When silence reaches its peak and oppression clinches its grasp, a wave of irrefutable destruction is left in its wake. The sound of speech is the last-ditch effort to draw attention to the attempted eradication of one's fundamental right: the freedom to create and spark dialogue.

The severe political instability, war and advance of humanitarian crises across the globe is worsening the state of civil liberties and artistic freedom. Due to the pandemic, activists and free speech advocates raise concerns about the aggravated dismissal of free speech and the constant hits on culture.

According to one study done by Civicus Monitor, 87 % of the world’s population is now living in “closed”, “repressed” and “obstructed” countries, where detention of protesters, attacks on journalists and artists, and censorship has grown exponentially.

I raise the question, where do artists and thinkers fit in a country where expression of ideologies can become a death sentence?

Prof Sandel presented a special edition of the programme, recorded in the Palace of Westminster with an audience of MPs, peers and the public. Image courtesy of BBC.

Individual and civil rights are attacked every single day across the world, affecting the potential of both individuals and societies. When governments and institutions constrict speech or artistic creation, taking away the ability to create, imagine or distribute various cultural expressions free of any political interference, government censorship and the pressure of non-state parties, it leaves countries exposed to an amalgam of other issues.

“The rights of artists to express themselves freely are under threat worldwide.” Deeyah Khan, the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Artistic Freedom and Creativity states.

“Art has the extraordinary capacity to express resistance and rebellion, protest, and hope. It injects a vital contribution to any flourishing democracy”.

We can debate the importance of freedom of expression, and although the principle of the question prevails in the possibility of an actual debate, the focus remains on the strength of a democracy. Even the symbolic act of expressing political dissatisfaction, like flag burning, should not be politically constrained — it falls under the question of morality, a concept that people should be freely able to discuss.

These are all questions that Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel examines in the podcast by BBC Radio 4, “The Public Philosopher”, where the public discourse of ideas roams free. During each one-hour episode, various pressing topics are debated, allowing listeners to create a line of thought about current worldwide controversies. What makes this podcast different is the fact that the dialogue is held by diverse individuals across the globe, giving us the immeasurable concept of free expression and an unbiased opinion on whatever topic is being discussed.

The formal podcast set at Harvard studios . Image courtesy of BBC.

"I think citizens in democracies around the world are frustrated with the terms of public discourse and with the way democratic governance is functioning," Sandel states. "And this has partly to do with the grip of an overly narrow conception of what freedom really means."

During the episode “Should there be any limits to free speech?”, sixty people from around the world debate the case of free speech and its fundamental importance for democracy. A combination of arguments was laid out regarding individual rights to raise concerns on political views, stretching the premise that free and uncensored speech is the cornerstone of democracy. However, should legal restrictions be placed on free speech or artistic freedom?

Here, the public views reached a critical state. Art and some forms of free speech can actually be considered deeply offensive, critiquing religious beliefs, personal opinions and cultures, jeopardizing the well-being of vulnerable individuals or groups. Therefore, there seems to be some ground for an argument.

Yet, in the middle of this logic, I find a simple and ultra-simplified answer. The job of civil dialogue is to undertake an active role by identifying and collaboratively addressing public problems, which represents the fundamental cornerstone of democracy. As such, governments and institutions have no legal rights to censor their citizens or any of their creations.

Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard University . Image courtesy of Harvard University.

The philosophical practice of Sandal identifies the fallacy that most countries let themself fall under — democracy utterly fails if it censors critical thinking. This ardent pursuit of the Socratic method aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Quality Education and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

“Creating a culture of civil dialogue isn’t easy. We need to learn the art of democratic discourse. It doesn’t just happen; it is an educational project. What we need is a kind of civic education that includes not only knowledge and interest in public affairs but also the ability to engage in reasoned argument and debate about public questions and the common good,” says Sandal.

Engaging in a free exchange of ideas and stimulating critical thinking is an important tool to hone as drawing out ideas and underlying presuppositions is a privilege we all should fight to protect, lest it be eradicated.

Listen to The Public Philosopher here.

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