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Weekly 3: Canaries in coal mines

Summary: Listen to the "losers." Protect the troublemakers. Beware of dangerous words. (~4 min read)

Idea Journal Weekly 3

June 7 · Issue #142 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Listen to the “losers.” Protect the troublemakers. Beware of dangerous words. (~4 min read)

#1. The useful perspectives of dissidents
Legendary chess player and political activist Garry Kasparov writes in his book Winter is Coming that you should listen to the dissidents in your society – even if you don’t like what they have to say. 
It’s the dissidents who challenge the status quo and reveal to us the dark realities of our societies. Realities that many of us have the luxury of ignoring.
As Kasparov points out, every society has dissidents – not just dictatorships. They speak for the disenfranchised, the ignored, and the persecuted. 
Dissidents warn us of threats that target minorities first and could spread to the majority.
Kasparov acknowledges that “winter is coming” is a warning, not an inevitable conclusion.
#2. Suppressed writers signal trouble
Novelist Toni Morrison writes in her essay Peril that “the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow.”
Efforts to censor or regulate journalists, novelists, poets and other writers “who construct meaning in the face of chaos” are signs that something important has happened.
As Morrison puts it, authoritarian regimes and rulers are often foolish.
But they are not foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgements.
Such regimes have an understandable fear of writers because truth is trouble.
As Morrison points out: “It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public. Unpersecuted, unjailed, unharassed writers are trouble for the ignorant bully, the sly racist, and the predators feeding off the world’s resources.”
When writers are suppressed, we not only lose necessary troublemakers. 
We also lose an understanding of ourselves: “Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.”
Morrison’s idea of a nightmare is the thought of erased voices: unwritten novels, poems swallowed for fear of being heard by the wrong people, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, and cancelled films.
“As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.”
#3. Listen for dangerous words
Author and historian Timothy Snyder writes in his book On Tyranny that governments’ use of what he calls dangerous words like “extremism” can signal impending threats to your freedom.
As Snyder points out, extremism sounds bad but the word has little meaning: “There is no doctrine of extremism.”
When authoritarian regimes speak of extremists, they just mean people who are not in the mainstream. But who is in the mainstream at a given moment is defined by the regime.
Snyder notes that dissidents in the twentieth century, whether they were resisting communism or fascism, were called extremists. 
Modern authoritarian regimes use laws on extremism to punish those who criticize their policies. 
“In this way the notion of extremism comes to mean virtually everything except what is, in fact, extreme: tyranny.”
Quote of the week
“In 1953 Felix Cohen wrote: ‘Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere, and our treatment of the Indian … marks the rise and fall in our democratic faith.’
In 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said to his staff: ‘We’re going to take this movement and … reach out to the poor people in all directions in this country … into the Southwest after the Indians, into the West after the Chicanos, into Appalachia after the poor whites, and into the ghettos after Negroes and Puerto Ricans. And we are going to bring them together and enlarge this campaign into something bigger than just a civil rights movement for Negroes.’
Inspired by the work and words of Dr. King just before he was killed, and building on the insight of Felix Cohen’s powerful metaphor, we hope to show that Cohen’s canary is not alone. All canaries bear watching. Our democratic future depends on it.”
- Law professors Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres in their 2002 book The Miner’s Canary
Idea Journal
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