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A Blogger's Manifesto
Free Speech and Censorship in the Age of the Internet
By Erik Ringmar
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2007 Erik Ringmar
All rights reserved.
'Watch It Buddy, I'm Blogging This'
'Hello world! This is Erik speaking. Is anybody out there?' It was 9 January 2006, and I was writing the first post in my very first blog. I had downloaded the software a few minutes earlier and now I was already up and running. Forget the Footnotes seemed like an appropriate name for it. Academics always add footnotes to give authority to their ramblings, but in my blog I was going to ramble without such props. 'Testing, 1, 2, 3, 4.' Well, I thought, the sky is not falling in, the computer is emitting no smoke. I'll just write and see what happens. I cleared my throat, dried my fingertips on my trousers, and started typing.
A funny thing happened at work today. One of the more pompous of my colleagues – Oxbridge education, plummy accent, egg on waistcoat – was giving a particularly tedious talk. Suddenly he drew something on the blackboard. An impromptu map, I think, but at this stage I was no repeatedly and added to the map. For each addition the picture began to look more and more like a penis. After a while there was no doubt. There it was: a perfectly formed manhood in all its fully erect glory. Testicles, pubic hair and everything. I began laughing. First a little snicker, then a louder guffaw. Heads turned in my direction. I reported my observation to the person next to me who made a disgusted face. How dared I! Not funny. Not funny at all.
It was childish of course. Very childish. Both to laugh about it at the time and to blog about it later. 'I can't write that', I thought, 'my colleague is too easily recognizable.' Then again the joke was mainly on me, not on him. If I chose to be childish in public, it was my decision. Besides, this is a free country, right? I can say what I like. And I did.
Emboldened, I unleashed my childish wit on my boss, the big cheese himself, the Director of the university where I worked. I made up a story about Sir Howard Davies, a few choir boys and the Catholic Church. None of it was true of course – it obviously wasn't true – but just to be on the safe side I added an official, but faked, denial. It was, however, pretty funny. Brits are famous for their sense of humour. Sir Howard Davies is a Brit, ain't he? He can live with it.
After these posts I was exhausted. I didn't know there was so much childishness in me and now it was all over my blog, in public and for everyone to see. For better or worse, I had spoken. From the laptop on top of my bed in my home in north London I had spoken to hundreds of millions of people scattered throughout the world. Except that I hadn't really. My blog at this point was getting a mere dozen visitors per day – my family mainly and the occasional student.
Unfazed by the low visitor number, I felt that I had acquired new powers. The power to hurt and upset people and the power to make a fool of myself. But also the power to tell truths, to colleagues, the corruption of bosses, the vile habits of family and friends. I'm going to turn myself into a blogging machine, I thought, reporting everything I see straight into cyberspace. The mighty will tremble, the powerless will take heart. 'Watch it buddy, I'm blogging this!'
Of course I knew there were limits to what I could say. There are always limits to what one can say. Legal limits, limits set by embarrassment, by fear or by an old-fashioned sense of decency. How exactly these limits should be defined, however, I did not know. Normally when you present something in public, there are editors who answer such questions for you, but in my blog I was my own editor. I had no experience, no policy, no guidelines. I, together with millions of other bloggers who simultaneously had taken up the habit, was flying by the seat of my pants.
These questions became urgent a few weeks later when a Danish newspaper, Jyllandsposten, published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in various, shall we say, less than flattering contexts. The Danes, not unreasonably, insisted on their right to publish whatever they damn well pleased. But some Muslims declared themselves offended and took the opportunity to rant about the perfidy of the infidel West. The Danish embassy was set ablaze in Damascus, large demonstrations were held in Lebanon, and Danish products were boycotted throughout the Middle East.
The question was whose side the rest of us were on. Were we in favour of freedom of expression or did we believe in the obligation not to offend? It was a classic case of liberalism versus multiculturalism, the European Enlightenment versus political correctness.
Some newspapers in Germany and France reprinted the cartoons. British newspapers didn't, obviously so as not to complicate relations with the country's sizeable Muslim population. Still some Muslims in the UK were most irate. Demonstrations were held outside the Danish embassy in London on 3 February 2006, where young men, dressed as suicide bombers, issued direct threats. 'Behead the one who insults the Prophet', 'Europe you will pay, your 9/11 is on the way.'
As a newbie blogger I decided to be more courageous than the British papers. I was going to stand up for the Danes. A quick Google search and a 'save picture as ...' – command and I had the offensive cartoons on my site. I had no desire to offend the Muslims, and I'm all for common decency, but death threats against those who publish cartoons was a step too far. If death threats are issued against us, our rights are taken away. If our rights are taken away, we must fight for them. This was not the time for decency. Suddenly, I had the obligation to publish those offensive cartoons. Someone had to stand up for freedom of expression. It might as well be me.
Well, these were the arguments I used when talking it over with my wife. As a non-blogger with her feet more securely planted on the ground, she pleaded with me. 'Why, oh, why? Our neighbourhood is predominantly Muslim. People around here are nice and friendly with each other.' 'What if our neighbours find out? What's the point of offending these good people?'
One night trucks loaded with explosives were racing through my head. Scimitar-wielding madmen were beheading my children. I woke up in a cold sweat. Somewhere high above our house there was a helicopter. Its persistent chop, chop, chop told me that the police was looking for someone. Of course, those irate young men who demonstrated outside the Danish embassy! I had read about the police chase and now they were in my neighbourhood. What better place to hide for a scimitar-wielding madman than in my Muslim part of the town?
I took the cartoons off the blog. Of course mv wife was right. an aggressive visual language which wasn't mine. It was a defeat to be sure, but it was a defeat of no significance. The only casualty was my image of myself as a defender of Western civilization. Someone else had to stand up for the freedom of expression. Someone with a bigger blog and more courage. I was too scared.
In the first couple of weeks of its existence my blog had taken me for quite a ride. I had made fun of a colleague and my boss, exposed myself to ridicule and to the possible ire of some people in my neighbourhood. I had been transformed from being an quixotic defender of Western civilization to a self-confessed fool in the space of a few days. My blog was starting to seriously affect me. Was it really worth it? Why, after all, blog? Before I had properly answered these questions, things suddenly got a lot worse.
The republican promise
In the back of my mind throughout these first weeks of blogging was a half-remembered promise. Something about freedom of speech and the value of publicity. In Britain, in Europe, and wherever democracy has taken hold, people have the right to express themselves freely. This is a core freedom, I had been told, a fundamental right, a cornerstone of modern society. As a blogger, I enjoyed the full backing of modern civilization. World history and natural reason were on my side. Surely good enough.
After having read more, I came across three separate versions of this promise: a republican, a liberal and a radical. Although the three emphasized upon slightly different arguments, they lent each other strong support.
The idea of freedom of speech is an invention of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. At the time educated members of the upper-classes met in salons and coffee shops to discuss politics, the arts and the latest gossip. These groups first identified freedom of speech as a matter of human rights. Not surprisingly, they spent most of their time talking. Their conversations constituted a public sphere', a shared space located outside the purview of individuals but also outside the purview of the state.
Although the members of polite society were upper-class, the conversational ethos which governed the public sphere was thoroughly egalitarian. The rules of conversation meant that everyone should have a chance to talk and that everyone would have to listen. Egalité and fraternité guaranteed the liberté of expression. 'I detest what you write', as Voltaire put it, 'but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.'
As the members of polite society explained, free and frank conversations have a number of beneficial consequences. Through conversations people become acquainted with unfamiliar views and experiences; they discover flaws in their own arguments and strengths in the arguments of others; they learn to take others into account, to moderate their views, and to become more realistic and practical about their application. The eventual conclusion of a public debate is always going to be far more intelligent than anything individuals can come up with on their own. Reason is a collective and not an individual achievement.
After the French Revolution, politics was recreated in the image of this conversational culture. Polite society transformed itself into a republic where all men were brothers and all enjoyed equal rights, not least the right to speak and publish freely. As the French 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen', adopted in August 1789, made clear:
The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of human beings; all citizens can thus sneak, write and print freely. Except when abusing this Similarly in December 1791, the first generation of Americans – another band of republican revolutionaries – revised their constitution to make sure that freedom of speech was adequately protected. The First Amendment reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The well-being of the republic, French and American revolutionaries insisted, depends on people's ability to talk, argue and exchange ideas. This is why freedom of speech is necessary.
The liberal promise
Nineteenth-century liberals affirmed these promises and added their own. For them the well-being of the community mattered less than the rights of each individual. Or rather, the well-being of the community could only be assured if individuals' rights were properly protected. And individuals, they believed, can only flourish if they have an opportunity to express themselves freely. Everyone should have a chance to pit their arguments against the arguments of others. This is how you develop your personality, become a particular someone rather than just another voiceless member of a faceless crowd.
The classical statement of this view can be found in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, 1859. Today, Mill's defence of the freedom of expression reads like an early and rather quaint draft of a bloggers' manifesto:
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
Societies make progress, Mill believed, as errors and misconceptions are exposed, and as alternatives are proposed which can take their place. The more freely people can express themselves, the more secure we can be of our convictions, and the more rapidly society will make progress.
Of course some people may speak offensively or irresponsibly, but the best protection against such excesses is more free speech. It is not good enough for someone to claim that he or she is offended. Too many people are offended by too much. In particular, members of the elite are very easily offended when they can't come up with a good argument to justify their privileges. To ban offensive speech, Mill believed, is to protect the status quo.
The liberal view, combined with the republican, is paraphrased in Article 19 of the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948:
Everyone has the right to opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Or in the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1950:
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public Authority and regardless of frontiers.
The radical promise
But more radical promises were also made. What really matters, radicals argued, is not people's right to express themselves as much as their right of access to information. People in power will always cloak themselves with secrets in order to protect their privileges. Yet, freedom of speech has the power to reveal such shady shenanigans. Freedom of speech should above all be understood as a right to reveal what the powerful want to keep secret.
Compare the idea of 'enlightenment' as it was first introduced in the eighteenth century. To 'enlighten' is to throw light into darkness, it is to expose the secret and to clarify the obscure. Reason can't operate behind locked doors or in smoked-filled rooms; reason is always public, never private. Arguments which cannot be disclosed are for this reason necessarily suspect. Secrecy protects incompetence, prejudice and corruption. In the full light of publicity only such inequalities will remain which can be rationally defended.
Compare the etymological connection between the 'secret' and the 'sacred'. The sacred was always set apart. The face of God was always hidden and for that reason all the more terrifying. Priests were speaking in a mysterious lingo, performing rites which were awe-inspiring precisely because they were so terribly arcane. The Divine was inaccessible, indeed inaccessibility is what defined and constituted the Divine.
For a very long time politics had been thought of in much the same manner. In the Renaissance statecraft was considered a black art, an arcanum imperium, into which only the select could be initiated. And in the twentieth century, secrecy was more than anything what defined the totalitarian regimes. You never knew when the secret police would knock at your door; you were never told why you were arrested or where they were taking you.
Freedom of speech inoculates us both against religious prejudice and political expression Freedom of speech serves transparency and disenchantment. Governments must be accountable, and if God can't stand the light of day, he's in serious trouble.
Woodrow Wilson, the US President, was a radical in this tradition. Wars, Wilson believed, are more than anything the result of the secret machinations of statesmen. In a democracy young men can't be asked to die for reasons which aren't made public. Similarly peace, if it is to last, must be concluded through public negotiations:
Open covenants of peace must be arrived at, after which there will surely be no private international action or rulings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
This is what we were promised. The republican revolutionaries promised us a society where everybody can participate as an equal in political debates, and where everyone has a voice and an audience. The liberals promised personal growth, the right of all citizens to develop their arguments, skills and individuality. The radicals promised freedom of speech as a way to expose prejudice and corruption.
Excerpted from A Blogger's Manifesto by Erik Ringmar. Copyright © 2007 Erik Ringmar. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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