Heresy, Dissidence and Authority
So-called ‘conspiracy theorists’ are the new heretics and dissidents. This weaponised and derogatory term was invented by the CIA in the 1960s to discredit and defame those who questioned the truth of official Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination; the same applies to questioning the 9/11 Commission Report, the shortcomings of which are forensically exposed by Prof David Ray Griffin in his comprehensive analysis. The conspiracy theorist label is used against those who speak truth to power, and many journalists are cowed by the threat of being branded in this way, even if this is entirely unjustified. Judgement is a matter of reason, evidence and discrimination for each of us to join the dots and draw our own conclusions – the key issue is which dots to join and on what basis.
The Inquisition – an early manifestation of a police state – was created in the 13th century to suppress the views of the Cathars of Languedoc. From the mid-sixteenth century, heretical books were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, only abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1966. Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire promoted tolerance and freedom of speech and expression – he wrote his Treatise on Tolerance in 1763. Both the American and French revolutions promoted liberty, although there is a significant difference of emphasis between ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ – the first implicitly highlighting individualism where the second balances this individualism with social concerns.
In this treatise, Voltaire writes that ‘there was a time when it was thought necessary to issue decrees against those who taught a doctrine at variance with the categories of Aristotle’ [then he lists a number of other items]. Further on, he concludes that ‘the law of intolerance is absurd and barbaric; it is the law of tigers; except that it is even more absurd and horrible, because tigers tear and mangle only to have food, whereas we wipe each other out over paragraphs.’ Writing on the damage done by intolerance, he states: ‘What? Is each citizen to be allowed to trust his own reason, and to believe whatever this enlightened or deluded reason? Yes indeed, provided he does not disturb the public order.’
Over the past few weeks we have witnessed a new episode of Inquisition and the implicit creation of an online Index of Prohibited Material. There has been a steep rise in censorship by social media companies of views at variance with mainstream narratives: dissident content is summarily removed. Heretical and subversive views are not tolerated, open debate is stifled in favour officially sanctioned orthodoxy, whistle blowers are abused and demonised. Manipulated by fear and on a flimsy pretext of security, we are in danger of abjectly surrendering the very freedom of thought and expression that our ancestors fought so courageously to secure in the 18th century and which constitutes the essence of our Enlightenment legacy - so conspicuously absent in authoritarian China. Yet we are in danger of drifting in the same direction with the introduction of new tracking and tracing surveillance technology further enabled by the roll-out of 5G.
Voltaire’s biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall summarised his outlook in the famous and oft-quoted phrase referring to a passage where he wrote that ‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so as well: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ We forget this Enlightenment message at our peril if we are to continue to uphold freedom of expression and an open exchange of views. In the words drafted by James Madison in the 1791 First Amendment to the US Constitution: ‘Congress shall make no law prohibiting…or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’