Personal Voices: The Unalienable Right to Independent Thought

In a Fourth of July Internet greeting card we received this year, Abbie Hoffman stands at a podium in his American flag shirt, looking magnificent with his cloud of curly hair, hands in the pockets of his faded jeans, chest out, chin up. He was arrested for wearing this shirt -- for "desecrating the flag" -- when he was summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1968.

"Be a Patriot on Independence Day," reads the card, "Think Independently." It's a timely card for this political moment, when it seems particularly hard to think independently and to give voice to our independent thoughts.

The Declaration of Independence itself provides notable guidance about what it means to think independently and about what modes of discourse encourage such thinking. In his new biography, "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life," Walter Isaacson points out how Franklin edited Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson had "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable," and Franklin changed it to " We hold these truths to be self-evident."

Isaacson argues that this change emphasizes a rational rather than a religious basis for these truths; but let's look at it from a slightly different angle. "Sacred" suggests a hierarchy of some kind, in which there are certain truths that are set apart, perhaps handed down to us from above, and thus they are separate from us, and may need to be controlled. There would always be an anxiety about such a truth, an embattled quality, a need to defend. "Self-evident" truths, meanwhile, are evident without proof of reasoning. That is, self-evident truths are intuitively available to all of us at all times, whoever and wherever we are.

The "self-evident" truths thus resemble the "unalienable" rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that they name: neither the truths about the rights nor the rights themselves can be alienated from us; that is, they cannot be transferred to another.

The right to be independent and to think independently can therefore be taken away in a given circumstance but not alienated from us. They still always exist as our rights even if we are enslaved, tortured, terrorized, killed, repressed. That is what Amnesty International is all about: the power of creating a community to recognize human beings as human beings, to remember that they exist even if they are hidden away and repressed for thinking and speaking independently, and to recognize the wrongful acts of those who try to take away these rights.

These unalienable rights as presented in the Declaration of Independence might also be thought of as human integrity -- what we keep no matter what, the thing that makes us human. Knowing that it is our right to think independently provides some space and ampleness with which to be in contact with, or even surrounded by, points of view that discourage or deny that right.

My husband and I have poignant experience of this most basic of rights. When we resisted the death penalty in the case of the man who was convicted for killing my mother-in-law, we were surrounded by those in power who wanted us to not exist.

My husband's sister, the rest of the family, and the pastor of the Baptist church they attended were all pro-death penalty. The pastor was quoted in the local paper as calling for the death penalty so that the congregation could have closure. The DA and his staff, while not overtly dismissive of us, were clearly more sympathetic to the rest of the family's position.

When the defense offered a plea bargain last September, the DA called a meeting in the church, just after the service, which the DA and his staff had attended. The pastor was present, the DA's staff, my husband's sister, aunt and uncle, two cousins and their wives, and us.

Sitting in that room, we felt as if the breath had been squashed out of us. But we still had our humanness, the seemingly small but ineradicable power of being people who have convictions and who take up physical and psychic space in the world. That is unalienable.

People try to silence other people's voices, or even to keep people from being, because they already exist, and that existence itself is powerful. So we are already independent -- human integrity is what we, my mother-in-law, the man who killed my mother-in-law, and my husband's relatives all share. Patriots and loyalists, terrorist suspects detained in U.S. custody, Iraqi children, U.S. troops, those who believe in thinking independently and those who feel threatened by it, those who let themselves take in the fact that murder happens and those who reflexively deny it.

The space for thinking independently, as a natural human being who has weight in the world, is always available to us, whether anyone likes it or not. When we're in a tight spot, and the tide of opinion or belief seems to be against us, we can remember this, and speak.

Molly Weigel is a freelance writer.

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