The weekend viewing of millions of Britons is being disrupted by the BBC’s suspension of its soccer pundit Gary Lineker over his social media comments criticising the government’s asylum policy. Thousands of Geordies will have been additionally disappointed by the absence of Alan Shearer, among others, who is boycotting the broadcaster in solidarity with his colleague.
The BBC and Lineker are said to be working hard to find a compromise that will enable the Corporation’s highest paid presenter to return to the screen.
The basics for a compromise in situations like this have been around at least since the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote on the subject in 1784, as the Enlightenment was challenging the authority of monarchs, the church and military leaders to dictate how people thought, wrote and spoke.
A Berlin newspaper, the Berlinische Monatsschrift, ran a competition for the best answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” and Kant, a professor in the East Prussian city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, part of Russia) won with an essay about when people should obey the orders of their superiors and when they should be free to speak their mind – the very issue at the heart of the Lineker affair. In good newspaper fashion, Kant got straight to the point:
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere aude [dare to know]. ‘Have courage to use your own understanding.’ – that is the motto of enlightenment.”
That is what Lineker has done in speaking his mind on the government’s immigration policy. He is enlightened, in Kant’s interpretation, not because of what his views are but because he had the maturity, the courage, to express them irrespective of what the BBC thinks.
But that is only the start of Kant’s argument. He does not say that everyone should be able to say whatever they like whenever they like. Meticulous thinker that he is, he draws a distinction between what we may do and say in our working lives and what we are free to do and say off duty.
Before going any further, it is worth taking a moment to clarify some context and terminology. Kant was writing at the time of Frederick the Great of Prussia, whom he regarded as an enlightened monarch (which, relatively speaking, Frederick was compared with, say, the Bourbons; he was an associate of the social critic Voltaire and hosted him at his Sansssouci palace at Potsdam, not far from Berlin).
Kant was concerned with the freedom of expression of the citizen, the army officer and especially the church pastor (he was a Lutheran Pietist).
The terminology he used can seem strange to us in one important respect which it is vital to bear in mind to understand his argument. When Kant talks about our private lives he means what we would call our working lives. Our off-duty lives he calls our public lives because that is when, in his view, we should be free to take part in public debate.
Finally, in an age when many people were illiterate, Kant refers to “scholars”. We should not take that in the modern sense to mean academics, but simply literate, thinking members of society.
Do not argue
Nothing is required for enlightenment, according to Kant, except the freedom to use reason publicly to question in all matters. “But on all sides I hear: ‘Do not argue!’” he writes. “The officer says: ‘Do not argue, drill!’ The tax man says: ‘Do not argue, pay!’ The pastor says: ‘Do not argue, believe!’…In this we have examples of pervasive restrictions on freedom. But which restriction hinders enlightenment and which does not, but instead actually advances it? I reply:
‘The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among mankind; the private use of reason may however often by very narrowly restricted, without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment. By the public use of one’s own reason I understand the use that anyone as a scholar makes of reason before the entire literate world. I call the private use of reason that which a person may make in a civic post or office that has been entrusted to him.’”
Thus, army officers on duty must obey orders, citizens must pay their taxes and pastors must instruct their congregations in accordance with church doctrine. But off duty they should be free to argue as they please. Citizens who refuse to pay their taxes can be punished and pastors who cannot in good conscience teach the doctrines of their church should resign. Kant does not say what should happen to army officers who refuse to obey orders.
Kant’s argument suggests a compromise under which Lineker would agree not to express his personal opinions on air but be free to do so on his personal social media accounts, provided he makes clear that they are personal and not the views of the BBC.#
Laziness and cowardice
Kant’s essay remains relevant today in another respect: in giving his explanation why some people remain unenlightened and immature, and perhaps unfortunately always will, or at least that enlightenment will be a slow process. Kant’s argument, mutatis mutandis, may sound familiar:
“Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance, nonetheless remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians. It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all.
“I need not think, I only need to pay; others will undertake the irksome work for me. The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult.
“Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them should they attempt to walk alone.
“Now this danger is not actually so great, for after falling a few times they would in the end certainly learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes them timid and usually frightens them out of all further attempts. Thus, it is difficult for any individual to work himself out of his immaturity that has all but become his nature.”
Leaving aside Kant’s unfortunate and dated reference to the “fair sex”, does this ring any bells?