Exchanging views on difficult topics is not easy but far preferable to exchanging rocket fire - Businesslive

24 May 2021 - Relying on pet aphorisms can lead to lazy mental habits, but over the years I’ve found a few that have proved more dependable than most.

Michael Morris
Relying on pet aphorisms can lead to lazy mental habits, but over the years I’ve found a few that have proved more dependable than most.

Of these, one stands out for its challenging simplicity — 12 words that embody not the forgettable obviousness of most of what passes for aphoristic wisdom but a testing idea about human liberty: “There are no freedoms so dangerous as those that are not exercised.”

To call it an aphorism is, perhaps, misleading.

It was a riposte — one of many — by newspaper editor Cushrow Irani to the repressive gestures of Indira Gandhi’s Congress administration during India’s national emergency of the 1970s. The crisis arose, chiefly, from Gandhi’s overweening political ambition and the erosion of the state’s impartiality in favour of ideological unanimity on the Congress’s avowedly “pro-poor” national development agenda.

When resistance came, Gandhi cast it as “internal disturbances” that threatened “imminent danger to the security of India”, so justifying curtailing liberty on the grounds of national interest.

(A great figure of the resistance was supreme court justice HR Khanna, who later wrote of the risks to constitutionalism — and the importance of “eternal vigilance” as the price of liberty, of which the “the only keepers are the people” — that “(the) imbecility of men ... always invites the impudence of power”, surely another aphorism worth committing to memory.) 

What’s interesting about Cushrow Irani’s warning, however, is its implicit acknowledgment that, if unexercised freedoms are the most dangerous, other freedoms are dangerous, too.

Irani’s wisdom came to mind last week with the furore over Redhill principal Joseph Gerassi’s appeal to parents to urge their children not to discuss the current Middle East conflict. If his anxiety was understandable, his response was almost certainly ill-considered.

As Eusebius Mckaiser said on Twitter: “How on earth is the best pedagogical response to divisive conflict to ban your students from talking about it? Use it as a learning moment to role model, as staff, how to engage effectively.”

Strictly speaking, the school didn’t “ban” debate, but there is a good argument that it didn’t do enough to enable it. Certainly, this speaks to Irani’s challenge; the greater danger always lies in unexercised freedoms.

Of course, it’s easy for outsiders to urge a principal to take risks with other people’s children. Gerassi is quoted as saying that “instances of negative debates, name-calling and ‘cancelling’ students” prompted him to intervene to protect “the wellbeing of all our pupils”.

Ironically, the tenor of many of the adults’ contributions to the argument — often revealing blind allegiance, intolerance of counterargument, even name-calling — arguably corroborate rather than disarm the school’s position.

One senses that too many participants in the wider debate, on both sides, are less interested in discussion than in compelling adherence to an approved narrative to which it is impermissible to introduce, for example, any discussion of the history and conduct of Hamas, the failure of Israeli society and the leadership it elects to inject urgency and vigour into seeking a plausible political solution (rather than merely “peace”, which only produces the inertia that guarantees the opposite), the morality or merits of violence in pursuit of political ideals (on both sides), or the variety of opinion and contestation among Muslim and Jewish people, or among Palestinians and Zionists.

This is the very reason to embrace rather than avoid the danger that comes with nurturing free debate. It is assuredly not easy. But, however risky, exchanging ideas is not only preferable to trading rocket fire, but is the only means of avoiding it.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.