Free Speech in the Age of Distraction

Free­dom to Read Week: Feb­ru­ary 22–28, 2015.

Free­dom to Read, Entry #5: author Chris Ben­jamin on Cana­da, free speech, and how bad it’s get­ting.


Those Char­lie Heb­do guys were racist jerks. Their sup­posed satire was facile. They weren’t tar­get­ing the pow­er­ful with their car­toons depict­ing the prophet Muham­mad. They were pok­ing the oppressed.

This fol­low-up sen­tence should go with­out say­ing but it nev­er does: the fact of them being jerks doesn’t excuse their mur­ders or make it any small crime. But their mur­ders don’t excuse re-writ­ing their his­to­ry, spin­ning their goon-squad pic­ture-mak­ing into high cul­ture or com­men­tary, either.

The polit­i­cal and pub­lic response to the Char­lie Heb­do mas­sacre has orbit­ed around the idea of free speech, coaxed along by a gen­er­al sense of cul­tur­al suprema­cy. The mood can best be summed up by a phrase I first heard on a Grey­hound bus in Cal­i­for­nia in Octo­ber 2001: “They hate our free­dom.”

That this sen­ti­ment is bull­shit seems obvi­ous enough, yet the sup­ple bull­shit has tak­en hold, or rather spin doc­tors have some­how tak­en hold of it and fed it to the expen­sive­ly edu­cat­ed all the way up the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al hier­ar­chy, and those influ­encers at the top now espouse ver­sions of it reg­u­lar­ly.

Canada’s Prime Min­is­ter, Stephen Harp­er, took full advan­tage of the mas­sacre to remind us of the chron­ic, per­pet­u­al need to fight off — with bombs and sol­diers — attacks on our free­dom. “Cana­da and its allies will not be intim­i­dat­ed and will con­tin­ue to stand firm­ly togeth­er against ter­ror­ists who would threat­en the peace, free­dom and democ­ra­cy our coun­tries so dear­ly val­ue,” he said in an offi­cial state­ment [empha­sis added].

One might assume that one of the free­doms to which he was refer­ring is the free­dom of speech, giv­en the vic­tims’ line of work. But this state­ment comes from the leader of a gov­ern­ment that has done every­thing in its pow­er to keep the Cana­di­an pub­lic from talk­ing about any­thing that might threat­en its neo-lib­er­al cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­o­gy.

Tom Brady throw­ing a spi­ral, post­ed because it’s more dynam­ic a pic­ture than Stephen Harp­er obfus­cat­ing basic human rights.

Harper’s gov­ern­ment con­trols its “mes­sages,” that is, spins its infor­ma­tion, more tight­ly than a Tom Brady spi­ral, more tight­ly than any oth­er gov­ern­ment in our nation’s his­to­ry.

Sev­er­al years ago I wrote about how this gov­ern­ment has gone to great lengths to muz­zle its own sci­en­tists. Not only has it dras­ti­cal­ly cut fund­ing of any sci­ence pol­i­cy or ini­tia­tive not geared direct­ly toward expand­ing indus­try, it has for­bid­den its sci­en­tists from speak­ing in pub­lic or to the media with­out a spin doc­tor present. For a jour­nal­ist, get­ting a scoop involv­ing gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists requires more leg­work than Wood­ward, Bern­stein, and Deep Throat put into break­ing Water­gate.

At the risk of repeat­ing myself: our elect­ed fed­er­al Min­is­ters of Par­lia­ment, who we pay to serve and lead us, are active­ly with­hold­ing the sci­en­tif­ic data gen­er­at­ed by fed­er­al gov­ern­ment employ­ees (who we also pay).

Why?

Well, much of that data warns us that our cur­rent path – that neo-lib­er­al cap­i­tal­ist one – is lead­ing us direct­ly into the worst shit-storm our species will ever know. Total cli­mate chaos, mas­sive human (and oth­er species) die-offs. We won’t speak any more of stan­dard of liv­ing, but rather degree of dying. You know, the kind of exis­tence-threat­en­ing cri­sis we expect our lead­ers to lead us through. Or at least try.

Instead, our gov­ern­ment cov­ers its ears, and the mouths of sci­en­tists and cit­i­zens. Then it turns around and says it will not let ter­ror­ists threat­en our free­dom.

***

George Orwell wrote prophet­i­cal­ly of polit­i­cal newspeak, cre­at­ed by a total­i­tar­i­an state to lim­it free think­ing and speak­ing. And we’ve seen this play out over the decades since he wrote 1984. But, three decades beyond the real 1984, we’ve seen cor­po­ra­tions do the bulk of the heavy newspeak lift­ing.

Pub­lic rela­tions pro­fes­sion­als in pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tors sol­dier through the infor­ma­tion war, fil­ter­ing as much of the infor­ma­tion as pos­si­ble to offer the best reflec­tions of gar­gan­tu­an orga­ni­za­tions con­trol­ling our col­lec­tive wealth and fates. We are, aside from the occa­sion­al irate post online, most­ly pas­sive absorbers of this mis­in­for­ma­tion, try­ing to make sense of it all.

On the flip­side, Aldous Hux­ley wrote of cit­i­zens paci­fied by pills and oth­er diver­sions. That’s about right. We’re so dis­tract­ed we don’t even notice we’re dis­tract­ed. We are bom­bard­ed with reg­u­lar reports of one health cri­sis or anoth­er, the lat­est “silent killer.” But what of our near-uni­ver­sal screen addic­tion, with so many screens to choose from?

Patrice Lumum­ba, Con­golese inde­pen­dence leader, first demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed Prime Min­is­ter of the Repub­lic of the Con­go.

The irony is: we’ve got infor­ma­tion hooked to our veins and we’re more inter­est­ed in who killed Rita Mor­gan than who killed Patrice Lumum­ba. The biggest threat to free speech is per­haps our unwill­ing­ness to use it.

***

David North wrote an in-depth explanation/exploration on why the “Je suis Char­lie” meme was a pure­ly west­ern phe­nom­e­non. The answer, in short, is that the rest of the world, despite abhor­ring the mas­sacre, refused to say, “I am a racist car­toon­ist” or “I delight in slan­der­ing the oppressed.”

There are more noble uses for what pow­ers of free speech we do have than works like those of Char­lie Heb­do. But these deep­er uses often require remark­able courage, speak­ing out in the face of pub­lic back­lash, vio­lence or loss of sta­tus and smear­ing of rep­u­ta­tion. One must also do the hard work of dig­ging for hid­den or lit­tle-dis­cussed facts, truths that may actu­al­ly make us freer, infor­ma­tion that rich­er, more pow­er­ful peo­ple would rather not reveal or dis­cuss.

We are, at least, free to attempt that work. But that free­dom is too sup­pressed by an end­less­ly enter­tain­ing array of lights depict­ing lives more fab­u­lous than our own. In turn we express our­selves in trun­cat­ed online brand­ing exer­cis­es – some­times dozens a day – pro­ject­ing flat­ter­ing images of our­selves from pow­er­ful hand-held com­put­ers, bol­ster­ing our own iden­ti­ties but doing lit­tle else to make us tru­ly free.


Chris Ben­jamin is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and author. His lat­est book is Indi­an School Road: Lega­cies of the Shube­nacadie Res­i­den­tial School, win­ner of the Dave Gre­ber Free­lance Book Prize. His Eco-Inno­va­tors: Sus­tain­abil­i­ty in Atlantic Cana­da won the 2012 Best Atlantic-Pub­lished Book Award and was a final­ist for the Richard­son Non-Fic­tion Prize. His nov­el Dri­ve-by Sav­iours won the H.R. Per­cy Prize and made the Cana­da Reads Top Essen­tial Books List. Chris has writ­ten for a long list of mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers, includ­ing The Globe and Mail, Sci­ence Fri­day, Z Mag­a­zine, Cana­di­an Dimen­sion, This Mag­a­zine, Bri­arpatch, and The Coast. Chris has also pub­lished short sto­ries in lit­er­ary jour­nals, mag­a­zines and antholo­gies such as Des­cant, Nash­waak Review, and Fierce Ink. Chris has lived and worked in Toron­to, British Colum­bia, St. Lucia, Fin­land, Indone­sia, and Ghana. His cur­rent home is Hal­i­fax.