What Does It Mean to Speak Freely?

It’s been a hard week, in terms of thinking clearly and speaking freely–hard in that I’ve had to wrestle with a lot that is not immediately apparent for me which is generally unusual.  Don’t get me wrong, I think deeply about issues of free speech and free expression (and violence, actually) all the time, but usually my position is pretty clear from the start.  This week has been different because of the shooting in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters which at this point has resulted in the deaths of 12 initial victims and the 2 gunman allegedly responsible for the attacks.

As I’m sure many who are reading this blog already know, Charlie Hebdo is a satirical paper/ magazine that for years has faced criticism for their brand of irreverent satire that truly holds nothing sacred.  The entire editorial staff was gathered for a weekly meeting when two gunman burst in and began shooting, targeting the chief editor and several prominent cartoonists and staff members.  Additionally, two police officers were killed, including Officer Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim officer who died defending the adopted country and the intellectual freedom that at many times scorned or mocked his own faith.

I’ve come to clarity around several things: 1) I never believe that violence is the appropriate response to oppression (I know this may seem idealistic, but I stand behind this stance–it’s fundamental to who I am) and 2) I believe it’s important to protect the rights of artists and journalists, even those with whom I don’t agree (I really appreciated Krista Tippett’s perspectives on the shooting and the prospective implications and probably couldn’t have said this better myself).  But even after a lot of reading, and several in-person and on-line discussions with people I really respect, I am still struggling with what it means to speak freely which has led me to this point:  3) There’s a huge responsibility that we take when we publicize our words, beliefs and images and there are implication to those words, beliefs and images that we don’t control.

(As an academic, this also reminds me of the publicity surrounding the dismissal of Professor Steven Salaita for comments made in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on twitter.  While some feel that Salaita was responsible for his own undoing with his words, many others feel that the use of his comments, taken out of context and cherry-picked, as grounds for his dismissal prior to even assuming his new professorship were a huge set-back to academic freedom.  The New York Times and Salaita himself discuss the devastating impact of the University of Illinois which, while not deadly, were clearly destructive.)

So, with this responsibility and the unforeseeable consequences, particularly for those of us that, in many ways, live by the pen, what do we do? As an individual, I can pledge to live by compassion, practice non-violence, and engage in conversations that move our world forward, but as a scholar, as someone whose words are developing weight, I am struggling to know my truth in order to speak it.  I am struggling, in a situation where there are many clear victims and some that are more obscure, to know where to stand and how to advocate.  I am struggling, alone and with others, through the complexity that is our global society, to find what it is I have to say.

But, maybe if we engaged more in this type of struggle before we spoke, it would allow us to speak more freely.

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