An Epic Plea For Sovereign Words

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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When free speech is not an idealised abstraction but a practical pursuit. A user's guide by Timothy Garton Ash

THE PROPHETIC prescription of Marshall McLuhan’s global village has run its course. The world today is anything but a village, says Timothy Garton Ash in his heavily annotated manifesto for free speech. A global city—connected by technology and shrunken by the free flow of ideas—is a more appropriate description, but Garton Ash, who would like to see himself as a historian of the present, calls this world ‘cosmopolis’, which is the ‘transformed context for any discussion of free speech in our time’.

Freedom in cosmopolis is trapped inside a paradox. The most obvious feature of this world is that there has been a kind of democratisation of freedom. And it has shown how human instincts are amplified by technological insights. The medium is not the message. It is the shared power in a virtual world. Intimacy is not private. Being out there, visible and accessible, is sacred. Any man today is his own storyteller, his own publisher, his own propagandist, and his own mythmaker. The internet has shifted the borders or demolished them; freedom has never been freer.

That is wonderful. It is great to offend and be offended, and every winner in this level- playing field is neutralised by a victim, unless you are forced to erect a barrier between good freedom and bad freedom. A liberating use of the internet can lead to a massacre continents away—a cartoon, a YouTube video, or anything else to do with gods or prophets... hate travels faster in cosmopolis, no matter what the offended religion is.

The expansion of freedom is accompanied by a lower rate of intolerance. The extra-planetary powers of organisations such as Google, Facebook and Twitter may have shifted the balance of power in cosmopolis, but it is still the old nasty habits of paranoid regimes that make freedom a contraband commodity. Whether it is the strong leader of Turkey or the vigilante mullah of Iran, the potentate in the Middle East or the pinstriped commissar-capitalist in Beijing, there is always someone out there for whom knowledge is subversion, information is incendiary, imagination is insubordination. The new gulag lies beyond the Great Firewall of China. Garton Ash’s cosmopolis is connected as well as fettered.

So it comes down to two questions. ‘How free should speech be? How should free speech be?’ Garton Ash argues that ‘we should limit free speech as little as possible by law and the executive action of governments or corporations, but do correspondingly more to develop shared norms and practices that enable us to make best use of this essential freedom’. It becomes problematic only when we set the limits of offence, or equate ‘harm’ with ‘hate’. What matters here is not the text of offence, but the context, and in a wired world, offence is virtually uncontrollable. ‘The greater the harm, and the more conducive to that harm is the context, the firmer should be the constraint. The weaker the justification, and the more harmless the context, the softer the justified constraint,’ writes Garton Ash.

No harm even if this position is moral relativism, which, at the end of another argumentative day in cosmopolis, sheds less blood than absolutism does. Paternalistic states and religious dictatorships take recourse to simulated moralism, which is absolute, while they silence and kill. What is required, in Garton Ash’s words, is a ‘more universal universalism’, for this unifying high concept of the West has never been fully inclusive. Cultural segregation has created a moral hierarchy, which needs to be demolished. That is a struggle in which multiple idealisms merge, the distance between the private and the public shrinks, and the freedom of expression becomes a practical pursuit, not an idealised abstraction.

Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Atlantic Books, 491 pages, £20) itself is a perfect blend of the practical and the conceptual. It is a user’s guide, with charts and tables and a thicket of notes. Principle Number One is the acceptance of the fact that the power of speech is humankind’s fundamental identity. The tragedy is that the free word is not really free even in the so-called free societies; democracy continues to allow safe passage for unfreedom. Don’t we know? In the name of religious or private sentiments, free speech can be an idea that is conditional as well as convenient. Only creative commitment can redeem freedom, defy frontiers, and celebrate ideas. It is courage that needs institutional support, but it should not be subservient to institutions either. Second: a rejection of violence. It is all the more important today because states, in their twisted morality, are promoters as well as victims of violence. We need to defy the assassin’s veto. Third: all that floats in cyberspace is not knowledge, and there is a lot to gain by using technology to regain freedom from its spell. ‘The same human intelligence that has produced this ocean of information gives us the means to save ourselves from drowning in it.’

Fourth: The uses of a credible media, uncensored and uninhibited, and the limits of its freedom are set by responsibility. Fifth: It is diversity that makes a civil society civil. Differences should only strengthen our quest for freedom in diversity. Sixth: Even if you disagree with the texts of religion, respect the man who believes. We know that gods—and their custodians—continue to be the deadliest enemies of free speech. It is the Book versus the book, the Word versus the word, still. We live in a world where gods feel threatened by laughter, by cartoons, by fiction, and where the angriest of them wields a knife in the desert. ‘We should have no illusions. Religion will continue to be one of the most difficult areas for free speech. Tolerance is difficult. Even for someone who does not feel impelled to challenge frontally the religious belief of others, finding the right mix of tact and honesty, imaginative sympathy and steadfastness is a daily challenge.’ Do not give up.

Seventh: Protect privacy, but allow scrutiny in public interest. Eighth: ‘The importance of not being anonymous…We need more noble whistleblowers and fewer nefarious leakers.’ Ninth: the internet is freedom but there has to be accountability. ‘Like the power of the state, that of an information giant can be used for good as well as evil.’ Checks and balances will ensure good practice. Tenth: stand up to all those states without justice and freedom. In the end, as Garton Ash says, ‘We will never agree, nor should we. But we must strive to create conditions in which we agree on how we disagree. At scale, in cosmopolis, that work has already begun.’

This book draws its legitimacy from the intellectual credibility of its author: a scholar journalist who was unarguably the finest chronicler of Eastern Europe’s liberation struggle in 1989. Garton Ash called it ‘Refolution’ (revolution plus reform). It was a time when words defied jackboots, the symbol of freedom was a theatre called Magic Lantern, and the playwright would be king. Garton Ash wrote the history of the present—the finest form of journalism—with remarkable lucidity. This is more an academic’s work, but a courageous one. In a world that is too scared to give sovereignty to the word, this is an epic plea for freedom.