Tag: freedom of expression

The new world order

The state of democracy.
The state of democracy.

Seven score and 12 years ago Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people for the people”. His social context was civil war and his political context was re-election. Nevertheless, we have adopted the cultural habit of associating individual freedom with the political structures of democracy. Furthermore, we tend to assume that the latter guarentees the former. But democracy has always been experienced within a firmly regulated space where the initial vision of egalitarian power has evolved into a mercenary political drive to ‘hold’ power.

Now, on the threshold of a new century, it is perhaps time to re-evaluate what democracy means to the average person. By average person I imply one of the ‘people’ for , of and by whom the above mentioned governance is meant to be administered. Those in power have always offered limited freedoms to appease the masses. The illusion of participation is a powerful opiate. In the age of social media this is especially true. Technology makes us feel that we are active participants in the world. Maybe we are? What is the alternative? What does personal liberty look like?

By the late Eighteenth century”Liberty”was represented as a lady in a toga. The bold, proud voice of seduction dressed in the cloth of imperial Rome. A woman in men’s clothing with enough cleavage to dispell any seriousness we might have in her ability to lead. A novelty perhaps? After about two and a half centuries it seems a lot of people are asking whether individual freedom has ever been taken very seriously at the level of governance. The daily bread of facebook, twitter and linkedin nourish the illusion of action. We tweet, ‘like’ activist pages and ‘sign’ petitions while chained to the cogs of the various systems that keep the engines of society churning. Maybe that’s enough and to expect any more is to be naive and hopelessly romantic? It begs the question, is democracy as an ideal flawed? Declining voter turnout (where voting is not compulsory), the emergence of the Occupy Movement since 2011 and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America appear to indicate an increasing disenchantment with many aspects of the democratic process.

Democracy has everything to do with a political process and little to do with the condition of being human in the 21st century. Globally there is a tangible disenchantment with politics. The primary goal of politicians appears to be re-election and pandering to an electorate. People feel powerless because they feel that the influence of their vote is diminished by the very political process that promises to safeguard their voice. We just don’t feel that we are being heard. Political speeches sound like lip service, politicians appear contrived. Shirt sleeves rolled up, blue and red ties, dark suits for men, executive haircuts for ladies, … everything feels manipulated. Politics has always been a form of theatre, lately it resembles a farcical puppet show. That’s ok if that’s your thing. I suspect this is why people are more inclined to tweet than vote. Their tweets are read, their votes may be counted but do not appear to affect any meaningful policy. Democracy has become the realm of bureaucracy. To borrow from Winston Churchill, an interminable paper tray has descended between the people and their government. The box has replaced the voice. “Tick the box that ye may be heard” is the new world order. And don’t draw outside of the box, under any circumstances.

Perhaps the best that we can do is to bring all of the conviction we have about life and humanity to the square metre of space around our feet and then treat the people that come into this space the way we treat the world online. If we want to actively participate in the world we may practice our ideologies online, but if we do not act them out with the people around us we lack integrity. Then we are no better than the politicians who pretend to care while they fight for re-election.


‘Freedom of expression’ – the word game.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines freedom of expression as “the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers.”

This proclamation represents an ideal, not a reality. It is one worth striving for and the greatest obstacle in the way of realising it is not the brutal self-righteousness of zealots on both sides of the debate but the assumption that freedom has no perameters. As long as there is anywhere on this planet a group of people whom we cannot accept as The nature of language determines that not everybody understands the same thing when using the same words. “Expressing” opinion is different to “holding” opinion. We tend to expect that the latter is implicit in the former. Expression is the verbal notification of intent and action is always performed according to strict rules of conduct. Speaking one’s mind always occurs within a specific context. The net of rules governing speech and action prevent thugs from bullying others into submission. History confirms the danger of the rule of bullies. It is at this point that the ambivelence between speech and action emerges. At what point and where do we place the limits of expression? The truth is that we are easily offended and that in most democratic states we have favoured protection of the condition of being offended over the condition of speaking. Generally, we are more afraid of offending than speaking. We don’t yet fully undertand what freedom is. A free society is not one where every person speaks the opinion they hold at all times. Rather, it is a society where opinions are expressed with the understanding that because they may be expressed, they will also have consequences. Freedom is not the abandonment of rules or boundaries. It may be worthwhile remembering that there are very few universal human truths. There are only notions that communities favour as a preferable over others. Everything we consider to be a social truth is a temporary construct reflecting little about the human species but everything about the group to which we belong. We (insert here the proper noun that names your group) have never had complete freedom of expression. It is a romantic and nostalgic illusion. We can neither say nor do as we please. Leadership, for example, is easily offended and blankets the choking of criticism under the guise of national security, protection of … yada yada yada. Once upon a time governments that currently espouse the concept of democracy as a political ideal traded in human slavery and legislated racism. Social truth, like political correctness is fickle. What feels like an insurmountable obstacle today is gone tomorrow and our collective memory is very short. In the context of human history, the commodity of equality has only recently been purchasable by many. And we do buy “equality”. We buy citizenship and equality monthly and render payment as taxation. In return we receive the right There is an old Cold War joke that is chillingly apt. An American talking to a Russian claims the virtue of being American. “I can stand in front of the White House and shout out that I think the American President is a fool and I will not be arrested. I am free to say that!” The Russian replies, “I have the same freedom in Russia. I too can stand in front of the Kremlin and shout out that the American President is a fool and nothing will happen to me.” We claim freedom but not everyone’s understanding of ‘freedom’ is the same. Ultimately, aside from a dangerous minority of thugs (let us not elevate bullies and stupid people beyond that) most of us have never thought too much about freedom of expression. Most of the time we don’t have original opinions on anything and most often we are more scared of offending others than saying what we feel or believe. The freedom of expression ‘debate’ is not a debate. It’s a semantic play-pen.It is a dog chasing it’s tail confusing movement with action. You can hold anything you want, but drop it on someone’s foot and you’ll regret it, get punched, sued or fined. Then it doesn’t matter whether you had the right to hold it or not. Then it’s a different discussion. 20130706_161834