With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approaching it’s 60th anniversary, intelligent life (Autumn 2008) asked 11 eminent people to discuss what freedoms gained or lost meant the most to them. On a note when he talks about travelers terrified about joking with immigration officials my advise is that when they ask you if you are going to marry anyone do not say that you were not planning on spending that much …
THE SCIENTIST: RICHARD DAWKINS
Aged 67, Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and author of nine books, including the bestsellers “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion”
Your computer mouse gives you the freedom of the world, from library to art gallery, from museum to learned journal, from online bookshop to travel timetable. Admittedly, the internet also spreads rubbish, from the trivial to the sinister. But we are free to ignore it. The net educational worth of instant worldwide information must be positive. The internet has no truck with national boundaries, and can thumb its nose at dictators and tyrannies, at priests and mullahs and all who would restrict knowledge and critical thinking.
Computer power doubles every 18 months, and its cost is declining at a similarly dramatic rate. This gives hope for worldwide enlightenment, even in those parts of the world that are still in thrall to nationalism, to tribalism, and to the vile superstitions of misogynistic desert tribesmen whose preachings arbitrarily became fossilised in influential “holy” books. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the English physicist who, almost single-handed, invented the world wide web, has justly been awarded the Fellowship of the Royal Society and the Order of Merit. I hope for a time when he will be seen to deserve the Nobel peace prize too.
We are beset by rulebooks toted by lawyers and petty bureaucrats, who worship the letter of the law and have lost the spirit of compassionate discretion. Most familiar in the infamous and despised “Health and Safety”, it goes further and deeper. Time after time, we encounter horror stories of petty–and not so petty–injustices, which could so easily have been sorted out if only officials were granted the discretion to take decisions based on the spirit of goodwill and fairness, rather than on books of rules drawn up by lawyers trained to an exaggerated degree of suspicion. We hand responsibility over to the rulebook instead of shouldering it ourselves.
Doctors and nurses, teachers and professors, policemen and social workers spend their days filling in forms, which take them away from their valuable jobs. They are cowed, intimidated, lawyer-driven to cover their backs. Employers are terrified of being sued for “constructive dismissal”. Teachers are terrified of showing affection or even compassion for their pupils. Travellers are terrified of making jokes to immigration officials. Rulebooks rule, and human kindness, discretion and fair play are running scared.