Fauzia Rafique: This 'free speech'? No thanks!

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      by Fauzia Rafique

      An open letter signed by 150 intellectuals and activists that was published July 7, served as a jolt to this morning’s peaceful tea ritual. It is a short container of many huge triggers that left me wondering as to where do these people live—the people who drafted, signed and published this letter—because by the end of it, it sounded even more ridiculous than ‘make america great again’ (maga) as it laments the loss of things/situations that did not even exist.

      Without naming the #BLM movement, and I believe, the #MeToo, it says that this ‘needed reckoning’ has also ‘intensified’ conditions that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences and constrict the free exchange of information and ideas. Then, the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters is self-righteously upheld.

      Forgive me if I repeat some of it: our norms of open debate and tolerance of difference? Where have they existed in this society? The sacred cow of free speech, justice, and open debate that is supposed to be threatened by the current mass movements for equality rights never existed in this society, never for the majority of its people. While, it for sure has existed for the ruling elites, the people who hold power and sway in different areas of this social system. Or is it that the signatories believe that the phrase ‘I Can’t Breathe’, and the incident associated with it, was an example of ‘open debate’ and ‘tolerance of difference’ or if it was ‘justice’, because that’s what previously existed and that’s what still exists here.

      This letter seems to be written, published, and signed in a vacuum where no colonization of this land took place, there is no history or impact of slavery on this society, no usurpation or genocide of Indigenous people occurred; where the system is not based on racial profiling or gender and other prejudices; Komagata Maru did not happen, Chinese head tax wasn’t extracted, Japanese internment did not take place. People of colour don’t face prejudice, and White Privilege does not exist.

      It was all good till #MeToo and #BLM movements began. Denial that a highly exploitative system governs the world that does not allow any democratic rights to a large majority of people. The refusal to acknowledge that they themselves may be fully invested in perpetuating this repressive system.

      There’s so much ‘holier than thou’, it may beat even the writings of regular mullahs in citing empty slogans and self-aggrandizing statements. ‘As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.’ ‘We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom.’ ‘The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.’ ‘The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.’

      And, you know who they are defending?

      Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.’ Most of them are traditional power holders in their fields who are now being threatened with reprisal for what they have been doing for years against vulnerable people in their respective areas of influence (‘just clumsy mistakes’) in order to protect this system. Now they are faced with this inconvenience to be responsible for their views and actions with ‘a vogue for public shaming and ostracism’ and where it has now become ‘all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought’.

      Amazing, that most of these people who are opinion leaders, celebs, and groundbreakers to the left of at least Donald Trump, choose to support the status quo. They are literally supporting White Privilege, male domination, and impunity based on class/position. But what a spoilt-child syndrome. They want to continue to enjoy the privilege of exploiting others without being accountable for their ideas and actions that were historically used against those ‘others’ in this racist/sexist/intolerant system. ‘As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.’ And, ‘We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.’

      But listen to this: ‘If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.’

      Yes. The ‘very thing’ on which their ‘work depends’ is this system of privileges guaranteed for a few at the expense of the rest, and this is what they must defend to keep their own personal positions.

      I certainly cannot support any part of this open letter.

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