What exactly is under attack when freedom of speech is under attack? At first glance this appears to be a simple, even trivial, question, one so strongly rooted in common sense and so self-evident that even children could answer it. Indeed they could. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Georg W. F. Hegel wrote: "... in the case of various kinds of knowledge, we find that what in former days occupied the energies of men of mature mental ability sinks to the level of information, exercises, and even pastimes, for children...". Freedom of speech does appear to be such a pastime.
This very appearance is however, highly misleading and a sign that we are already deep in the realm of ideology. Not that we could ever be outside it, as Louis Althusser would add. When a certain social norm achieves the status of an axiom, even a dogma, it becomes clear that it is itself one of the bedrocks of an ideology that makes the norm a matter of common sense. Something so strongly embedded in general consciousness becomes a matter of children's wonder. Only children can afford to question such truths, until they become self-evident for them as well, until ideology and its apparatuses have done their job. What better ideological defence is there than posing a fundamental problem as a non-problem par excellence, it is an art of hiding in plain sight. Freedom of speech is such a problem, worth unravelling.
The massacre of Charlie Hebdo editorial staff is an event that offers an entry point in our effort to grasp the deeper historical rootedness and ideological substance of so-called "freedom of speech". A rare sight of political unity followed the attack, a march that "united" Angela Merkel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas, François Hollande and dozens of other high-ranking politicians. If anything they reinforced the belief that freedom of speech is so inherent in the system that it transcends unbreachable political differences. Less than a year after a horrendous siege of Gaza, both Netanyahu and Abbas took it as their duty to participate in the march and condemn the attacks. It was a telling political manifestation that showed just how unipolar the world we are living in is. The very same streets that saw the protests of May 1968 have now witnessed the unforeseen political unity and universal devotion to the freedom of speech... or so it seemed.
Under the surface however, a more sinister face of this "political unity" reveals itself. How something is represented and the issue of representation as such is at the very heart of the matter. Historically freedom of speech and other bourgeois rights, i.e. freedom of press in general, freedom of religious conviction, freedom of gathering etc., are all inextricably tied to the issue of social visibility. A new vision of society was built through the struggle for the universal rights of everyone and the dismantlement of divine rights of any one person. An abstract vision turned towards the future, as well as a concrete vision turned towards the present. How society was visualised and represented as such began to change dramatically as the transformation from feudalism to capitalism was taking place. Eventually it became possible for many different voices to get their social representation and visibility. The social body grew new mouths through which new and competing perspectives began to emerge. Polyphony took over where monotone once prevailed. One can hardly imagine the wheel of history turning back and shutting these newly emerged mouths, especially when the ruling elites so energetically protest on their behalf and for their right to be represented (as was the case for Charlie Hebdo).
Again, with closer inspection, this polyphony appears to have a very monotonous core, the common denominator of all the different voices appears to be very similar. Despite many voices speaking, only a few are actually heard and have a decent representation. Where there was once silence imposed by very visible and well-represented authorities, such as the monarch in the time of feudalism, a cacophony of a multitude of voices now prevails. This cacophony still performs a very similar function as the modern sovereign, i.e. prime minister, president etc. It is just background noise, like the sound of television or radio that we don't actually listen to and doesn't affect us, but we can claim is always there. The ruling voices thus still enjoy an immensely predominant representation, while still being able to claim that the cacophony of different kinds of noises that form its vocal background never stops. The efficiency of such rule is perhaps even greater than it would have been if contemporary forms of power only resorted to traditional means of coercion and subjugation. Not that there is any lack of these.
Past years have shown that despite fundamental changes in the structure and technology of power, when push comes to shove even governments that proclaim themselves to be proponents of liberal democracy don't hesitate to employ more traditional means of coercion. At least three such notable cases are well-known and documented, the cases of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. All three have called upon themselves the wrath of the most powerful democracy of all, the United States of America, after revealing disturbing confidential information that revealed how free the contemporary freedom actually is. Especially the case of Snowden and the unimaginable almost sci-fi surveillance performed by the N.S.A. (National Security Agency), revealed that governmental control, especially one performed by the most "advanced and powerful democracies" in the world, creates entirely new and much more disturbing patterns of control and representation among government and its citizens.
From the perspective of everyday life, especially as represented by mass media and the media industry, the above-mentioned cacophony of voices can be grasped and articulated. Though citizen journalism, alternative and crowd founded media do exist, they permanently face hardships such as lack of funding, lack of professional infrastructure etc. Many of these can be breached with the ingenuity, devotion and pioneering spirit of their creators, but they obviously have their limits. No alternative media production can compete with the mainstream giants such as CNN, Fox, BBC, Reuters and others. Their voice is substantially more powerful, not just due to professional infrastructure and framework, but especially because they are able to determine what is and what is not worth reporting about. One striking example was during the case of Charlie Hebdo. While justifiably condemning it, mass media almost completely ignored, and in any case did not devote any way near similar attention to, the slaughter by Boko Haram of some 2000 people in northern Nigeria that occurred at the same time as the Paris attacks. Such horrific discrepancies happen daily and are, at the end of the day, conscious editorial decisions, especially because they form a consistent pattern that repeats itself over and over again. In turn, these editorial decisions are conditioned by the socio-economic interests of the ruling elites, both those with political as well as those with financial power. From their perspective, this pattern in fact shows some "rationality". Of course, these elites have no interest in giving critical and alternative voices the hearing they deserve and of course their vital interests are much more endangered by the death of twelve in Paris than the death of 2000 in Nigeria.
Netanyahu and Abbas jointly marching for "freedom of speech" thus actually marched for the freedom of the existing system to reproduce itself, for its vital interests to be safeguarded. Another perspective from which to grasp the cacophony of the many voices and their representation are the practices of the American N.S.A. The common argument against being too worried about state surveillance was that nobody would actually take interest in our boring lives and that one has nothing to fear if he or she does not do anything illegal. With Snowden's actions, such conceptions have lost their ground. There is no single mind or a decision-making body that separates interesting and potentially illegal activities from the harmless everyday life of average citizens. At least in this regard, the U.S. government is absolutely indiscriminatory – each and everyone is surveyed. Simply because each and everyone can be, the technology for such unimaginable data gathering exists and is intensely used. The information' is then stored and can be extracted at will, more so, these digital voices and footprints don't need to be just a cacophony of millions and millions of voices, the governmental agencies can make very good sense of them. Their power to use meta-data and synthesis to form a very clear representation of a certain voice is breathtaking.
The well-known American slogan during the independence movement against the colonial yoke of the United Kingdom was: "No taxation without representation". As such it can embody the whole bourgeois emancipatory project and a critique of feudal reign that eventually had to give way to a new production system, i.e. capitalism. Turning the slogan around, "No representation without taxation", illustrates the contemporary, bourgeois forms of subjugation and censorship. One can speak, but whether one will be heard and actually represented remains a matter of accepting the specific bourgeois taxes that are in stark contrast with their declared goals and ideals. Mass media are "taxed" and impregnated by capitalist ideology and are, like other industries, internally structured as a factory. There is always an owner that wields immense power over the whole production process (the most striking example being Rupert Murdoch and his global media empire) and there are ordinary workers who have nothing to sell but their labour power, i.e. articles, reports, analyses etc.
Bourgeois freedom of speech is like Franz Kafka's parable "Before the law". Man waits in front of the door to gain entry to the law, but the doorkeeper keeps telling him that he cannot enter just yet. Waiting for weeks, months and years he eventually waits so long that he is about to die. Asking the doorkeeper why no one else wanted to enter, the doorkeeper answers: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it". This embodies the tragedy of contemporary forms of wider media representation, of the content that would produce something new, instead of just reproducing the old. It is as if we are all condemned to permanently wait in front of the doors of representation only to have them closed and access denied. Perhaps these doors can be broken and torn down as was the case in the series of upheavals known under the name of Arab Spring, in the ongoing protests against austerity measures in European Union, or in the case of the massive Turkish protests? None of these has actually brought about the fundamental change people were and still are aspiring for, if anything they have shown that old power structures are much more resilient than one would imagine. Perhaps even more importantly they showed the immense power people yield when they gather and struggle for a common cause.
Social networks proved an effective means of mass communication and mobilization. The real challenge is how to channel and articulate this discontent and anger further, how to make the social body self-conscious and build such forms of self-representation and self-understanding that will breach the everyday consensus and representations as reproduced and imposed by mass media. One thing is certain; only people themselves will be able to produce people's media.
#BIBLIOGRAPHY Althusser, L. 2008, On Ideology, trans. B. Brewster, Verso (Radical Thinkers), New York.
Hegel, G.W.F. 1977, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, originally published in 1807.
Kafka, F. 1915, Before The Law, Kurt Wolff Publishers, Leipzig.