A new manuscript, by the “father of modern liberalism”, John Locke has been discovered. Written in 1678, his “Reasons for tolerating Papists equally with others”, demonstrates that Locke was even more liberal and tolerant than previously believed.

Key to Locke’s work was the idea that the authorities should not interfere with an individual’s conscience: When it came to a person’s beliefs, the state should not coerce or cajole or indoctrinate. Out of this idea of freedom of conscience and freedom of thought developed our belief in freedom of speech. People must be able to think for themselves and to act and speak as their conscience determines.

Today there are various obvious legal limitations on our freedom of speech. There are, however, many more subtle ways in which our freedom of conscience is being challenged – not least of all through what is called “awareness raising”.

Awareness raising is a modern phenomenon, indeed the term was barely (if ever) used before the mid-1980s and has risen exponentially ever since. It is a curious term, often more therapeutic than factual, as much about values or ethics as information or knowledge. It can be found in unconscious bias, sensitivity or diversity training. There are various campaigns to make us “aware”. There are even laws that are directly promoted today as ways to raise awareness or to “send a message” about the correct way to think and behave.

The issues and behaviours one must be aware of are vast and varied but often relate to harm and a form of consciousness raising about people’s vulnerability. Awareness appears as a type of information but unlike information it is not open to challenge – to alternative understandings.

These issues are also often political but rarely present themselves as such. Posed in the form of “awareness”, there are no sides, more a good and bad – with awareness clearly being on the side of good. The awareness raisers are virtuous, those being made aware must acquiesce, often, perhaps preferably, with a confused sense of shame.

Awareness raising is growing in universities, in the UK but particularly universities in the United States, where we are seeing classes set up for first years to help them become aware. When it comes in the form of “training”, like mandatory “diversity training” we see more clearly the coercive nature of awareness. And what starts in the US often, and with increasing speed, ends up over here.

Well before Locke, it was Aristotle who developed the important understanding that human flourishing depended on choosing and living freely. We become virtuous not from being made aware of goodness but in the process of doing good things – through autonomous action. Without this autonomy, this freedom of conscience and choice we degrade our liberty and our humanity, however “aware” we are.