Is it time for a cognitive liberty social movement?
by Julie Ruiz-Sierra
The explicit invocation of the right to cognitive liberty, and particularly the growing support it has enjoyed among the public, in academia and in the mainstream media, point to the recognition of a concept whose time has come. Broadly defined as the fundamental right to "freedom of thought" and, more narrowly, as the legal right of individuals to autonomous self-determination over their own brain chemistry, "cognitive liberty" was, in part, a phrase coined to describe the rights of conscience sweepingly infringed by criminal drug prohibition in the United States. But while the last two decades have seen the strong emergence of a committed grass root social movement to reform American drug policy, it is perhaps time to ask whether the drug policy reform movement is sufficient to secure policies that protect freedom of thought, or whether the defence of cognitive liberty requires a movement of its own.
Theorists who study modern social movements identify three or more different stages that describe a common developmental trajectory. Movements tend to begin in a condition of latency, where people have begun to recognise a problem but have not yet organised to address it. A social movement will not gather momentum until a series of enabling historical forces accrue.
When condition for social change are ripe, a highly publicised crisis, or a series of crisis, often described as a 'trigger event', brings the problem and its victims into public awareness and typically galvanises people involved in one or more pre-existing, sympathetic communications networks into action.
Finally, after activism on an issue takes off, subsequent organisation serves to weld independent activist groups into a cohesive movement and the movement puts the issue on the social agenda.
Social movements are actively engaged in the production of meaning for their participants and the public alike, debunking long-held myths and exposing new social truths.
It is the way that a movement conceptualises its issues that largely determines its success.
To ultimately succeed, a movement must convince the majority that the movement, and not the elite power holders, truly represent society's widely held values and sensibilities.
The social movement for drug policy reform, which is arguably the open communications network through which the call for cognitive liberty emerged and developed, has framed the social problem of criminal drug prohibition in terms of harm reduction analysis. A sensible drug policy should strive to minimise the harms associated with drug use, the argument goes, but our current drug policies do more harm that good. Harm reduction has now dominated the public debate about drug policy for several years, and may continue to do so indefinitely since harm reduction is notoriously difficult to quantify. While harm reduction draws on public health principles and core ideals of privacy and compassion, it fails to frame the drug policy debate in terms of widely held fundamental values.
It is precisely by framing what drug prohibition means that cognitive liberty makes its greatest contribution to the drug policy reform movement.
Cognitive liberty as a concept exposes the argument that the drug policy reform movement has conspicuously shied away from making: namely that drug prohibition is untenable because it infringes freedom of thought, the fundamental principle that underlines so many other constitutional guarantees.
But cognitive liberty is not just the proposition that we all have a fundamental right to get high. In simplest terms, it is about the inviolability of brain chemistry, and the way that brain chemistry is central to how we think. In a free democracy the government has no authority to dictate the content or form of our brain functions. To the extent that criminal drug prohibition limits the responsible private use of drugs to modulate consciousness, it infringes the most basic of our guaranteed freedoms.
The distinction between a right to get high and the right to unrestricted thinking may seem subtle but it is vitally important to vindicating private choices about responsible drug use.
In the early 1950s, when the first organised opposition to anti-gay discrimination emerged, homosexuality was a condition listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. At that time, it would have been completely unheard of to regard autonomous determination of sexual orientation as fundamental right of personhood. Yet today that notion is largely accepted because of decades of activism wherein the gay rights movement refused to engage power holders, including the medical and psychiatric establishment, in a debate about whether homosexuality is a disorder or an illness. Instead the gay rights movement exposed a different meaning about the social justice it sought. The movement rephrased the issue at stake in terms of deeper values and did so in a way that American society could no longer acknowledge its self-professed ideal of 'liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness' for all and not extend that ideal to homosexuals.
Can criminal drug prohibition be abolished without a rights and principles-based argument? Maybe. But would that be the same victory? Not likely.
Suppose institutionalised discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation had been dismantled because homosexuality had come to be understood as an incurable psychological disorder and the movement had convinced the greater public that society ought not discriminate against the disabled? Would gay rights be the same today? I submit the they would not. By the same analysis, ending prohibition because it causes more harm that it prevents, without a deeper understanding of the inviolable right of free cognition, only invites the development of better, more efficient forms of prohibition.
Should we be concerned, then, with establishing a more comprehensive movement to secure the benefits of cognitive liberty? On the one hand, the theory of social movement, based as it is on historical hindsight, suggest that a cognitive liberty movement social movement should spontaneously emerge when the condition are ripe. And the is no doubt that they are ripening.
Freedom of thought is already a universally recognised human right. It is the widespread appeal of freedom of thought as a fundamental value that would assure the success of the movement's message. By focusing on the universality of human cognition rather that the thoughts that its constituents may or may not share in common, such a movement would ultimately see its support base grow. If, as I believe, a nascent cognitive liberty movement is emerging in an era of ripening social conditions, there is much we can do to precipitate it.
On the personal level, we can begin by claiming our right to cognitive liberty. We can use this term when we educate our friends, family, and peers about their right to freedom of thought. We can discuss cognitive liberty in public every chance we get. Bring it up at work, in class, or on the bus. We can write lettere to the editor voicing a cognitive liberty approach to debates about drugs, new technologies, or freedom of thought. And we can certainly write to our elected officials to let them know we count on them to uphold constitutional protections for cognitive liberty when they consider new legislation or discharge the duties of their office.
Perhaps, the biggest contribution anyone can make is getting involved. Support organisations that defend cognitive liberty. And while financial support is very helpful, giving money is only one of many ways to get involved. As social theorist Jo Freeman points out, "it is a mistake to judge the affluence of a movement by its monetary contributions".
People are the indispensable resource of any social movement and cognitive liberty is relying on you now more than ever.
*The full article, originally published in the Journal of Cognitive Liberties vol.4 No.2.
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