I recently had to study for my Civics Test to become a naturalized citizen of the US. The history and foundation of the nation were based on the premise of freedom. Two of these freedoms were freedom of expression and thought. These are fundamental human rights recognized by the international community for the proper functioning of democracy and the exchange of ideas. They are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But what does it mean to live out these freedoms, as we are all influenced by different things?
As an artist and creative being, this freedom is fundamental to me so that I can write my blog and my books, express my worldview through the lenses of experience and lessons learned from the past, and incorporate or build on things I have been taught. As an artist, it is also important to let my pen and paint flow from the inner well of everything that has been maturating there, waiting for divine inspiration to allow it to be birthed into tangible form.
Artists need the freedom to create through any medium, just scribbling ideas on a napkin when a thought pops into their mind to be gleaned for later use. Artists need to keep filling their inner well, which means accessing other people’s art, writing, and ideas without censorship or restraint. I lived through an era, where I was not allowed to be exposed to other people’s ideas. My family had fundamentalist beliefs, and so we were restricted to only interacting with other people of the same belief system. We also lived through an era of severe press censorship, when half the pages in the newspaper would be blank as the censorship board took out the articles.
Once I entered the regular school system, I was exposed to many children with different backgrounds and belief systems and taught about history, geography, and other enlightening subjects, which opened my worldview. Once I was fully literate, the world of literature opened up before me when I could choose to read whatever took my fancy. My grandfather said, “once you can read, the whole world is your oyster, as you can learn to do anything you chose to do!” He was so right, as this is the road to continuing self-education. Now with access to the internet, it is up to individuals to make the most of what they learn and apply it to follow their dreams. The secret is the curiosity to find out more about what you love. Freedom of thought and expression gives you the right to have opinions on any subject, including political opinions, and to protect individual autonomy and dignity.
FREEDOM OF THOUGHT AND EXPRESSION IS NOT AN ABSOLUTE RIGHT
Freedom of thought and expression enables individuals to speak out against human rights violations and government or institutional abuses. However, both freedom of expression and thought are not absolute rights and may be subject to limitations in certain circumstances. As I mentioned before, we lived through the Bush War when the press was severely censored. This was necessary to protect the country, the armed forces’ movements, and the civilian population. The freedom of expression and thought must also be used with grace and responsibility in not diminishing the rights and dignity of others who hold different opinions and ideas from yours. There is no place to dehumanize or incite violence or harm to others. There is also a case for not allowing misinformation when public safety is at risk.
How do we keep the balance between freedom of thought and expression and repression for fear of upsetting one or another group of people with different worldviews and opinions? Sometimes governments must restrict information and censor media in the name of national security and countering terrorism. These should be aligned with legitimate dangers and risks to the country and not just arbitrary but subject to independent review and adjustment as soon as the crisis is over.
CHECKS AND BALANCES
Restricting freedom of expression and thought when individuals are afraid to express their opinions or beliefs can suppress critical debates and discussions on issues such as human rights abuses, corruption, and political accountability. The importance of checks and balances is the second part of this equation. We do not live in a vacuum, and everything is connected somehow, so respecting one another’s opinions, thoughts, and expressions is of utmost importance. My wise grandfather also said, “I do not agree with what you said, but I will defend your right to say it!” Another valuable lesson from a man who had lived through the Boer War, WW1, WW2, and Rhodesian UDI. He had seen life in the trenches and voiced his opinions through that lens and at times upset people!
Freedom of expression and thought is critical for the advance of civilization and the creative solving of problems. Each generation builds on the foundations of thought that others have laid down, leaving behind new layers that future generations can build on. This freedom must be exercised. To hold that in balance, limitations can be set to protect the human rights of others and democratic principles.
Through what lens do you view freedom of thought and expression? Do drop me a line and let me know your thoughts.