30 April 2010

Free Speech Worth Engaging

Essential to any prosperous society in this day is freedom to discuss matters of public interest in an atmosphere of tolerance and non-coercion. When this occurs, unreflective power gives way to thought as the impelling force driving the evolution of a society. This is common sense now, apparently. But, it seems to me that the common vision of "freedom of speech" is inadequate to the concept it invokes; Its means cannot bring about its ends. Here in the United States this dilemna can be seen in the river of nonsense that the First Amendment is always protecting. We can all agree on freedom of speech. But how to make sure that that speech is worth our time and energy engaging is something that I think eludes the American body politic.

Abdu'l-Baha recognized this in his 1875 work, The Secret of Divine Civilization. In that book, he promotes the establishment of consultative assemblies as a means for the regeneration of the Persian nation. But he tempers his praise with a word of warning.
If, however, the members of these consultative assemblies are inferior, ignorant, uninformed of the laws of government and administration, unwise, of low aim, indifferent, idle, self-seeking, no benefit will accrue from the organizing of such bodies. (SDC p.18)
'Abdu'l-Baha warns that reform cannot be achieved through the application of technical formulas. Advancements in public consciousness are necessary if these instruments are to be wielded effectively by the nation. "It is inconceivable that any nation should achieve prosperity and success unless this paramount, this fundamental concern [education] is carried forward." (SDC p. 109) And in another place:"The publication of high thoughts is the dynamic power in the arteries of life; it is the very soul of the world." (ibid) Forums for public discussion are of little use if they are not accompanied by a vigorous process of capacity-building among those destined to use them. Baha'is were involved in this process then. And Baha'is are involved in it now. Baha'is, of course, do not engage in partisan political organizing. However, a pattern of action is now emerging that I think, if given time to mature, can have an appreciable impact on the quality of free speech.

Among the most heartening of recent developments of the Baha'i world is the emergence of the junior youth spiritual empowerment program. Young people between the ages of twelve and fifteen are a vast reservoir of energy and talent. And this program is showing mounting success at assisting them to advance the spiritual and material prosperity of their communities. The Universal House of Justice describes this process in its recent message to all Baha'is of the world.
There is every indication that the programme engages their expanding
consciousness in an exploration of reality that helps them to analyse the
constructive and destructive forces operating in society and to recognize the
influence these forces exert on their thoughts and actions, sharpening their
spiritual perception, enhancing their powers of expression, and reinforcing
moral structures that will serve them throughout their lives.
The program centers around the development of three capacities. One is spiritual perception. As this capacity develops, junior youth are empowered to see beyond superficial representations to recognize what's really happening around them. Another is the power of expression. With this capacity, they can eloquently put their thoughts into words, and communicate and consult with others as they tread a path of service. And finally, the third capacity this program seeks to build is a sound moral structure. Among other things, this ensures that they pursue their individual progress to the benefit of, rather than at the expense of the common good.

It seems to me that the development of these three capacities is a powerful supplement to any society that sees freedom of speech as an essential requirement of its progress and success. Young people participating in this program will be accustomed to taking action to promote the common good, consulting with their fellow-citizens about the needs of their communities, and raising the level of discourse on a number of social and spiritual issues of shared interest. Even at such tender ages of twelve or thirteen this is becoming a common outcome of the program's systematic implementation. For now, their numbers are still small, and the level of public discourse is exceedingly low. But perhaps, in time, the influence they will have on their fellow-citizens will help make free speech that much more beneficial to the life of society.

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