The crisis of individualism

Suddenly, the price of speaking one’s mind has gotten very high. You may agree on every issue save one; dare to share your independent or dissident view—and you might shut down the conversation or lose all your friends.

Since this kind of censorship and self-censorship has been going on for some time, people who want to stay out of trouble write under pseudonyms, smile carefully at meetings and dinner parties, but do not say what they really think, there is too much at stake.

I call this the crisis of individualism and the destruction of independent thinking. It is the death knell of free thought, free speech, critical inquiry, and Western civilization (at its best) as we have known it.


Offend this man and your funding will be cut. Offend that woman, and you will no longer be published at certain sites. Every site has a political party line. Cross it—and you are crossed off their list.

Offend an ideological opponent and they might sue you or track you down, first on the Internet, then on the lecture platform, then up close and personal, at home or at work. This is happening in America and elsewhere around the world.

Perhaps they will spray graffiti right outside your door, as has just happened to a long-time member of the Jerusalem-and American-based Women of the Wall (WOW).

Now, this particular female worshipper knows that the hooligans know exactly where she lives. The bullies—who rioted ten days ago, ten thousand strong—mean to intimidate our bravest members—one by one. “You are only the first” was part of the spray-paint message.

I must note, with considerable joy, that on the day of the riot, (May 10, five hundred Israeli police officers protected the 200 members of Women of the Wall from the mob of zealots who cursed, jeered, threw chairs, stones, bottles, water, and blew whistles loudly during the women’s prayer service.

Five days later, on May 15, Israeli Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, issued her intention to stand by the recent legal decisions which support WOW’s right to pray—and guess what? The Justice Minister must sign off on any proposed amendments to the regulations that govern the laws and customs of holy sites.

I suppose the targeting-by-graffiti is the response made by the kind of bully who feels he (or she) is losing and who cannot accept this.

Lethal hatred empowers and unleashes hate crimes, lynch mobs, beatings, murder.

Last week, in Russian Georgia, a priest-led mob of 20,000 attacked a small gay rights march, injuring at least 14 gay rights activists. Like their counterparts in Jerusalem, they believe that God is behind their views and therefore that violence in God’s name is justified.

A lot of violence is taking place in God’s name.

My friend and colleague, Hans Erling Jensen, the President of the International and Danish Free Press Societies was first sued for what he said about Islam; legally, he prevailed. Thereafter, a few months ago, he opened his door and found a gun sticking in his face. Luckily, Jensen wrestled with the masked gunman, the shot missed, the gunman fled. But now Jensen will be living at an undisclosed location and under Danish police protection for the rest of his life.

Something relatively small but infuriating also happened to me: The webmaster who had been in charge of my website for many years, suddenly locked me (and all my experts) out of my own site because he rather viciously disagreed with my support for Women of the Wall. (I am one of the founders of this group). He did not sue me, but his bullet-proof method of hosting my website cost me nearly ten thousand dollars in “exit” fees. And, he also managed to silence me for two months.

In other words: People who think, write, and speak out, are now being attacked for their ideas, not only on the page, but in very ugly and economically and physically violent ways. Our barbaric attackers know no shame. And, they are everywhere.

I have a friend who is a religious Muslim feminist. Every day, she receives anti-Muslim and anti-woman hate mail. I have another friend, a gallant intellectual, who is being bullied and baited for her views on Islam. Her attackers are not Muslims but are, rather, those whose views on Islam are far more negative than hers.

It is crucial that people stop silencing themselves on either the left or the right. We must be willing to risk unpopularity and discomfort on freedom’s behalf. This is true globally and in terms of the ideologies that currently hobble free speech.

One also hopes that the pundit mobs will begin to research their ideas, since emotions and rumors do not constitute expert opinions. We must behave respectfully—especially when we are disagreeing with someone publicly or privately.

Vulgar amateurs on the Internet confuse an insult with an insight. Pathologically angry zealots (I call them “attack dogs on short leashes), denounce others—actually, almost everyone--mainly in order to shame and destroy them. There is no desire for civilized dialogue, no place for independent thinking, no concept of an honorable opponent.

If this does not stop, we are doomed.

We will soon be living in a totalitarian state of mind.

Actually, I fear we already are.