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Rants & Reason

I’ll have the Isegoria, please

7/3/2019

With Parrhesia on the side

The apparent menu items in the headers are not to horn in on CITYVIEW’s Food Dude. Besides, Isegoria and Parrhesia are Greek to me. Isegoria is the Greek concept of equality for all in freedom of speech, and Parrhesia is akin to candid and frank expression, including the awful content of some social media.

The Greek goes back thousands of years. Their use by Socrates (469-399 BC) might have led him to order hemlock, too. He was sentenced to death for
corrupting the youth of Athens in what the jurors in Athens thought was his abuse of Parrhesia.

As is the case today, there was consternation then with protecting free expression and tolerating abuses of that protection by bigots, racists and others who don’t let ignorance and falsehoods get in the way of their volume.

So, the consternation didn’t just begin with the emergence of our First  Amendment in 1791 and its 20th century expansion.

That became clear in listening to a series of podcasts from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation labeled “Shutup: A free speech investigation.” The host was an Australian from Pakistan, Sami Shah.

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The catalyst for his podcasts was the social media reaction to the slaughter of 51 people worshipping in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The reaction had stunned Aussies and others because much of it focused on hatred of Muslims instead of on grief and condemning the shooter.

The concept of Isegoria was a precursor of the goal of our First Amendment and the celebration of the Fourth of July — both of which assume, or at least hope for, an informed electorate capable of self governance.

But that, of course, remains a goal, an ideal we cherish despite the divisiveness that social media and political rhetoric often foist upon us.

In his podcasts, Shah also suggested in our Parrhesia we’ve altered the concept of “political correctness.” He traced some PC back 100 years when PC meant you were in step with a nation’s political ideology — you were “politically correct” in endorsing the rhetoric of, say, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao.

For example, Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) was politically correct and in step with Soviet ideology when, as director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, his warped views on agriculture and biology led to the starvation of millions and the purging or deaths of scientists who disagreed with him. Likewise, those who were politically (or ideologically) correct supported the views and policies of Hitler and Mao, again leading to the deaths of millions of people.

Such “political correctness” today would be Trump press secretaries spouting the leader’s line that his inauguration drew the largest crowd in history, and for Congress it is “politically correct” to ignore climate change. Ideology trumps factual authority. But, Shah said, the concept of “political correctness” nowadays is often invoked to deride those who speak with respect for others.

Shah puts the change in the concept of political correctness this way: In the old days the “politically incorrect” were sent to the gulag; nowadays the “politically incorrect” — including those driven by respect for others — are sent to Human Resources.

It’s hard work, this self-governance stuff.

The legal scholar Thomas Emerson (1907-1991) had this sobering take on Isegoria and making the First Amendment and self-governance work: Self-restraint, self-discipline and maturity are required… The members of the society must be willing to sacrifice individual and short-term advantage for social and
long-range goals. And the process must operate in a context that is charged with emotion and subject to powerful forces of self-interest.

That’s a tall order to have more Isegoria on our political plates.

In closing, some July anniversaries of note:
• July 4, of course.
• July 20: The 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon.
• July 20-21, 2015: Huh? July 20 again? That’s the fourth anniversary of the Des Moines Register’s prescient editorial — online the 20th and in print the 21st — that Donald Trump was unfit to be President and should withdraw from the campaign for the GOP nomination. My respect for that editorial is just evidence of my Isegoria or, to others, my twisted Parrhesia. ♦

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes the monthly Rants and Reason column for CITYVIEW.

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