For most of us any threat to our expression of belief or opinion would be a threat to our personal integrity. Freedom of thought and expression is a hallmark of liberty and fundamental to a free society. This post raises questions about how the assumptions we make about beliefs and opinions can impact freedom, both our own and that of others.
Our personal freedom, however, depends on accurate information, including the accuracy of our assumptions about the interests, beliefs, and views of others.
What do our assumptions have to do with freedom? My answer is that our ability to engage effectively, safely, with real people in the real world, both friend and foe, depends on accuracy.
Assumptions are beliefs about facts (or the views of others) that may or may not be true. My suggestion here is that unexamined assumptions can limit our knowledge of the reality we are dealing with, and thus our ability to respond effectively. Inaccurate assumptions interfere with the free flow of information, which limits our personal autonomy and independence.
And so I ask you: If we have not investigated and fully understood opposing points of view, how can we engage with and influence others effectively? How can we question their assumptions?
I do not suggest that agreement is necessary. That will often be impossible. But, being mindful of the dangers of untested assumptions can protect us from misunderstandings or worse.
Questions of judgment often involve complex circumstances and depend on information coming from multiple sources. Sometimes complexity can be aggravating, but if we value the integrity of our beliefs and our role in the world, there is no alternative to pursuing accuracy. After all, our personal views reflect our identity as decent and intelligent people.
Problems often catch us by surprise as a consequence of assumptions we did not realize we were making. This can happen socially or politically. It happens in science. I have raised a variety of questions in recent blog posts about historical assumptions that I think deserve a closer look.
These included supposed promises that have long been accepted as inevitable by western society and by Americans in particular: The assumption, for example, that rational governance is possible if we simply trust the wisdom of experts, or that nature will eventually submit completely to human control.
Today we face an extraordinary series of interrelated crises that call these and many other assumptions into question. Political dysfunction, social and economic disarray, and a nearly total lack of civility and cooperation, leave us enmeshed in frustration.
As regular readers know, I have been suggesting that local communities provide the only effective opportunity for Americans to seek local security in the midst of social disorder.
This is a very challenging proposition. But, I do not believe we have a choice. The lessons of civility, trustworthiness and cooperative problem-solving may have to be learned by force of necessity. Our survival might depend on them.
Teaming up with a diverse group of neighbors to meet shared needs will not be easy. It will require personal courage and initiative. Understanding does not necessarily lead to agreement, but it lubricates and sustains working relationships. It is the path to genuine trust.
The greatest challenge for building community in a disintegrating society will not be differences of opinion, but differences in our values.
We each have numerous values, perhaps more than we realize. Values are not casual ideas or choices; many are deeply rooted in our interests and needs. If we are to live together, certain essential values must be shared; others might challenge our patience, but not our trust.
To find safety in community we will need to seriously examine our assumptions in the clear light of honest dialog. I believe we will find more agreement than we expect, but we cannot delay. Dependable community will depend on genuine understanding.
We must never abandon our values, but rather control the manner in which we manage them. Each of us carries a personal perspective that will contribute to the character and wisdom of the whole – as long as we refrain from allowing ego or emotion to overwhelm the context in which we find ourselves.
We must learn how to work with others, to influence one another little by little, and to live with grace and charity.
Note to regular readers: Please watch for the next post on or about February 10.