Free Speech in a Connected World

In a recent sit-down with Index on Censorship, Timothy Garton Ash, author and professor of European Studies at Oxford University, talked about his new book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World and the increasing need for freedom of expression in a world that is shrinking day-by-day due to technological advancements.

Garton Ash has dedicated much of his writing career to discussing issues of free speech in societies around the world. From founding the Free Speech Debate Project, which explores “free expression in an interconnected world,” to his newest book, Garton Ash looks closely at how social and political changes in the last 30 years have informed and transformed people’s perceptions of this fundamental freedom. “The future of free speech is a decisive question for how we live together in a mixed up world where conventionally — because of mass migration and the internet — we are all becoming neighbors,” Garton Ash told Index on Censorship.

Building upon many recent free speech issues, such as the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, student pleas for trigger warnings on college campuses, and even the increase in self-censorship due to fear of violent retaliation, Garton Ash constructs ten principles that explain “why we need more and better free speech” and maps out how that “better free speech” can be obtained.

Whether it be not enacting or succumbing to threats of violence when a party exercises their right to free speech, respecting individuals despite the fact that the “content of their belief” might be contrary to your own opinion, or simply abandoning the concept of the “taboo” and replacing it with the intent to expand knowledge, Garton Ash’s goal is to stress the importance of conversation between different groups of people in a time when exchange of information has become so simple. As Garton Ash notes:

What we can’t do and shouldn’t do is what the West tended to do in the 1990s, and say ‘hey world, we’ve worked it out — we have all the answers’ and simply get out the kit of liberal democracy and free speech like something from Ikea. If you go in there just preaching and lecturing, immediately the barriers go up and out comes postcolonial resistance.

For Garton Ash, the free speech of the new world is inclusive and productive. The shape that it takes is more conversational and accepting rather than limiting and based on quickly eroding social and cultural boundaries. “What we can do — and I try to do in the book,” argues Garton Ash, “is to move forward a conversation about how it should be, and having looked at their own traditions, you will find people are quite keen to have the conversation because they’re trying to work it out themselves.”

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!