On June 22, 1633, Galileo Galilei, an Italian polymath (astronomer, physicist, philosopher, mathematician and professor) was convicted of heresy and sentenced to life imprisonment. His “crime” was of teaching heliocentricism, an astronomical model in which the Earth and planets revolve around the sun as the center of the solar system during an era when the consensus of popular belief at the time was geocentric (i.e., the earth as center of the solar system).
Although Galileo wasn’t entirely correct, in that he also believed the Sun was at the center of the entire universe, and did not have our current knowledge of exoplanets, and ability to monitor around 500 other solar systems in addition to ours, heliocentricism has become the dominating belief today and the Catholic Church formally acknowledged that Galileo’s condemnation had been wrong.
Galileo’s imprisonment was one that afforded him every luxury, including servants, but strangely, he slowly became completely blind after 5 years, and died just 9 years after his conviction, having been censored from teaching and publishing further works to support his Copernicus-derived heliocentric view of the world.
Today, we recognise that censorship has deleterious effects, especially when they go against public or popular opinion. The Founding Members of the U.S. Govt recognised the dangers of popular opinion to an extent that they added an elastic clause to prevent “majority tyranny”. Historically, we can find many similar case studies of iconic individuals who held unpopular beliefs at the time, and who were imprisoned and censored or worse, burned at the stake.
Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson, inspired by the Salem trials. In Massachusetts, in the United States, 20 people went on trial between February 1692 and May 1693; mainly women, for having unpopular opinions and were executed by being burned alive.
However, sometimes speech has a way of causing harm, by inciting violence and putting the lives of other people in danger, and those, according to legal lexicons are clearly defined as going beyond the arena of free speech. But, if we think for a moment, what about people who have dissenting views? People we disagree with? Should we condemn those whose views we do not share? What about people who are openly racist or sexist? Should we listen to them? Should we censor them?
In the early part of the 19th century, many American intellectuals argued for slavery whilst the British had abolished this practice. Their reasons were diverse; whilst the women of British nobility on the other side of the Atlantic who had seen the inhumane depictions of slaves being brought onto ships through art, signed a plea to American Southern women to abolish slavery, women such as First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler wrote counter-arguments in favour of slavery that would later partially become the basis of the Confederate Party. Many of the leading arguments for slavery were based on biology: white men had superior intellect to black individuals, therefore slavery was justified. Mrs. Tyler’s argument for slavery was partly sociological in nature; she wrote extensively that she and her family had given a good home to slaves, that they were treated better than if they had worked elsewhere on fields and factories, and that if they were freed, they would have nowhere to go. (source: “To the Duchess of Sutherland and the Ladies of England,” Southern Literary Messenger 19; February 1853) Her argument partially came into light because after the Civil War, many freed slaves were left homeless and destitute, and without any government help or assistance, led to the starvation and death of millions of African-Americans.
These children were rescued from slavery by a British ship (The Daphne) patrolling the waters off Zanzibar in 1869. After UK Parliament abolished the slave trade in 1833, ships of the Royal Navy were assigned to intercept slave ships and free the humans on board. The US would not abolish slavery until 32 years later in 1865.
In our contemporary era, the idea of human slavery is repulsive to us, yet we still utilise the argument of biology to justify some of our actions. If we examine the world we live in today, we utilise our argument of biology to justify why some people with superior intellect must be better than others because they worked hard to make a living and became rich whilst others, who worked just as hard, are left poor. "Whether it’s a foreign policy expert insisting on military intervention, a business-school prophet proclaiming the virtues of disruption, a Silicon Valley genius reducing politics to engineering, or a Times columnist championing the ineluctable march of autonomous technology, today’s thought leaders all share a core worldview: that extreme wealth and the channels by which it was obtained are not only legitimate but heroic."
Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong vegetarian, attended the British Kebab Awards as a presenter last year, and told the meat-loving crowd to eat more vegetables.
We utilise the argument of biology to justify why we enslave animals for food, and still engage in the inhumane practices of factory farming: because humans are of superior intellect to other animals, and it the right of humans to enslave and consume them; and we utilise the argument of biology to justify why men are suited for a certain type of work, and why women are better suited for other types of work. Even in recent events, such as the violent clashes between white supremacists in Virginia, their argument is one based on biology, that white people are superior to other human beings. In history, eventually these arguments of biology never withstand the test of time, and eventually they are unravelled as what they are: rationalisations for acts of oppression and cruelty from one group to another.
“In life, I meet lots of people, some I agree with, some I disagree with, some I profoundly disagree with, but I always want to get to know them, because everybody I meet and everybody you meet, knows something we don’t know. We should never be so high and mighty, you can’t listen to somebody else and learn something from them.” -Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party
However, without an open and uncensored dialogue, we cannot unravel these arguments; without a debate about these issues, they can never be dissected because when we censor those people whose views are different from us, they have a tendency to grow exponentially over time and act out in violent ways.
So often we close ourselves to others whose views we do not agree with, and thus begins the chain of events that lead to division. In the United States, we are often taught to win, to be always right, but we are not taught to actively listen or try to see from another’s point of view. We might easily dismiss those that we do not agree with, but as seen in history, it is to our benefit to listen to those who have unpopular opinions, to understand their point of view, and to understand why they developed those beliefs.
Heineken's Worlds Apart Video: click here. Heineken utilises the medium of video to open a dialogue about divisive opinions and politics in a commercial launched in April 2017.
If the Union Party during the Civil War Era had listened to First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler’s sociological arguments for slavery, perhaps our government would’ve made provisions so that newly freed slaves would have the resources to not be left homeless and die of starvation which led to the death of millions of people. Although the Union Party might not have agreed with Mrs. Tyler’s pro-slavery position, she had a point of view that was indicative of her place and position during a time when ideology and practice were at paradoxical odds in society.
Instead of moving towards censorship of unpopular opinions, like those of white supremacists in Virginia, and opinions of the differences in gender by a former Google engineer, we should take time to open a dialogue and understand why they came to accept those beliefs, and to deconstruct those arguments of biology. People have a tendency to act out when they are not heard; some may even turn to violence. If our society engaged in open communication where we can debate freely without retribution in a civilised, Socratic manner, we might even convince others of our beliefs, and perhaps even dissuade others of theirs. It is when we do not listen that we plant the roots of division that lead to violent clashes.
By Sierra Choi