Why it matters what we do with our freedoms and liberties


Freedom of speech: has the blessing become a curse?

Why it matters what we do with our freedoms and liberties

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Freedom of speech is our unalienable right.

Or is it? Is it possible that when freedom and rights and liberties are divorced from individual and societal responsibility that it no longer remains freedom? 

Can I truly say and write (in the public arena) what I wish without consequence or impact? There are countries in the world, even today, where you will end up in a cell or as a martyr. In the “Free World,” we are much subtler and circumspect.

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought they never use.”

Søren Kierkegaard

Is it possible that our modern society has taught us what to think, discouraging individuality — instead of how to think and how that relates to our actions and lives and that of others, society, and the world?

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never.” You either cringe, sigh, or roll your eyes at this sing-song philosophy with which many of us grew up.

If there ever was a lie, it’s this: words don’t matter. Often, it’s just that: innocent child-play and pranks. We need silliness and laughter in our lives — it’s healthy.

However, as we grow up and older, something changes — attitudes and mindsets undergo a shift — innocence gets lost — words start carrying more weight, we discover its power; it can be used like sledgehammers.

We marvel at this apparent power we yield over people: elevate them to ride on clouds or crush them into the dirt. Soon enough, if we stop paying attention, as habits are formed and ingrained, we accept this adage as truth: words aren’t important.

Words count. Words are powerful. Words start wars. Words end wars. Words can kill or give life. We have the apparent freedom to choose its impact.

Perhaps the society we live in, the world today, with its ever increasing “digital connectedness” but growing loneliness, has slanted this reality — the illusion of freedom. Satellites track your every move. Entrance and access almost anywhere are guarded by passwords and fingerprint- and retina-scans and cards. We get swept up in this sophisticated and high-tech world — living a real-life Sci-Fi-drama — living our real-time reality show.

Also, has this made us freer or have we become trapped, become modern slaves of our own making?

What does freedom of speech mean? Freedom of expression?

It is the principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community to express opinions without fear of censorship or restraint or retaliation. It’s built into the First Amendment of the US Constitution. However, there are limits placed by the government on these freedoms. Then again, it’s a free country — I can say and write and publish and record and produce what I wish. 

Technically we can, but we have to ask ourselves: is it right? Is it good? Even if it’s legal, is it beneficial? Is it morally defendable? Is it ethical?

Perhaps it’s time to dig deeper and find honest, if not uncomfortable answers. What are the (absolute) criteria we use to decide right from wrong? Beneficial from harmful?

What moral and ethical code do we apply?

Photo by Maria Krisanova on Unsplash

Who gets to decide that? The publication, podcast, newscast, show with the loudest voice? The artist? The censor board? The broadcasting authority? The government? The police? Internet Service Providers? The church? The Supreme Court? All of them? None of them?

What is fundamental freedom? Can it be absolute?

Perhaps we should start at the beginning: What is freedom?

According to Webster’s, freedom is “the state or quality of being free . . . in the broadest sense, (it) implies the absence of hindrance, restraint, confinement, or repression. It is often used interchangeably with liberty.”

Living in the West or the so-called Free World, free speech and democracy are regarded as inseparable. It’s seen a birth-right, a fundamental human right. A valid question is whether we still live in true democracies (if we ever had), having surrendered so much of our (personal) freedom?

Another burning question seeking an answer is: can a right (privilege/claim/liberty) exist without a responsibility tied (intimately) to that particular right? E.g., the “right” to drive (or operate) a motor vehicle is commonly accepted as the norm once you pass your driver’s test. It is equally accepted that in doing so, motorists will operate the vehicle in a “responsible fashion, stick to the rules of the road, not endanger life, or harm or endanger property.”

The right to bear arms. It is a right — enshrined in the US Constitution. Moreover, it carries with it a grave responsibility; one only has to think about the mass shooting in the US, many executed by gunmen with legally purchased assault rifles. For many, this is a taboo topic. It’s about the apparent freedom(s) we have. Most level-headed citizens will agree that rules and regulations and laws should govern these guns.

However, when freedom of speech comes into question, it is not uncommon to find that “no rules” hold the trump card when we write, speak, perform, or create. We insist on individual artistic freedom — because it’s art. For many, it would be a mortal sin to suppress any creativity bubbling to the surface.

Granted, giving a speech or writing an article or publishing a book is different from operating a fork-lift, flying a commercial airliner, or operating an assault rifle.

That is why the free speech debate blossoms — in literature, in music, in the visual arts, in theatre, in film, in fashion, in television and radio broadcasting and the internet communities.

For many, there are only THREE questions: What will immediately make money, what will make me stand out from the crowd, and what can I get away with? All valid questions.

“We should silence anyone who opposes the right to freedom of speech.”

Boyle Roche

Then again, there are many creatives and word artists (wordsmiths) who are concerned about the impact and future of their craft.

How best then to use this apparent freedom of speech and expression?

Do we as creatives use our art and platforms to create work that matters, that impact a complex world, adding to the conversation of finding sense and hope and wholeness, while making a living off it? Or, do we employ it to merely solidify our position or enrich ourselves often only adding to the despair, hurt, and distrust in the world?

We, as writers and creatives, especially their representative bodies and organizations, often avoid, restrict, or suppress breaching of certain contentious topics. In doing so, it gives room to and allows for slanted versions of the truth and reality. If we acknowledge and support freedom of speech, how do we justify the selective application of who are or are not “free” to write, or speak, or opine?

The more recent #BlackLivesMatter movement and awareness campaigns and protest marches confront hard and often ugly truths about (secret corners) of the heart of individuals and the nation, calling for serious soul searching about closet prejudices and beliefs. It is crucial for all sides of the divide, beyond mere color and racial and ethnic demarcations, to do introspection. Yes, both sides. 

I say this as a white African, having grown up in Zambia and having spent decades in southern Africa, and having now lived for two decades in North America. Many of us decline to talk about race and gender and ethnicity and social realities. As is often the case, refuse to change any of the many ingrained beliefs and prejudices.

Children learn to love, as they learn to hate. They are taught this. 

It happens at a tender age. As adults, we teach and set an example to children on how to treat siblings, parents, neighbors, family, friends, and strangers. As adults, we set the tone on how to treat people in power or the homeless person on the street corner — also those who look and speak differently and are immersed in different cultures from our own.

There’s a piece of the social puzzle we tend to ignore: The plight and reality of the newborn

No newborn has ever had ANY say in who their parents were, where (in which country, city, or town) they were born, what their mother-tongue was, and whether they were born female or male. We act as if these four aspects of each human grant us special status or prestige or rights or lack thereof, declaring the one superior or inferior to the other. However, once we become adults, our actions, our speech, and our worldview (in private and in public) determine our moral fiber, character, and respect we will and should earn.

How do we justify this apparent dichotomy? Is it hypocrisy?

“You must help a child become a virtuous, responsible, awake being, capable of full reciprocity — able to take care of himself and others, and to thrive while doing so. Why would you think it acceptable to do anything less for yourself?”

Jordan B. Peterson

Racism is not a one-way street of racial discrimination of white toward people of color. It works both ways. A better question is: why do we in 2019 still have an ethnic classification, indicating race? Isn’t it time to make this classification obsolete?

Our world has changed. We can (and dare) no longer hide behind so-called cultural norms or political correctness to give us a free ticket to prejudice, intolerance, discrimination, and sanctioned hatred. We can no longer stick our heads more buried in the sand and claim ignorance, saying, “I didn’t know.” Let’s recall the plight and reality of the newborn.

It is time that we stop building walls to keep other people out. 

We build physical walls with brick and mortar and steel, but also with words and actions and laws. It is time we treat “others” with respect, with dignity, with compassion (as we long and demand to be treated.) Please don’t confuse it with giving up principles, being spineless, giving up your culture, your language, or faith. It’s time to build bridges — toward our inner circle of friends and family and places we live as well as to people we view as “different” and “outsiders.”

Photo by niu niu on Unsplash

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By encouraging this leap in freedom of thought, we will become less confused and constricted with freedom of speech. We can become more gracious. Grant others a place under God’s sun. In the process, we’ll experience more joy and contentment and fulfillment.

Perhaps kindness can indeed change the world, transform the world — make it a more wholesome place, more so than freedom of speech. Making the world a better place amid suffering and pain will remain a hollow cliché if we choose it to be so. If we scoff and continue with the status quo, clinging to our ingrained prejudices, our falsely justified contempt, nothing will change. The world can become a place of cooperation, trust, and healing, not filled with intolerance, aggression, brokenness, and violence.

We can choose to speak and write words that demonstrate our understanding and respect and compassion and the search for truth — words that set free, words that break down barriers and bring healing. However, it has to be applied both ways.

Kindness. Compassion. Really? It is not the weak man (or woman) who demonstrate compassion, but the strong. You are not strong when you hate, condemn, belittle, and hurt with your actions and speech and writing. You are strong when you can listen, spend time to understand, and show compassion, taking steps to bridge the divide, the brokenness, and distrust, and in the process, find healing, beauty, and purpose.

This applies to all parties involved — all cultures, all languages. It is not only the “other side” that must act. We’re in this together.

It is not easy. It is bitter hard. Unpopular even. Whether you’re brown, or black, or white or any other combination. Male or female. It’s so easy to say: I did not know. I’m not this; I’m not that. I’m different.

Let’s instead celebrate our uniqueness and diversity, acknowledging there are room and space under God’s heavens for all of us.

We are quick to jump on bandwagons. “You can’t say this or that as a person of color. You can’t write that because you’re white, or because you’re a female or a male. Why is that? You can’t speak for that group. You have a funny accent. You eat weird food. You’re too Spanish. You’re too educated. You’re too uneducated. You’re too Xhosa.”

Really?

Is it possible that we have reinstituted a sugar-coated version of the Inquisitions of the Middle Ages, becoming slaves (all be it intellectually) all over again?

When did our thinking become so warped?

What has happened to freedom of speech that we so ferociously defended just the other day?

“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

In (higher) literary circles there’s often little kindness, little tolerance if any. Arrogance abounds. So little curiosity is encouraged. So little vision is fostered. So little widening of horizons is set in motion. So little building of bridges takes place.

We cough behind our prestigious literary event’s programs, like pristine penguins, donned in tuxedos and glistening evening gowns, looking down our noses at the common people, the incognito writers, gathered outside the city gates, waiting for crumbs to fall from the heavily laden tables.

We keep building new walls, invisible walls. We become the new gatekeepers. We insist on calling it freedom of speech and literary exclusivity. No wonder new publications spring up every second day.

There’s another battle raging — the tug of war between creator and critic, between the artist and the censor. There’s the moral police: official and self-appointed censors. The issue of censorship is a complex one. Making material more or less acceptable or defamatory. More palatable. There’s the protection of minors.

Many think it’s a free country. I can say, write, publish, and create whatever I want. It’s my democratic right!

What is the goal with your speech or publication or art?

· To execute my fundamental right as a citizen to freedom of speech — with no restriction.

· To make money. To make a decent living. (For many this remains an escaping dream)

· To inspire, inform, challenge, influence, and impact.

· Obtain political gain and power. To instigate hate. To incite violence. To divide.

· To induce calm and peace. To heal and restore

The Apostle Paul in Phil 4: 8 had this to say: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”

Advice for wimps? Perhaps not.

It’s a scientific reality: you reap what you sow. If you plant an acorn, don’t expect an apple tree. A similar effect is obtained with the way we think, speak, and act. Input determines output. Experiences and what we feed our minds will determine what and how we think and speak and write. Everything we read, watch, listen to, conversations we have and the company we keep — impacts and sculpts our minds — it leads to our actions (or inactions) and colors our character.

We so often hear this argument: I can watch, listen, read without being affected. I’m tough; it won’t affect me. Research has shown that this is not true. (Friendships, books, movies, speeches, podcasts, music, video games — it all impacts our minds.)

When we feed and fill up on hatred, violence, and discord, it becomes easier to write and speak with such a voice. When we feed on work such as Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, or Martin Luther King Junior’s Stride Toward Freedom, or Paul’s letters in the New Testament, something different happens. These are books written by individuals while in prison and persecuted and yet not resorting to violence, but finding hope and meaning and strength, encouraging others to do likewise, refusing the easier way of hatred and of giving up.

How hard do we seek the truth?

What role do our educational systems, schools, colleges, and universities play in all this — in the way children and students see themselves, think, and speak — and later live? How do they impact freedom of speech?

Do universities even try to conceal the fact that they openly discourage any independent thinking? Do our institutions, universities, and colleges, teach students WHAT to think, instead of HOW to think, to work through failures, to remain curious and come up with solutions? Do they encourage entrepreneurial thinking? Do they encourage the concept of collective wisdom? Have they all become the victims of the Second Wave of Political Correctness sweeping the continent?

Perhaps it’s time our educators stop killing creativity during the early school years. According to Sir Ken Robinson, our educational system has become one of “avoiding mistakes at all costs.” Children and students are discouraged from experimenting. They are taught to become parrots — regurgitate facts. They are not trained and encouraged to problem solve real-life situations. Students are told: “Don’t make mistakes.”

Schools are prepping students for universities, without having learned to think for themselves. The kids were never taught how to think — discouraged to be creative. To try. To fail. To try again. Make a better plan. To think with an entrepreneurial mindset. They are discouraged from being different, standing out.

“All children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”

Pablo Picasso

Photo by Nicole Adams on Unsplash

What does this have to do with freedom of speech? It’s about the basics of learning to think, to problem solve. Depending on what and how we fill minds, it will determine the resulting speech and actions and mindsets.

How then do we change our thoughts? Willpower? Willpower doesn’t work. According to Benjamin Hardy in Willpower Doesn’t Work, by altering your environment, you can ensure a change in yourself, enhancing your creativity and productivity. The focus is no longer primarily on you, but by actively changing certain things in your environment, change becomes possible.

It is not about being prescriptive or dogmatic or moralistic — the science and physiology of thought and brain functions teach us this.

Censorship and banning of publications infringe on freedom of speech and expression.

Yet, the banning of books, films, and photography has a place. Some do degrade and dehumanize people, especially women. There are pros and cons to censorship. It can protect. However, the lines often become grey. Often censorship can lead to significant ignorance and perpetuation of hostilities between opposing parties and groups.

My experience with banned books in South Africa was well-illustrated recently. I reread the well-known, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, first published in 1948. (A film was also made of the novel, starring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris.) The book was banned in SA until the 1980s. It is a heart-wrenching tale of fatherly love, of forgiveness and of racial reconciliation. Nowhere in the book does the author instigate hate or racial confrontation. To the contrary. Still, it was banned.

I also read Martin Luther King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery story. It was published in 1958 and was immediately banned in SA. Nowhere in the book does King instigate hate or violence or racial divide. Again and again, he pushes for reconciliation without violence and bloodshed. We couldn’t read it. Not white or black in South Africa.

I considered how events could have turned out differently in South Africa if both the then ruling National party and the ANC and PAC leaders and supporters could have studied and applied the messages of books like those which were banned.

Yes, freedom of speech, freedom of publication, matters.

It is an unalienable right. It is about dignity. It is also about truth.

Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of democracy.

What kind of speech is acceptable? What is unacceptable? It would help if you took a stand.

Lines have to be drawn. Lines in the sand. Lines in wet concrete. Lines on walls, on paper and whiteboards and in law books. There should be bottom lines. Technology and the internet have given us unparalleled freedom of expression. It will be up to us (or will it?) in the choices we make when speaking and writing in the public arena (internet included.)

What do we do with this freedom?

Can freedom of speech, instead of being a blessing, become a curse?

“We must each develop as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society, and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated.”

Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life.

When lack of freedom of expression leads to interference by the state — actions against its citizens who disagree with the rulers of the day, leading to severe, and often inhumane punishment and imprisonment, and even death, we have a problem. It is still rampant in our world in 2019. Our elected leaders remain quiet, turn a blind eye — all in the name of maintaining trade relationships with those countries.

When is freedom of speech a blessing then? You decide. What will you say next? What will you write next? What yardstick will you use to measure your speech, your writing, your art, your creation?

Will your freedom of speech set (your readers & listeners) free, or clasp them into bondage? Sticks and stones way very well break bones — it’s up to us whether our words will too.

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:32

We have freedom of thought. How will we use freedom of speech? The choice is ours.


References:

1. Jordan B. Peterson. 12 Rules for Life: an antidote for chaos. 2018.

2. Webster’s New World College Dictionary.

3. Benjamin Hardy. Willpower Doesn’t Work.

4. Mike Bechtle. People Can’t Drive You Crazy if You Don’t Give Them the Keys.

5. Patricia Dooley. Freedom of Speech. Reflections in Art and Popular Culture.

6. Caroline Depalatis. 7 Compelling reasons why you gain when you bridge cultures. Medium.

7. Sir Ken Robinson. TED Talk 2006. Do schools kill creativity?

8. Emma Teitel. Here’s the thing about free speech: it’s not absolute. Maclean’s. 2015.

9. History. Freedom of speech.

10. Michael Shook. 5 Remarkable Ideas Only Great Writers Will Understand.

11. John 8:32. NIV.


Related.

Danie Botha was born in Zambia and completed his school education and medical training in South Africa. He has called Canada home for the past 19 years. He writes modern historical and contemporary fiction and blogs about positive aging and writing as healing.Visit Danie at DanieBotha.com.
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Danie Botha was born in Zambia and completed his school education and medical training in South Africa. He has called Canada home for the past 19 years. He writes modern historical and contemporary fiction and blogs about positive aging and writing as healing.Visit Danie at DanieBotha.com.

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