I guess (assume, HOPE – take your pick) that most of us believe in freedom of speech. Many of us do so by rote, i.e. it’s a knee-jerk reaction rather than a rational conclusion – we’ve been brought up believing in democratic rights and it’s necessary appendage, freedom of speech. Now and then I think it would be wise if we actually took the time to consider what freedom of speech (and democracy) actually means:
To be allowed to express your opinion is a failsafe in a democratic society. Without anyone crying “wolf, wolf” now and then, the wolves will come crawling out of the closets or whatever other dark space they might be inhabiting and take over. Make no mistake; the wolves are still out there, they’re just licking their chops and waiting for that precise moment in time when the citizens in a democracy no longer care enough and that’s when WHAM they’ll swoop in and become the top dogs. No fun, if you happen not to like wolves, right? Even worse if you’re the sheep…
So; freedom of speech is a must, it is the building block for critical journalism, for media coverage, for Joe Everyman going out into the street and shaking his placard when he doesn’t agree with something. And yes, sometimes what’s written on that placard is absolutely appalling, but that’s neither here nor there – the right to say whatever you think is sacrosanct. It would, of course, be nice if people applied some JUDGEMENT when exercising their rights of freedom of speech, but let’s face it, my judgement is not your judgement, and while I may believe certain cartoons/films neither enrich nor enlighten the world at large, someone else will disagree. And that’s okay; disagreeing is yet another foundation for democracy. Different people hold different opinions, vote for different parties/candidates and hopefully the end result will be a representative government. (Well, in theory at least)
Recently there’s been quite a hullabaloo up here in our Northern corner of the world regarding freedom of speech contra rasism/misogynism/discrimination in general. It all started with a rather energetic person stating that it was time someone cleared up the Children’s Books in a library and cleansed the shelves of such racist literature as Tintin. Eh, what? Oh yes, the Tintin albums are awash with stereotypes such as carpet flying Arabs, sinister Soviets and rather naively depicted Congolese people. Therefore they had to go; out, out and away with these terrible, terrible stories that might imprint on our tender children such awful misconceptions.
Setting aside the fact that most children aren’t idiots and therefore are perfectly capable of differentiating between make believe and reality, this poses the question as to how far we should go. Here in Sweden we obviously would have to throw our beloved Pippi Longstocking on the bookpile, as there is a recurring mention of the “n” word in these books. Oh, and bye, bye Babar, and Enid Blyton’s Five books would go the same way – her villains are sadly stereotyped. Come to think of it neither Hornblower nor Biggles would make the cut – in one there’s a lot of denigrating comments about the French, while the other is awash with racial comments. That would be a major pity as I love both these series.
While we’re at it, maybe we should cleanse the world’s libraries of offensive adult literature as well. Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Daniel Defoe’s Crusoe (I mean, Friday… come on!), and Shakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice would definitely end up on the bonfire as would most of the writing by the early Christian academics. And all we would be left with would be a bland, unrepresentative literary heritage. Gone would be the angry rants against women in other roles than that of mother and wife, gone would be all those texts that are testaments to the fact that once upon a time white man DID believe they were better than the rest. Gone all the antisemitic texts, all the misrepresented Muslims, no more “savages” living in Borneo, no more thieving tinkers, no more Esmeraldas, no sensuous Carmens, no Gone with the Wind. God how boring. And how WRONG! If we are to understand our past and how our societies have developed to what they are today, we have to conserve the written works of times long past (and not so long ago) How to understand the machinations of Nazism without reading Mein Kampf (not that it fully helps)? How will we comprehend the bravery of the abolitionists if we cannot place them into context by reading books/articles from their times?
Freedom of speech, remember? Many of the authors cited above were dust in the wind by the time the concept was codified in our modern democracies. That doesn’t matter; what they wrote, what they thought,must be safeguarded, analysed, reacted to. Not hidden away or destroyed in an attempt to whitewash our past. Let’s face it; Tintin is a product of his times. Hergé lived in a day and age when colonialism was perfectly okay, part of the accepted way of organising society. How can we retroactively blame him for that?
Fortunately, the powers that be interceded, and where on the Monday the Tintin albums were carted outside, on the Friday they were back again. Instead of reading a lot of political commentary into these albums why not enjoy them for what they are, namely fantastically detailed and quite exciting adventures that even today succeed in transporting our children to other times, other places. I say well done Hergé, well done to all the authors whose work survives the wear and tear of time as well as Tintin does.
I believe in democracy. I am a firm adherent of freedom of speech. At times this makes me clap my hand to my forehead and moan at the sheer stupidity of fellow man. I guess there are a number of occasions when someone else is thinking the same about me, but that doesn’t stop me from expressing my opinion. In silence lies the roots of oppression and manipulation, in loud and heated argument lie the beginnings of a better world.