One of the hardest aspects of being human is having the courage to express ourselves for who we are and what we believe, while remembering the consequences of what we say or do. Keeping the balance between being ourselves with freedom of expression and doing no harm is important; it is about liberty, awareness and wisdom.
2021, just a few days old, is presenting hard reminders about our choices and values already. In the UK and many other countries which are struggling to control COVID there is a conspicuous tension between the people who insist upon their freedom to live their lives as they choose regardless of the consequences, and those others who agree to compromise their freedom temporarily in order “to save lives” including their own. Even those who say they are adhering to the regulations but who do it in their own more flexible way are prioritising their freedom of action and expression over the repercussions for others. In saying this, I make no judgment about what is right or wrong, but hope whatever choice is made is done with conscious awareness and good intent.
Freedom of expression has, briefly, been visible in the United States this week in the invasion of the Capitol by men and women who, over and above the anarchists who joined in, mistrust the machinery of established government and who see President Trump as their political and moral saviour. It appears as if they were driven by a combination of mob hysteria, the desire to be heard, a refusal to accept a different truth and a fear for the future. They did not consider the consequences of violent action that went too far, as a result of which their ability to express themselves freely will be much curtailed in time to come. They were unwise and they did harm to themselves, their cause, and the reputation of America.
Freedom of expression is being denied to Donald Trump too, their leader, as the desire for punishment and control of a politically much-disliked president is being demonstrated in barring him from social media and in demands for his impeachment or other means to deny him office now or in the future. His conduct and behaviour as a world leader has been divisive as well as short-sighted, shocking and often unacceptable, even perhaps illegal, but those who are trying to silence him may in their own way be encouraging future division and social turmoil. His many supporters will be further angered and he will not go quietly: it would be easy to make him a martyr-figure which could inflame an already sensitive situation.
It is concerning that blanket censorship of Donald Trump or anyone else seems now to be acceptable as the right to speak and be heard is decided by the heads of Twitter and Amazon – not perhaps themselves unbiased nor disinterested – and I am reminded of China’s easy suppression of opinion it does not like. The right to speak one’s truth (within the bounds of acceptability, courtesy and legality) should be treated with respect, to ensure banning measures are used with caution and appropriately. Restrictions should be fair, applicable to everyone who breaches the rules not just to those who are chosen selectively as happens now.
The divisions in America have been starkly defined, and the events and repercussions of this week will take a long time to heal. The actions on all sides may prove in time to be more regrettable than they seem now at simple face value, but they may also be a catalyst for great and necessary change. The social media giants may find themselves disempowered by law and by the public; an approach of tolerance and fairness may replace division and confrontation; and there may be a redefining of democracy. There is food for thought for all of us in what has occurred.
As we watch and ponder, the signs are here of a new year of uncertainty and more turmoil, but also of great opportunity. Let us learn from the past and move on, striving ever harder to be ourselves, to be our best and always for the greatest good.