Is it not great to witness the culture of freedom spreading in Malaysia, no matter how painfully slow progress has been so far?
To observe individuals debating in the public sphere on issues that none was willing to ponder so openly in the past is an encouraging development for all freedom lovers. It opens up windows and doors of an old house to exchange stale air with fresh, belonging to that of delightfully fragrant summer days.
The bright light of summer now shines where darkness once reigned. With it, old perceptions succumb to more liberating views to present all with new possibilities to explore. The barrier to fulfilling individual potential is now less intimidating to overcome due to advancing freedom.
That barrier must continue to be chipped away. Challenges to greater freedom must be conclusively addressed, no inch must be surrendered.
With continual erosion of the fear of freedom, many Malaysians now are eager to practice their individual rights, especially free speech. They express their opinion in public space on issues ranging from the crucial to the comical. Along with liberty comes diversity of opinion, regardless of the validity of the opinion held.
There is a mechanism to sort out the issue of validity of opinion or ideas while respecting liberty. The mechanism is in the nature of spontaneous order and free competition, as each individual — or at least those who care enough — tries to convince the other of a position while others poke their fingers at that position, just as the invisible hand acts to allocate resources in a free, competitive market. It is the natural selection of ideas.
The act of convincing others through intelligent debate must continue to happen, if the process of natural selection is to separate the wheat from the chaff. If a society is interested in having the best ideas proliferate while phasing bad ones out to the margin, actions that prevent natural selection deserve rejection.
Most of the times, such actions detrimental to natural selection are easily identifiable because at its heart is coercion. A few common examples backed by coercion, as practiced by the governments all over the world — Malaysia definitely included — are banning of books, censorship on television and prohibition of public speaking. Others involving intolerant individuals include issuance of security threats, be it simply rhetorical or real.
Subtler is a situation when there is there is absence of coercion. Yes, challenges to the advances of liberty do not merely come in the form of coercion only. One way that it can exist is in form of thought-terminating clichés that try to end discussions held in the public sphere.
I have to be more concrete about this and I intend to do exactly that: how many times, when faced with difficult issues, has one heard the phrase “agree to disagree”?
On the surface, a person who suggests for all to agree to disagree so politely sounds like a great liberal democrat. It signals willingness to tolerate diversity of opinion. The truth cannot be any farther however; the phrase somehow has wrongly gained reputation as the liberal thing to do.
Unable to convince others or unable to mount convincing rebuttals to a brilliantly presented point, and in a situation where all sides refuse to budge, such a suggestion when forwarded so politely immediately resolves tension. Case closed. Discussion ended. Criticism ceased.
Meanwhile, those who refuse to agree to disagree unfairly risk being accused as intolerant of diversity of opinion.
This is downright wrong.
The phrase and the spirit of “agree to disagree” has nothing to do with free speech and the concept of liberty at large. Far from it, it seeks to end criticism without debating on points raised.
It does not promote free speech but in fact, it brings upon adverse effects to the agenda of freedom. This spirit masks itself as a liberal ideal but it is really an effort to cover a sign of weak intellect, by creating a force field to insulate the promoter of such illiberal spirit, from criticism.
Free speech does not come with freedom from criticism. Such insulation is the antithesis of the idea of freedom. At its worst, those who seek such insulation are intolerant of free speech. At the other end, at its best, they are either appealing to political expediency or running away from the issue.
The illiberal spirit of “agree to disagree” is not the proper way of respecting diversity of opinion and liberty. The right way is by continually debating on the issues, no matter how sensitive they are — rationally and respectfully, without threats and force. It is the right way because the only factor that makes a point unassailable is its soundness.
All are entitled their own opinion but that does not mean every opinion is valid. The assertion that the Earth is flat is an opinion but we know that that is untrue. The spirit of “agree to disagree” ignores the point on the validity of the idea. It treats all ideas as equally valid and sound when that is not the case. It is because not all opinions or ideas are valid that none should be beyond inspection and criticism. Hence, the invalidity of the appallingly inadequate spirit of “agree to disagree”.
If that ersatz culture spreads and becomes the way of the majority, then that society, our society, is building its foundation on sand, incapable to supporting argument as good as we should because each time there are disagreements, we agree to disagree. Such weak foundation cannot support a liberal society in a convincing manner.
A free society will continually examine and re-examine any idea presented in the public space. Any action that discourages that, whether laced with coercion or not, is incongruous to the greater spirit of liberty and the goal of building a liberal society.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on November 30 2009.