Rene Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964
A poster that has been going the rounds on Facebook shows Mark Twain and a quote from his Notebook (Harper & Brothers, 1935): “Not a single right is indestructible: a new might can at any time abolish it, hence, man possesses not a single permanent right.”
Although I value highly the wit and wisdom of Twain, probably right up there with Lincoln’s, in this case I believe he is wrong. Not that people in power cannot suppress any human right. But that, even when a right is suppressed, it still exists. And the rights pertaining to human freedoms are inalienable—which means they are “incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred.”1
A living human being has organic autonomy. He or she may be morally and socially bound into a collective organization such as a family, congregation, corporation, or nation. Yet the person still exists as a separate, fully functioning unit. That is, a human being may be part of a group, as the thumb is part of the hand and joined to the fingers. But the human being can always exercise independent, sui generis authority, judgment, and freedom of action—as the thumb or fingers cannot.
Among the rights that cannot be alienated from, surrendered by, or transferred to an extant human being are freedom of thought, speech, and action. Those are the basic rights of an autonomous organism. To them I would add the right to self-interest, self-defense, and self-determination. Even as a slave, where expression or pursuit of these rights is suppressed, they still exist and adhere to a person’s role as a separate, functioning organism.2 Control of our own minds and bodies is built into the system and cannot be successfully excised or dominated from the outside.
Freedom of Thought. Governments and other dominant groups, such as religions, political parties, and marketing organizations, would like to suppress individual thoughts and judgments, and they have been trying to do so for a long time. The ancient Chinese had a term for it, stemming from Confucius: “rectification of names.” After a palace coup or a revolution, the new government would set about this task, which included developing and setting in place the proper designations of things in the web of relationships which creates meaning, a community, and the proper behavior to ensure social harmony. In sociology speak, this is setting the norms, or creating the “new normal,” for a disrupted society.
The first task of every new government is to gain control of the schools and what they teach. The first task of every religion is to set the terms for gaining favor with the deity and rendering salvation for the individual. The first task of every marketing department is to find what the customer values, deep down, below the level of words and opinions, and to make the product resonate at that deeper level. And so we are led to believe that orange juice is not about citrus pulp but about glowing health.
Such programs can work for a while. And it helps if the new names and their relationships, the civic teachings, the religious precepts, and the promoted products are benign, functional, non-invasive, and non-exclusive. A relationship of love and openness, a teaching of duty, a precept of basic morality, and a product that works and promotes human happiness will last the longest. But a program to challenge and change human nature for political, religious, or mercantile ends will eventually fail. Ask the Soviets, ask the Khmer Rouge, and one day ask the Islamic State.
One of the smartest comments I ever heard3 was: “People ain’t stupid.” That’s a testament to the eyes, ears, and thinking processes of the average human being. Or, as Lincoln said, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time … you know the rest. If your policies and teachings and your new world organizing principles are hurtful, unworkable, deluded, bad-hearted, or just plain wrong, eventually people as individuals and then as groups will see through them.
We all of us are born with a sense of self-preservation, a sense of proportion, and a sense of equity and fairness. Some of us had mothers and fathers that passed down family and communal wisdom. Some had to learn about the mechanics of fair play and justice the hard way, through experience. But all of us carry in our heads a picture of the way the world should work. If the politicians, priests, and hucksters are pushing a solution, path to salvation, or product that doesn’t skew with that picture, we will recognize it. Maybe not at first, but eventually, and hopefully before we die of the mistake.
Freedom of Speech. Most of us think in words and phrases, sometimes in complete sentences. A thought that affects us powerfully wants articulation. A though that affects us but which we cannot put into words frustrates us. Of course, I’m speaking as a writer here, for whom precise and organized thinking is a goal. But I believe that most people, if they’ve been taught a language, articulate in their minds and are motivated to express a thought if it’s meaningful. The urge to testify, to attest, to witness, and to speak the truth is strong in the human brain.
People with the “new might” that Mark Twain refers to may make it uncomfortable or dangerous to speak out. They may set watchers to listen at doors and keyholes, on energized microphones and telecommunications circuits, and at public and even private meetings. They may collect names and plan retribution. All of this may discourage the exercise of free speech, but until they invade the brain and cut the nerves that connect to the vocal cords for speaking one’s opinions, and to the fingers for writing them, the essence of freedom of speech still exists. Ask the Soviets in their battle against samizdat, ask the Chinese in their war against Google and ultimately the internet as a whole, and one day ask the fanatical Islamic clerics about the power of Western books and ideas.
People can be remarkably brave, and the need to speak truth as we understand it is strong.
Freedom of Action. In the same way that our brains are hard-wired to speak, so they are connected directly to our muscles for action. Some actions are natural and instinctive, like pulling your hand away from a hot stove or pushing your child out of the path of danger. Some actions require premeditation and decision, like the choice of a career or other life interests. Most of these more complex actions require energy, training, attention, and dedication. In return they will give your life meaning and, ultimately, determine how you will react at the moment of your death.
Those same people with “new might” may make it difficult for an individual to act. A slave faces strong disincentives to do other than as the master commands. The man in chains or locked in a cell may be unable to do all that he might wish. But either one will have the choice to die rather than live such a truncated life, and he or she may eventually find the means and take the opportunity to rebel, to escape, to battle free. And once free, full exercise of the right is restored.
Being born onto this Earth is a test of courage and of will. The need to act to defend ourselves and our families, our societies, our beliefs, or even just our own mulish stubbornness is built into human nature. Each of us is the inheritor of genes from a line of fighters, of survivors, of brave people. The ones who were without will and the courage to act, who were inclined to give up, curl up, and die in place—they have already succumbed to our more active and determined ancestors.4
Freedom of Self-Determination. Part of being human is to have knowledge of and an opinion about oneself. It may be faulty knowledge and a false opinion, but it still occupies the mind. We each of us plan our lives, make provision for the future, and actively store up grain, money, credit, and favors knowing that tomorrow may not be as good as today—or may indeed be better.
Those people with “new might” may offer us circumscribed lives, limited paths, and curtailed opportunities. But that does not remove the individual’s right to want something different, to plan his or her future actions, and to dream of things not as they are but as they might be. To remove this faculty from human beings and from their society as a whole, the government or other superior force would have to employ doctors or prison wardens to sever, in the brain of every living individual, the prefrontal cortex. That is the center where imagination and decision meet to coordinate the human mind’s capacity for projection and planning. The lobotomy, popular in the mid-20th century as a treatment for animated and anxious sufferers of severe mental illness, created tame and docile people, because they had no intentions or expectations. It robbed them of their future to make their present more palatable and manageable.
To be human is to want, to desire, to look forward, to look out, to think and plan and strive. To not do these things is to be asleep, or drugged, or brain damaged.
These basic freedoms of thought, speech, action, and self-determination are derived from the nature of our being. They are inconvenient to those people for whom a society of opinionated, outspoken, active individuals with their own sense of self-worth and dreams of the future is itself inconvenient. They are an obstacle for those who want to create a different world and a different kind of human being. They can be suppressed by might, by daily and conscientious application of inhibitions and meddlesome interference, and by dedicated action on a broad scale to eradicate and reshape societal beliefs, values, and relationships. But they cannot be unmade. They are, indeed, permanent.
1. According to my Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary, which is a useful tool to have open on the desktop while writing.
2. As opposed to, for example, the right of freedom of thought for a person in a coma; freedom of speech for a person with neural damage to Broca’s or Wernicke’s areas of the brain; or freedom of action for a quadriplegic or for one member of a conjoined pair of twins. In these cases, the rights may exist in theory, as a grant of society to the individual, but they cannot be exercised.
3. Spoken by David Cohen, an old-time newspaperman and private guru in PG&E’s News Bureau, who wrote the daily media digest for the company’s executives. Thank you, Davey!
4. Sitting in a meeting during my last job at the biotech company and hearing a politely worded but contentious discussion among the other people there, I had an epiphany: I was in a roomful of killers, because however well behaved and softly spoken their disagreements might be now, these people carried the genes of those who, fifty thousand years ago—and probably a lot more recently than that—were winning their fights with muscles, teeth, fists, and rocks. The cowards either didn’t breed or couldn’t protect their offspring.