I have just realized that Georgian culture does not respect, or even really recognize, freedom of speech.
One might ask why it took me four years to notice this. It’s because freedom of speech is so deeply ingrained in my culture that I actually have trouble processing a line of reasoning that does not assume freedom of speech is the default.
Americans recognize limits on freedom of speech. The canonical example is that you do not have the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre: this may incite a panic and result in injury. Other examples of the limits of free speech include perjury (lying under oath), slander (lying in a way that damages a person’s reputation), divulging classified information, and conspiring or inciting someone to commit a crime.
We recognize these limitations as exceptions which prove the rule: each exception implies that other forms of speech are assumed to be acceptable. This collection of exceptions implies that freedom to say what you want is the default, and anyone who wants to limit this freedom must produce arguments and evidence showing that the speech in question is both wrong, and likely to cause harm or damage to individuals.
We are so keen to protect freedom of speech that we accuse private entities of censorship any time they act to limit speech in their own media. If I delete certain comments on this blog I am accused of censorship. If a company penalizes someone for saying something (like when A&E suspended the Duck Dynasty guy for ranting about the gays) they are accused of censorship. In other words, we are so attached to freedom of speech that many people favor expanding the concept from the public into the private sphere.
This morning I read a quotation from the Georgian foreign minister regarding comments from the Swedish foreign minister criticizing the new government for using the courts to get revenge on Saakashvili and his party. Here’s one translation of the quotation:
On the one hand, there is a presumption of innocence. Everyone calls on us for this and we fully agree that it should always be protected, but, on the other hand, certain processes cannot be given any classification. Mr. Bildt has given classification to the trial that is not over yet and nobody knows what the final point will be. He called the trial politically motivated. In my opinion, this is wrong because this is some sort of pressure on the court and on the whole trial.
So, in other words, on the one hand, there is a presumption of innocence and the trial may be politically motivated – but on the other hand, it is wrong to point these things out because it may influence the outcome of the trial. It might be wrong to put Misha on trial, but it is equally wrong to criticize putting Misha on trial, and since you are as wrong as I am, I get to ignore whatever you say.
I don’t want to get into the weeds of the political element of the trial – I am of two minds about the whole thing – but this is notable because it is a style of argumentation that I have only encountered in Georgia. Instead of engaging with the substance of a criticism, many Georgians prefer to find some reason why making the criticism was inappropriate and then act as if that reason relieves them of the burden of having to refute the central argument of the critique.
Swedish FM: “Hey, you shouldn’t be doing this thing.”
Georgian FM: “Oh? Maybe you’re right. However, you spoke out of turn, so therefore I am going to ignore what you said and do this thing anyway without even considering your argument.”
The crux of the matter is that the ability to countenance, let alone make, this kind of argument must rest on a foundation in which the right to speak is contoured very differently than it is in America. It is mediated by the speaker’s social, political, and moral standing as well as the context of the situation in which the speech occurs.
Consider my favorite open letter, addressed in a previous post. As I said, the substance of the argument is that free speech is not allowed in certain places and times or by certain people or in support of certain ideas. At the time I wrote that post, I thought that this argument was so patently ridiculous that no thinking person could take it seriously. Now, I’m not so sure.
The signatories work almost entirely in the social sphere – artists, politicians, homemakers, civil servants – and not a scientist or mathematician or engineer among them. These are people who eat, sleep, and breathe the social context. To them, an argument like “you shouldn’t hold a rally that puts gay people near a school” holds water. I’ll add to that “you shouldn’t hold a rally that puts gay people near a school, or near a church, or near a place where Georgian heroes died, or on a date around when Georgian heroes died…” The list goes on and on, because the freedom to demonstrate in public – part and parcel with freedom of speech more generally – is only available to those who demonstrate in favor of the prevailing social opinion. In Georgia, you have the freedom to choose between conforming or staying home.
Of course, I recognize a difference between criticizing someone for saying something, and actually censoring them. In the case of the Swedish FM, he was criticized and his freedom of speech was never actually impinged – instead, his inappropriate exercise of free speech was used as an excuse to dismiss his point. In the case of the May 17th demonstrators, their freedom of speech actually was taken away by way of a campaign of threatened and actual physical violence.
I have heard a lot of Georgians say that they believe that gays have the right to *be* gay, and even have the right to engage in gay behavior – in private. However, many Georgians very sincerely believe that no one has the right to speak in favor of gay people, gay behavior, or gay rights.
It’s also not just about gays, of course. Consider the law proposed to Parliament that would prohibit speech that was offensive to “the faithful.” I’ve been told a number of times, by a number of Georgians, that I “can’t” or “don’t have the right to” say the things that I say about various aspects of Georgian society, most of the time when they related in some way to modern Georgian religion or traditional Georgian sexism.
Georgians have been telling me for years that they do not value the freedom of speech – I was just too incredulous to believe they were serious.
In closing, I’d like to encourage any readers who are interested in the merits of free speech to read what John Stuart Mill said on the matter. It is a good read, a deservedly classic and revered work on the subject, and is as concise, compelling, and influential an argument for freedom of speech as any you’ll find. Plus it’s in the public domain, so you can read it for free:
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” – John Stuart Mill