ART feature - “Free Speech Zone”
Am I allowed to say that? Like the Ouroboros – an ancient circular symbol which depicts a snake swallowing its own tail – the way in which we citizens of free societies respond to this question and perceive freedom of speech is often inadvertently cannibalistic. We overtly profess the right to say, with open mouths, whatever we want, yet covertly swallow our words whole as soon as we begin to articulate the tail of a ‘controversial’ thought. Nobody says what they mean. I’m confident that most of us have been trapped by this infinite cycle of self-silencing, forcing our own tails into our mouths whenever we dare open them. I’m confident that this question has sunk its teeth into your mind. Indeed, my confidence was also strangled throughout the process of writing this piece. On several occasions the question coiled itself around my brain, damaged its integrity and slithered inside my mind, intimidating and bullying me into a submissive answer of “No, I can’t say that.” Yet if a society values liberty over authority, and it is unapologetic in upholding the sanctity of freedom of speech, the Ouroboros’ mouth must be free of its tail, and the answer to the opening question always must be “Yes”.
The fact is that as soon as we raise the question: “am I allowed to say that?” we have already come to a censorious conclusion. This is because the notion of free speech, by definition, means the freedom to say anything without cost. If one can suffer punitive consequences as a result of one’s speech, one does not have the freedom to speak. Fundamentally, free speech is only a true freedom if it is absolute and if it is for absolutely everybody. The Enlightenment philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his revolutionary document On Liberty, describes perfectly the only possible manifestation of free speech in society, by proclaiming that the censoring of an individual is equally as poisonous as the censoring of all: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
Bizarrely, although the idea of free speech was born out of the Age of Enlightenment from the minds of European philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and John Locke, only the United States of America currently cherishes it as the principle right of humankind. The right of free speech for all Americans is famously expressed as a freedom from “abridging the freedom of speech” in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. An immense beauty lies within its wording as not an act of charity or as a gifted privilege, but as an oath to safeguard free speech from any form of sinister external censorship. Unfortunately, in my beloved United Kingdom, we do not have such divine respect for free speech. There is no constitutional protection of free speech; instead we boast a negative right to free expression whereby the government is concerned primarily with prohibitions against language which it deems grossly hateful. For example, in 2016 the Independent reported that, in 2015 alone, 857 Londoners were arrested for allegedly sending “offensive” messages on social media. One may think that an American would be averse to such punishment for speech in a free country, but it seems that a startling number of U.S. citizens have begun to sharpen the serpentine fangs of censorship.
A Pew poll conducted in 2015 revealed that 40% of millennials – my generation – in America believe that the U.S. government should be able to prevent offensive speech towards minority groups. Without any doubt, the motive for this great advocacy of censorship is profoundly moral in its disgust by bigotry. However, the ease and comfort with which so-called proponents of free speech would permit government enforced censorship as a legitimate response to offensive speech is disturbing. I say this because, first, censorship would only conceal the bigots behind a shroud of silence, whereas the existence of absolute free speech which encourages the vocalisation of opinions, however evil, would expose them in all their ugliness. Furthermore, a grave danger lies within the fact that what may be considered offensive speech is wildly subjective. Consider the outcome of a government with the power to censor offensive speech. As a consequence of this power, they would have control over the definition of the word ‘offensive’, and could, hypothetically, expand the bracket of hateful language to encompass any idea they wished to silence. By no means do I insinuate that the current governments of free and democratic countries would impose such repulsive censorship on its citizens, but through the omniscient lens of history we can examine the ideology of totalitarian leaders that did, and understand how state-inflicted censorship laws could potentially manifest.
To take the most extreme example of recent history, the cult of censorship was probably most prevalent during China’s communist dictatorship under Mao Zedong between 1949 and 1976. In his twenty-seven-year reign, Mao engaged in a relentless and murderous crusade of censorship against dissenting speech and writers who diverged from the communist ideal. This onslaught was labelled the ‘Cultural Revolution’, whereby Chairman Mao inducted the “Four Olds” policy in 1966 with the aim to expunge the old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas of China by means of torrential propaganda and systematic annihilation of classical literature, painting and architecture. The Cultural Revolution also included the mass censorship of the Chinese people to the extent that the majority didn’t realise they were being censored. Those who did realise and openly objected – especially scholars and academics – were often tortured and killed by young, indoctrinated Maoist fanatics primarily between the ages of 14 and 21, known as the ‘Red Guards’, and ultimately contributed to the body count of 60+ million compiled by the Chairman’s communist regime. Murder became the ultimate form of censorship.
The psychopathic justification for violent censorship can be found in Mao’s writings, such as On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, in which he asserts that “not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul,” thus desiring those with incorrect political dispositions to have their souls removed. His assertion that there exists an unchallengeable correct political point of view displays a contempt for free speech and freedom of conscience, as politics fundamentally involves discourse between competing ideas of flawed individuals who are almost certainly not correct. Nevertheless, Mao had an obsession with this notion of political correctness which, at its core, is the pursuit of unity and uniformity in thought, belief and action while simultaneously censoring or eradicating conflicting ideas. Evidence of Mao’s fidelity to political correctness is littered throughout Mao’s works, including his Methods of Work of Party Committees, whereby he preaches that “we must heed the correct views and act upon them”.
Acting upon correct views is described as a “tireless struggle against all incorrect ideas and actions” in Mao's unsubtly titled pamphlet Combat Liberalism, thereby highlighting his attempt to militarise citizens against any idea considered different in the pursuit of a hive mind. Mao’s disdain for liberalism and pluralism of thought demonstrates that the enforcement of censorship is incompatible with the Enlightenment values that serve as the basis of our modern democracies, yet his censorious legacy of political correctness is slowly sliding into the cracks of our complacency in defending the right to freedom of speech.
A camouflaged form of predatory censorship has infiltrated the lands in which free speech has previously thrived. And its most terrifying weapon is its legality. Rather than adopt the semblance of a firing squad, the modern form of censorship – also aptly known as political correctness – silences speech with a smile. It also has no autocratic enforcer like Mao; instead it appears as a serpent which prefers the subtler tactic of sneaking down a tree and, with a hissing whisper, convincing an unsuspecting individual that partaking of the forbidden fruit of forbidding speech is good. A great tragedy has been born from this whispered lie, as the fruit has been passed around and eaten by many under the table of public conscience, creating a culture of censorship in which the silencing of politically incorrect ideas has become fashionable.
First, many mainstream media organisations have engaged in supposedly righteous self-censorship. The most recent despicable example of this occurred during the Charlie Hebdo shooting of 2015, whereby two French citizens murdered twelve people while targeting cartoonists and writers for the victimless crime of portraying the prophet Muhammad in cartoon images. Although there were some outlets, like Slate, which republished the cartoons, the majority of the journalistic media refused to show such solidarity with the victims of this overt assault on free speech, as they did not depict the cartoons in their reports of the demonic attack on Charlie Hebdo. Most of the prepared excuses were encapsulated by CNN’s email to staff following the terrorism in Paris, which stated that the cartoons were “considered offensive by many Muslims” and that they understood “the tension between free expression and respect for religion”. Tension between free expression and respect for ideas (religion, in this case) is unavoidable, as a true right to free speech includes the right to criticise, offend and satirise anything. Yet free speech must always prevail in this battle because, critically, ideas do not have rights, whereas humans do, and thus the human right to freedom of speech supersedes any demands of respect for ideas.
Unfortunately, there are those who believe the opposite, and that free speech is a barrier to an offence-free utopia. Strangely, the problem of moralistic censorship is now most prevalent in universities. Irony may be the source of the greatest humour, but the irony of educational institutions, which were built to cultivate a breeding ground for an infinite diversity of opinion, engaging in the censoring of controversial speakers is not only humourless, but unforgivable. UC Berkeley has become infamous for de-platforming three famous conservative speakers (Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and, at the time of writing, Ben Shapiro) in 2017 alone because of protests and pressure from offended left-wing students. Although legal, the actions of UC Berkeley only serve to encourage a climate of political unity and homogeneity, in which any idea deemed different or ‘incorrect’ can be viewed as offensive, and therefore can be legitimately silenced.
Instead, a climate of ideological division should be encouraged, in which all ideas, however agreeable or offensive, are contested and pushed to their limits in open debates. An allegiance to free speech facilitates this climate because it is the syntax of conflict and the antidote to uniformity of thought. Only through this type of division and verbal confrontation is progress ever made in society, as the best ideas eventually always win debates. Indeed, the best ideas are also often the most controversial and the most passionately censored. Simply consider how Galileo’s heliocentric claims were judged as offensive and heretical by the Inquisition, resulting in his house arrest, yet now the Catholic church and wider society know the sun to be at the centre of the solar system. However, he was censored in favour of ignorance. Therefore, if we are to progress further as a species, a mentality of ideologically charged censorship cannot persist, and our defence of free speech must never waver.
Finally, if you are still unconvinced that any form of censorship or prohibition on free speech is a crime against liberty, consider a question posed by the late, great journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who asks: “to whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful or who is the harmful speaker?... To whom are you going to award the job of being the censor?” The legendary poet John Milton, in his defence of free speech: Areopagitica, said that this person would have to be someone “above the common measure, both studious, learned, and judicious,” who also makes “no mean mistakes in the censure of what is passable or not.” Honestly, do you know such a perfect being? Do you know someone whom you would trust to limit the variety of words you could utter or books you could read? If you do, you would also know that this person would deplore censorship and would be an unconditional champion of free enquiry, free speech and a free forum in which all imaginable ideas would forever battle. Such a person would try to free the infinite Ouroboros’ mouth from its censorious tail, for the only things infinite about free speech must be the limit of words allowed to be spoken and its duration as an absolute human right.
Words / JAMIE KONTIS
The selection of images is part of artist Damla Özdemir’s new project “Free Speech Zone”, which presents collages based on stop-motion animation techniques and digital art practices. Özdemir focuses on the existential possibilities of expression by questioning the connections and contrasts between individuals’ sense of belonging and freedom. These questionings deal with themes of identity, gender, cultural codes, war and civilisation. Özdemir takes advantage of the unlimited possibilities offered by today’s digital world and makes real the concepts that exist in the digital realm in the form of codes, thus exploring the possibilities offered by this new language. By breaking apart, recombining and layering surfaces in order to create three dimensional forms, the artist creates fictional realities. And though viewers may focus on the work as a whole, this structure of intertwined elements provide her with new ways of expression. Ultimately, her work is a testament to the infinite variety of ideas that free speech allows us to express.