Consciousness-raising is a long, slow, unpredictable, frustrating, and risky business. In an individual, it takes a lifetime and, even then, is only partially completed. For a civilization, it takes generations – even millennia – and is still a dynamic process that is never done.

Consciousness-raising is important because the concrete shape our societies take is an outward expression of our inward consciousness. As we move towards greater justice and peace as a world community, we need to imbue these values and visions deeply within ourselves as people. We cannot express outside ourselves what we don’t find inside.

For now let me describe “consciousness-raising” simply as “changing our minds” – how our individual and collective imaginations, principles, values, beliefs, and assumptions grow and evolve over time and with experience.

It implies that there are lower and higher levels of consciousness and that the higher levels are better though, almost by definition, whatever the “highest” level of consciousness is cannot be defined because we are not there yet and can only move on in hope that there is something to move towards and that we are on the way. Probably reaching the highest level of consciousness is akin to shooting through a worm hole into a totally new and previously unimagined universe where everything we thought we knew is turned on its head and we start again to make sense out of something that is beyond sense itself. For some, that will be a motivating image; for others, it will be another reason to define our reality rigidly, hang on tightly, and ignore or oppose anyone or anything that disturbs our personal universe. For most of us, we will be somewhere on a spectrum in-between because, although we may desire the expansion of our understanding, we may also feel the threat that comes with stretching our boundaries.

Consciousness-raising also implies intentionality. Yes, our consciousness is always changing in response to changes within us and influences around us but – when this is happening “unconsciously” so to speak – it could just as easily be consciousness-lowering as consciousness-raising. Intentionality is no guarantee of better results but it does suggest that some people are committed to actively participating in the process in the dynamic interplay of being at once learners and teachers. For instance, I am intentionally engaging in consciousness-raising by writing this column for this particular publication. And, as I do, I am very aware that one of the reasons I do it is because meeting a deadline challenges my own presumptions and moves my consciousness into places it might not otherwise venture.

As the title suggests, I am trying to write about the recent attacks in Paris on the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo and its staff, with some “collateral damage” before and after.

Extremists, terrorists – maybe just misguided madmen – have struck again. Such labels allow us to dismiss them as aberrations perhaps, or reinforce our stereotypes of particular groups and ideologies. But it is more than that, of course. It is a clash of consciousnesses and two different ways to influence the thinking of others. One way is by fear, in an attempt to limit the thinking of others and keep “truth” in a box of our own construction. The other way is by intentionally ripping boxes apart and forcing “truth” out into the open to fend for itself and to find its more fitting shape.

In the evolution of democratic societies, we have put some limits on freedom of expression when a line has been crossed that takes us into the territory of slander, libel, and hatred. But freedom of speech and the press remain core principles in democratic societies because the very process of consciousness-raising itself has revealed such freedoms to be essential to the well-being and progress of society. As an LA Law character avowed some years ago, alluding to Zola and Jefferson, “In a conflict of ideas, we have nothing to fear for, if truth is in the field, it will inevitably prevail.” The territory occupied by truth can only be fully mapped if we don’t put proscribed limits on its exploration, even allowing things foolish and offensive to be uttered in the process.

Most socially progressive ideas were greeted, in the popular mind and in official circles, as the ravings of fools or the aberrations of blasphemers – so ridiculous and outrageous when they were first voiced as to be instantly dismissed and actively opposed when they ceased to go away. The world is round? Earth is not the centre of the universe? Slavery is barbaric? The repression of women is tyranny? Homosexuality is not a crime against nature but its suppression is? God, however imagined, does not belong to one organized religion at the exclusion of others? …? Utter foolishness! People who avow such dangerous thoughts must be stopped before our world unravels! And, yet, such foolishness and the fools who gave it voice could not be silenced forever until, today, such wisdom is gradually being woven into the fabric of the way of life we treasure.

And freedom of expression – in speech, arts, and press – is an integral part of such consciousness-raising that has helped to form our social contract.

Consciousness-raising is not a straight and uniform line. It is moving at different speeds and along different paths in each individual, society, and interest group. And so it is with the evolution of freedom of expression. People who still use terror and violence to defend their own truth and to deter the freedom of thought of others need to realize that such tactics only undermine their own credibility and the integrity of their movement. Hopefully such tactics, even if they have a short-term chilling effect, in the end serve to strengthen the resolve of those who are committed to letting ideas loose.
Ted Hicks is a spiritual director, workshop and retreat leader, minister, and hospital chaplain
who seeks the connection between personal spiritual formation and social transformation