Free speech, why it matters

March 2, 2023   ·   0 Comments

By Anthony Carnovale

People can say the silliest things, man. 

We also say things that nick, cut and bruise. 

Every day there’s another story making the rounds of someone having said something hateful, hurtful, even spiteful. 

But we also say loving things, wise things, helpful things and insightful things. 

And yet, for all the resilience and know-how that we possess, we appear to be losing our hold on a fundamental right as citizens of a free and democratic nation: the right to speak our minds and voice our opinions without fear of being derided or ostracized. 

Last week was Freedom to Read Week (cue empty stare). According to the FTRW website, last week was a chance for ‘Canadians to think about and reaffirm their right to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under Charter of Rights and Freedoms.’ 

The week may have come to an end, but the battle for said rights and freedoms rages on. 

On the left, we have those who refuse to admit that cancel culture is, in fact, a thing; the right, in the US in particular, has embraced an even more malicious form of thought-control (that’s what it is) with laws that would ban books, muzzle teachers, discourage open debate in classrooms, even imprison librarians. 

What’s happening in our schools, post-secondary institutions, bureaucracies, and publishing houses is frightening. 

At large, free speech is being used to suppress marginalized voices. 

In some countries, the right to free speech is being choked-out by despots, religious zealots, and the overt policing of the internet. People are being ‘cancelled’ for something they said back when they had more pimples than brain cells. 

Popular books that reference weight, gender and mental health are being rewritten; professors are censoring their own lectures. 

A former student told me she doesn’t speak up in her university lectures and tutorials for fear of being called out for something she said. 

It reminded me of Alicia Keys’ spoken-word piece “Prisoner of Words”. In it Keys laments that there “…is nowhere to run when you’ve caged yourself, by holding your tongue.” 

What about you? Are you afraid to speak your mind? Are you self-censoring? Holding your tongue? Have you caged yourself? In my mind, silence is violence. If we don’t stand up for everybody’s right to speak, think and share, then we’ll soon be living in a world that looks more and more like China, Russia, Hungary and Florida. This is why it’s so important for each and every one of us to not hold our tongues. Free speech matters.

When a man runs up to a stage and stabs Salman Rushdie, it matters (he lost an eye; he didn’t lose his voice). When a gunmen storm the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and kill 12 people, it matters; when a school administrator secretly pulls a book off of a shelf (there’s more than one way to kill a writer), it matters. When a librarian is afraid to show up to work, it matters. When a student is afraid to speak her mind, it matters.

Living in a democracy means being surrounded by an array of voices, some of which will be saying things you might not like. 

In a world that has become increasingly polarized, radicalized and infantilized, it is so very important for our stories to continue to be written, spoken and shared. 

Our stories will keep the centre from splintering. It’s from the centre that we will thrive, create and prosper. How else can we expect to work through our problems if people can’t speak freely? You don’t win when you shut down and kill your enemy. You win when you kill their ideas.  

In his introductory essay in ‘The Writer and Human Rights’ Thomas Hammarberg writes: “The forces that threaten to stifle creativity and freedom of expression are real and are claiming their victims. We must have the courage to work through our differences and manifest our solidarity with those who are being silenced.” 

So, speak up. Be heard (I’m listening). It matters. 

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