Inspired by Socrates speech in defence of being charged with not believing in the gods of Athens and corrupting youth.
When democracy starts to falter who do we look to blame? Men of Athens put Socrates to the test, the one who was deemed to be inciting the young to join and follow the Thirty Tyrants terrorizing the city and destroying their way of life. Socrates answered what may have been considered trumped up charges of three men with credentials in poetry, political and oratory – all men who knew how to turn a phrase and persuade and persuade they did the 500 strong jury to find Socrates guilty of turning the young against the State and not believing in the gods of the city. Once tried, the sentence was death – by his own hand through drinking hemlock prepared by the State. The first martyr to free speech in the earliest of democracies.
Not believing in the gods of the state, does not mean you have no beliefs, on the contrary, it may well mean you have beliefs that are so strong that you beliefs transcend your desire for your own life. This behavior is well worn in our time – could Socrates have just been an early version of the old men who send the young to do their dirty work against democracy and support the growth of outlaw gangs to bring down those rightfully elected? Whipping up the flames of hatred and war among young men by denouncing the ‘gods’ holding political, economic and social systems together? Does this sound familiar?
Socrates crime may not have been that he gave words meaning and the cause of the Thirty Tyrants legitimacy with his philosophizing on the streets, answering the questions put to him by his fellow citizens – it may have been that he didn’t speak up when those words were used to build the movement that threatened the city’s lifestyle. And when he had the chance to defend himself, he chose to bully and cajole his accusers. He challenged the jury to allow diversity of thought in the city and criticized them for not having the courage to think outside the town square. The cost was too high for the city to have this voice continue to be heard. They valued their lifestyle more … and is that such a bad thing? To say no to terror and to protect what you value. What is wrong with drawing a line in the sand and say we will not be subject to thoughts that turn into words that can be used by those who want to incite terror and destroy a democracy (with all its imperfections – because Athens certainly had some – just ask the women and slaves) ?
This argument has two sides.
In our time, we continue to condemn those whose opinions or prophesies we find uncomfortable, and some like Socrates, find their voice leads them to their death. When we don’t reform and include those who voices are excluded from the discourse we diminish the richness of the struggle to listen harder to learn to understand where they are coming from and why they feel left out. We also run the risk of giving legitimacy to their cause when a martyr is found. And not all causes will martyrdom be the way forward, it may well lead to more destruction and violence. It is the challenge for democracy to find a way to hear the voices and integrate, reform, develop, evolve.
How do we, democracy enthusiasts, include those voices who do incite hatred, who are willing to put their gods above all others, who refuse to come to the table without words of hate, who are willing to die for their beliefs?
This is the challenge of our time, we do not have the luxury of the Men of Athens to bring 500 jurors together and determine a course of action that ended in the state assisted suicide of a thought leader. Bullets and bombs replace words. The clash of gods have the crusades raging again and generations are marching across the planet fleeing from their homelands.
Socrates ingested the poison of the State and died – the most philosophical and poetic of actions. The most complete way of demonstrating what he believed was that Athens was faltering and it is said he looked forward to continuing his conversations with Orpheus and Musæus, Hesiod and Homer in the next world. This feels like only a few steps away from those who pull the thread on a suicide bombing jacket who because of their beliefs are willing to make the sacrifice to go to their maker and their heaven.
From Clementine Ford to Alan Jones – democracies need all the voices, even the ones we don’t want to hear. Being able to hear the voices without resorting to hemlock or jackets packed with explosives as extreme ways for the voice to be visible is the work of those who are seeking better democracies. Those voices who spoke up and charged Socrates were an orator, a politician and a poet. They were not the most reliable, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t have the right to name the problem as they saw it, take it to the jury and let the people decide. Free speech comes with a high price for both buyers and sellers in the market place of the global agora. How much are you willing to pay?