The fundamental dignity of human inquiry

Years ago, I came up with this phrase to describe why libraries matter: they are institutions dedicated to the recognition and support of the fundamental dignity of human inquiry.

Curiosity is responsible for all the real gains in the quality of human life. What causes disease, and how can we prevent it? How can we build comprehensive and sustainable systems to deliver clean water and energy, to move goods and services to markets, or to educate the young? Human beings ask questions, and in the fearless pursuit of answers, they can find their way to the things that make human life enduring and worthwhile.

That end - a life in which people are free to explore the universe around them, to stand unafraid, to build rather than blunder and destroy their way through their days, to live with dignity and purpose - requires at least three things.

First, we must have the freedom to express what we know or think we know. This is what we mean by “free speech” -- the right to think, say, and write what we will. We have to declare the hypothesis before we can test it. (And a hypothesis doesn’t have to be religious, scientific, or political; it can also be emotional.)

Second, we must have the ability to access the expressions of others. Whether we read fiction or non-fiction, we build the scaffolding of our understanding on the explorations of others.

Third, there must be systems of social interaction that ensure reasonable safety and fairness. The “rule of law” provides predictable rules that balance individual liberty and collective well-being.

But there are threats to this attempt to lead lives of greater wisdom and peace.

Some of those threats come from within. Who hasn’t awoken in the wee hours cringing at the memory of his or her arrogance or cruelty? Those nights mark the painful process of developing a conscience. Too often, we are heedless of the damage we do to others when we make statements we later realize are careless, willfully ignorant, bigoted, or actively malicious. We are free to speak, but speech has consequences. Learning isn’t always pretty, and not all of our desires are positive. Over time, I believe we should strive to be kinder.

Other threats come from the powers in society around us. The school principal or board removes a book that tackles big and important issues (Beloved, by Toni Morrison, which explores the realities and legacy of slavery) using a small and irrelevant excuse (there’s too much sex). Often, probably most often, this attempt to prevent access to other’s expressions comes from a desire to shield and protect. But that effort also diminishes the dignity of inquiry, treating even 16 and 17 year olds as toddlers. At other times, the desire is more overt: government officials lie about the purposes of their programs, and corporate leaders deny access to the records of their deals. Why? Censorship, secrecy and deception are tools to better control the minds of others, to divert them from truth, lest they rebel against their keepers.

We are living at a moment in our history when these two factors - the exercise of human dignity and inquiry on the one hand, and the increasingly blatant and authoritarian efforts of entrenched power on the other - are coming into increasing conflict.

I do worry that the election of Donald Trump, and his rejection of decorum, of civil liberties, of fairness, of charity, of international thoughtfulness, may lead us to war. There are some key flashpoints for potential global conflagration. Among them are the ruthless pursuit of oil, political and religious conflict in the Middle East, racial and national tribalism, the status of Taiwan, the number and availability of nuclear weapons, the importunities of corporate financial speculation, or simple confidence in democratic processes. Trump has weighed in on all of them, in ways that are consistently destabilizing and corrosive.

Even more troubling to me is that such a person could gain, if not the majority of popular vote, the confidence of some 62 millions of Americans who actively chose a leader whose history and likely policies (even likelier seeing his cabinet picks) have been demonstrated repeatedly to injure and impoverish them.

I was raised with an idea of America in which we were heroes. In World War II, we stepped into a conflict against a megalomaniac who launched his power from a platform of bigotry. We turned the tide.

It breaks my heart even to imagine it, but what if, on the world stage, the United States of America is now poised to be, not a hero, but the villain, the initiator of war, and shameless exploiter of those least prepared to defend themselves both within our borders and without?

What next?

I believe, as citizens, we have both rights and responsibilities. At present, compromised though it is, we still have the right of intellectual freedom: free speech, and access to it. We still have, equally compromised, the right of privacy.  I believe it is my responsibility to advocate tirelessly for these rights.

But I also have the responsibility to exercise them. I must support the mechanisms of investigative reporting (by actively supporting free presses). I must speak up on behalf of people I believe to be threatened. I am obliged to support the political causes that maintain in my judgment the American dream I still subscribe to: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

That dream is obtained not by passive acquiescence to the culture around me, but by intentional action on behalf of peace, fairness, compassion, and the dignity of human inquiry.

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