival of complex human societies with the aim of protecting its stability.
Sexism and racism, fascism and communism, imperialism and absolutism are all products of cultural evolution; then again appears the need to be able to control and direct it, so that this evolution is not contrary to our interests, but today as in the past it is almost entirely abandoned to itself.
Directing the development means using it for a steady progress of the human being, for solving the problems that afflict us without producing others; adaptation is the engine of evolution and, as we have seen, it is made possible by the variety of Individual characteristics: the greater is the number of alternatives, the greater the probability that there is at least one which is beneficial in the new situation. In the case of cultural adaptation, our wealth is in the abundance of alternative ideas, and in the freedom to use and experiment them; in this context, uniformity is therefore a serious defect.
However, we can’t deny the fact that the trend to uniformity is part of human nature and then, if it has been favored by natural selection, it must also have a positive role. In the history of human societies there are always two opposing attitudes: on the one hand, the preservation of ancient cultural traditions and the uniformity to them, on the other the search for innovation and change. From a biological point of view, both attitudes have their advantages: the protection of cultural heritage is an attitude similar to the protection of genetic heritage from genetic diseases, which is necessary to preserve from mutations, which are often harmful, the results so painstakingly achieved by natural selection; mutations, however, cannot be entirely eliminated because without them further adjustments are not possible and the species would sooner or later be doomed to extinction; the search of innovation just responds to this second need. We are facing two diametrically opposed needs and, since for meeting one we must take something off to another, it is formed in our society a sort of arm wrestling between tradition and innovation in which no one ever prevails completely over the other, so that it is reached a very unstable  point of equilibrium that can be near one of the two possible extreme positions: perfect fidelity to tradition and rejection of all traditions; just as in the case of genes, none of the two is compatible with the survival of society.
The human community was represented by the tribal model for many tens of thousands of years, a culturally far more stable environment than the current one, in which a lower capacity of adaptation was required. In this situation it was advantageous for the group that the balance between tradition and innovation was pretty close the total fidelity to tradition, while was little respectful to individual freedom. This explains the natural inclination to make the cultural traditions sacred and unquestionable and the fact that the ancient culture based on family clan was very hard, tough and restrictive of personal freedom: not only there were many restrictions, but also many obligations governed by complex rituals.
We also know that our mind refuses to review its schemes unless it is forced by severe need based on the principle that we called mental economy; this form of natural obscurantism, if applied to culturally inherited patterns, is apt to serve the cause of traditionalism, and it is plausible that this advantage has strengthened its selection even by a genetic point of view during the evolution of our species that, it should be remembered, has developed for tens of thousands of years in a tribal environment.
We can conclude that human nature and culture developed natural defenses against the changes that are:
– attachment to tradition in adulthood that may become a real fear against novelties
– obscurantism, or the denial of evident truth, to preserve the old mental patterns
– dogmatism, that is to make indisputable some beliefs considered particularly important
– intolerance, which is the hostility towards those who do not respect the rule of uniformity to the traditions of the group
– the production of stringent laws in support of natural intolerance of society.
The tribal world is now disappeared and what used to be oppressive and unfair for the individual, but beneficial to the community, now only brings problems at all levels; as the rapid changes in the world today require greater adaptability, the balance between tradition and innovation must be significantly moved towards innovation. That change is already under way, in our culture have indeed appeared new values such as tolerance, pluralism (as respect and promotion of a plurality of ideas), and the freedom of thought and opinion, which not only allow citizens to have greater freedom of action, but encourage greater variety and dissemination of new ideas, which is the basis for innovation.
Finally, we reiterate that the process of innovation, if left to itself, leads to cultural evolution, not to progress, but the trend can be either positive or negative. Innovation and progress are different things: new technologies in the field of communications allow, for instance, a greater exchange and sharing of information with a multiplication of knowledge, but an indiscriminate bombing of unnecessary information, commercial, excessive, incorrect, partial, distorted, etc., creates social tensions and illnesses.
The same innovation can be either good or bad depending on its good or bad inserting in society: it is up to us to make the right choices to build our future with awareness, reminding that innovation is a necessary prerequisite, but not enough to progress.

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