UCL Population Health Student
George Orwell’s ‘1984’ seems increasingly relevant to the society that is being moulded around us. Once written in his original preface to Animal Farm, Orwell poignantly writes: ” If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. The right to a liberated mind that can express itself through speech however it likes, is an inalienable and intrinsic pillar of what constitutes our definition of a free society. It is all well and good having the neoclassical ‘Statue of Liberty’ rising at eye-level with New York’s skyline, but what use is it as a symbol when the mouths of the national press are becoming increasingly taped by the man supposedly sitting on the apex of the world’s political power? What use is it to declare ourselves as free-thinking individuals and communities when we ban speakers from attending events on the sole grounds of them disagreeing with the ideologies that we deem to be the ‘right’ one? Since when did it become morally acceptable to use physical violence against those who simply voice an opinion?
The struggle for expression and the upholding of democracy should potently rely on the ability of people to voice dissent: argument is as necessary to a free society as is agreement. Importantly, the ability of history’s cruelest dictators to maintain control over a population and establish totalitarian regimes relied upon a fundamental premise: the exclusion of opposition, the criminalisation of criticism and the silencing of adversaries. Systems that, through intense censorship and governmental control of all media seeked to define their own meaning of truth – the pathway to absolute conformity when the boundaries of right and wrong were punishably indisputable. As such, Nelson Mandela’s words ring true: ““to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” The freedom to have a voice is the heart of democracy: a heart which is becoming increasingly bruised. In 2016 alone, Turkish prisons held more than a third of the world’s imprisoned journalists where Amnesty International recorded the closure of more than 156 media outlets in the country. In 2015, a secular blogger – Ananta Bijioy Das was hacked to death in north-east Bangladesh; in April this year, Ahmad Al-Shamri has reportedly been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for atheism. This year, Stephen Fry was under police investigation over his ‘anti-God’ comments on Irish TV: the investigation was dropped when only one individual made a formal complaint about his comments. This year, Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville for standing up for what she believed in. In many countries around the world, having an opinion can be of a heavy cost: voicing it can result in losing one’s life.
Amnesty International protesting the sentencing and flogging of blogger Raif Badawi, outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Vienna
The fine line between expression and its impingement on the rights of others is hotly debated and remains politically nettled: I agree that expression which directly harms others requires boundaries, yet how we define such boundaries is a question that is of vital importance. A society becomes weaker with strict restrictions on speech: how can we question concepts when we are less able to define our own world views and thoughts? It makes us less intellectually powered to be cushioned from others’ ideas – taking total refuge in the blanket of consensus reduces our ability to have different points of view: reduces our ability for an argument. Surely, when someone’s view alternates from the majority even if it serves to demean, it should be intellectually challenged at the first point of call. Have a debate – silence should not be the first escape route, especially in institutions where academic freedom and liberation are at their most concentrated. As John Milton’s Areopagiticia states – “give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”. Strict restrictions on speech violates not only the right of the person speaking to be heard but also negates the right of ourselves to hear other people’s opinions; thereby, we become prisoners and captives to our own actions. Each argument deserves a counter: someone disagreeing with the views or beliefs we hold dear is exactly the reason why free speech should be upheld. Tackling counter arguments for any position we hold with debate not only allows for independent thinking but it can serve to expose bigotry when such ideas are intellectually challenged. The overall freedom of public discourse on fundamental issues that affect our global community should be the pivot around which a free society turns.
It is imperative for our world not to fall into a post-truth era of ‘alternative facts’ – to get rid of the notion of “free speech for me but not for thee” simply on the grounds of ideological disagreement. Despite the political struggle to define its parameters, free speech and the power of porous and liberated minds holds a crucial key to progress.