Where the Mind is Without Fear

June, 2010
By Anumita Raj

“Books won't stay banned.  They won't burn.  Ideas won't go to jail.  In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost.  The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.”  ~Alfred Whitney Griswold

The measure of a free society is free speech. The ideas of what is right to say and who has the right to say it have for long run into the wall that is authoritarianism. Whether it is the religious leader, the monarch, the militant or the government, those that attempt to moderate and control a person’s rights to voice his or her thoughts has always had to contend with opposition, with the slow and continuous battering of the walls that imprison people’s voices, until one day, the walls simply give in and collapse. This struggle, despite how it may seem, is not unique to these times. It is the same struggle that was faced by Socrates and Galileo, and it is the same struggle faced today by millions living in repressive regimes, refusing to be silenced. In the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that governments that try to control their citizens’ right to free speech are fighting a battle that they are sure to eventually lose. 

The internet has been nothing short of a miracle in this regard. Whether it is a communist dictatorship or a totalitarian religious regime, governments today are faced with the internet as a tool that they can not fully control. For every blogger in jail in China, there are thousands more writing from secret locations, changing their IP address numerous times just to stay undetected. Social networking sites have not only given oppressed citizens a voice, but they have also provided them with a built-in audience that spans the globe. Twitter kept the Green Revolution in Iran alive and kicking, as well as broadcast to the entire world in no uncertain terms exactly what thousands of Iranians thought of their government. 

Globalization is an important aspect of what is different today, when compared to other historical fights for free speech. Two hundred years ago, your government silencing your voice often only affected your community, your town, maybe your state. Today, thanks to the communication revolution, every repression is broadcast instantaneously to hundreds of thousands of people. What is more, people from around the world are actively interested in the freedoms of those in faraway countries. A person’s freedom of speech is no longer just the business of his family or his community, but of those living half way around the globe, connected to him through the internet, the television and the radio. 

It is possible to walk away from the first few paragraphs of this article with the assumption that the freedom of speech is alive and well, and its proponents are fighting the good fight with few problems. That is the opposite of the truth. There have been many casualties and repressive governments have had many victories. The same Twitter revolution that occurred in the aftermath of the elections in Iran in June 2009 also resulted in the arrests of hundreds, not for protesting or demonstrating, but for simply posting news on their Twitter accounts. While China attempts to walk the tightrope on controlling its image at all costs and being more accountable to its international allies, North Korea has managed to shut down virtually all communication between the inside and the outside. 

However, as Russia realized (around a decade ago) and China is increasingly realizing, ruthlessly shutting down the voices of dissent, especially in this day and age, is counter-productive. Not only does it spur the dissenters on, but it unites thousands of disparate citizens, each with a different complaint, into one unified voice, fighting for one cause. Suddenly, a person is no longer complaining about the state of the roads in his city, but is now part of a larger chorus, all demanding the same right. In its quest to truly become an international player, China has realized that it has to make more concessions on the matter to its citizens, if only to appear freer to the international community. This may not be an outright victory yet, but it’s certainly a start.

Whatever the size of the revolution, the scope of the victory and the context of the failure, Alfred Whitney Griswold, is right, ‘In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost.’ Today’s repressive regime is tomorrow’s utopia. Advocates and defenders of the right to free speech have faced arduous battles before and have emerged victorious, in the long run. Aided by technology and by an ever-shrinking world, today’s activists continue to run into walls in the hopes that they will eventually emerge on the other side.