I recently came across an article about a 76-year-old British author, Alan Shadrake, who was sentenced to six weeks in jail and fined $20,000 in Singapore for his writings regarding the country’s death penalty policies. It is safe to say that in the past I’ve read more than I’d like about this kind of news.
Every time I read an article related to censorship or free speech resulting in punishment — an appallingly frequent amount considering it’s 2010 — I am led to re-evaluate the significance of the words people say and write.
On the Reporters Without Borders 2011 Press Freedom Rankings Map, 178 countries are identified by a color on a spectrum from white to black (with yellow, orange, and red in between) indicating the level of censorship and press freedom allowed. Upon looking at it, it is shocking the amount of orange, red and black (moderate, serious and very severe censorship) depicted.
I don’t believe we can escape from the sense of responsibility that comes after reading story after story about those who are persecuted because their speech is unprotected.
Is free speech a right or a privilege? It’s an ancient question, and many are quick to argue that it is a right. In one of my favorite quotes, Voltaire muses, “We have a natural right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk and hazard.” Most of us take this right for granted, but the reality is that for many people in the world, and much to Voltaire’s and my disdain, it’s a privilege.
People much more intelligent and knowledgeable than I am may throw out some facts about the publishing industry, the government’s inner workings and maybe a little “Big Brother is always watching,” giving me a few reasons to believe that speech isn’t all that “free” anywhere.
But for the purpose of this article, it’s safe to say that when a fairly anonymous 18-year-old Asian female can write about whatever she wants, have it be read, heard, published on paper and the Internet, even exist without punishment or censorship — it is more free speech than anyone in North Korea, Myanmar or Libya can dream about.
And for that, I feel it is imperative for those of us who are thoroughly spoiled with protected speech to treasure the substance of the words we say, write and read.
On any given day, one is bombarded with practices of uninhibited free speech used not to voice opinion, but to carelessly fling every little thing that pops into our heads or confute any potential argument with as little evidence we have, just for the sake of it. It’s a college campus in a generation of “like, whatever, OMG and WTF.” It’s only natural.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that; I’m not opposing the right of people to argue and blurt out the first thing that comes to their minds. I am merely musing about the use of words and the idea that we don’t use our speech to the utmost potential that we could.
I am far from eloquent. I curse like a sailor, I’m loud when there is no reason to be and unnervingly silent when I could afford to be talkative. On one extreme, spitting out ridiculousness for the fun of it is hilarious and entertaining, but on the other hand I wonder if I should be saving my words for things of actual substance.
So in light of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, let’s be thankful for the liberty of speech that we have. I know I will think back on words I have and haven’t said. Though I don’t have any direct connection to Alan Shadrake or any other free speech martyrs, I promise to myself, next time, I will make the voiceless proud of me.