Frederick Douglass was born a slave, but eventually escaped to freedom. He then became a publisher, abolitionist, orator, and US Ambassador. In his autobiography—a true must-read for anyone who wants to understand American history—he describes how learning to read drove his process of personal liberation. He learned he was free in his mind long before he was able to escape from slavery. He later said that the time he remembered most fondly was the period when, while still a slave, he had the joy of covertly teaching other slaves to read during Sunday services at the nearby home of someone friendly to his cause.
What Douglass was teaching was not only how to read, but a more empowered way to discover the world, to pull together a high-resolution image of what is real, and to develop a deeper understanding of the nature of personal choice. With active access to new information, it was increasingly evident that freedom was the proper state of the human mind, and so of the individual person.
His commitment to literacy, to language and the right to access it and to deploy it, both inwardly, and in the sharing of knowledge, made him a publisher when he escaped to freedom, and it exemplified the subtle, intimate ways in which resistance to the silencing of opposition is fundamental to the health and survival of any free society. The unflinching dignity of the gaze of Frederick Douglass tells us: the acquisition and sharing of truth is a sacred trust that binds any human being to all others. It is what we hope for when we feel the urge to trust in each other.
There was a time when I taught writing to university students. They were some of the smartest students in the country, but had not always been prepared by their previous schooling to do research and to identify reliable sources. Finding primary sources (original writing or reporting, or first-hand accounts of what took place at a moment in history)—or trusted secondary sources (respected scholars, doing serious well-sourced scholarly work)—allows one to build a case based on evidence. The standard, it turns out, is pretty simple: if one is honest in one’s whole mind, one can easily see the difference between knowing that something is true and estimating that it might be.
Without knowing, one is less free to speak with clarity.
The haphazard assertion of unsourced “opinion” is a false freedom: one can say whatever one wants, so one feels unfettered. But knowing the roots of one’s sense of the world, knowing them well enough to know whether they involve truth, substance, and the generosity that comes with connecting to the reality of how people live, that allows a person to freely and effectively articulate not only thought or opinion, but also meaning, and something more: a detailing of truth which illuminates new ways of getting by in the world.
Is there danger? Is it nearby? Are we at risk? These are naturally questions we would like to have answered, and which we would like for those who serve in public office to take seriously. But “I have a right to my opinion” does not solve this problem. If one feels that people of a certain kind might signify danger, that quality of signifier might exist only in the mind of the person with that feeling; if danger in fact lies elsewhere, nothing could be more foolish than to persecute people of a particular kind, while ignoring real and specific problems in the world.
Truth matters—not because it reinforces the ideas of one faction against another, but because building our world around what is actually there, and expanding our capability with imagination rooted in knowledge of what is true, empowers us to be responsible, to be ethically capable, and so to be free. Human liberty requires a deep and unyielding defense of selfless, well-studied evidentiary truth-telling.
Access to truth is a fundamental human right. The hard work of finding it—the work done by scientists, by journalists, by engineers and explorers and poets, by those who seek to make us better arbiters of the difference between best-case and suboptimal—is sacred work. We must defend the seekers of truth and uphold the right of all people to question authority, to examine evidence, and to speak freely. We should aspire to a world in which no person will be forced to live with the fear that knowledge is not allowed or that truth is too much of a risk to take.
[ The Note for February 2017 ]