Free Speech

I have just realized that Georgian culture does not respect, or even really recognize, freedom of speech.

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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.

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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.

It’s like:
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.”

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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

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[video: Metallica – Free Speech For The Dumb]

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6 Responses to Free Speech

  1. Umbrella Pogo says:

    It’s surprising that you write an entire article about notions of free speech in Georgia without mentioning the word “Soviet” or “capitalism.”

    Georgian opinions toward speech are still based primarily around old communist notions of both speech and truth. I know Georgians probably wouldn’t agree with this, but old Soviet attitudes are basically what drive this. And, with you being an American, you’re probably left befuddled about it. You probably not comfortable accepting that free markets and American notions of individual freedoms are totally intertwined, but I believe this to be an absolute.

    I’ve discussed things like the gay rights protests with Georgian friends of mine. I’ve always asked a basic question. I’ve asked, “don’t you think that the media coverage of the protests might have a negative impact on your economy?” This question has always, always, brought back blank stares.

    I would think even the most conservative American wouldn’t approve of spectacles such as the gay rights protestors – if only for the negative impact on the economy such protests would bring. Look back at the American civil rights movement. There’s a reason why the American civil rights movement took place in settings like the kitchen counter at Woolworths – it was theatre that damaged the reputation of a business. Americans work, think and protest with capitalist ideals in the forefront of everything that they do. Georgians, not so much.

    Georgians also have virtually no media and have the lowest internet usage of any country from here to the European coast of the Atlantic. I’d have to go back and check, but I think that if Georgia were to join the EU tomorrow, it would have the lowest internet usage of any member – by far.

    This is changing, rapidly, but Georgia’s political class is stuck in a post Soviet mold.

    • misha says:

      Why exactly do you believe that American political values are absolutely bound together with capitalism? The right to free speech in the US dates to the 1780s, at which point capitalism as we know it was in its infancy. The United States was then a pre-industrial, agrarian nation, mostly populated by rural homesteaders. On the whole, it was no more capitalist than Georgia was, with its serf majority and concentrations of Armenian and Greek merchants in Tbilisi and Sukhumi. No argument that American political and economic values are intertwined, but the War of Independence predates the Wealth of Nations.

      And I see no reason to believe that the Georgian relationship with speech is a Soviet value. Can you point to some long-lost cultural attitude towards unpopular opinions that was suppressed after Lenin’s invasion? Or is it that freedom of speech simply isn’t a particularly esteemed idea in that part of world more broadly, and the Soviet Union prevented values from crossing state borders?

      • Umbrella Pogo says:

        The American War of Independence predates the Wealth of Nations by precisely one year. It’s probably safe to argue that it was more widely read in the United States than in, say, France.

        One of the defining moments of American history was the Boston Tea Party, which was essentially a protest against taxes. I don’t believe it’s appropriate to equate homesteaders with serfs.

        I think that there are numerous reasons why could argue that American political values are completely bound together with capitalism. Most of the early debates in American political life related to capitalism – Alexander Hamilton and a national bank, interstate commerce, etc.

        The debate regarding slavery, both the arguments for and against, were nearly always framed in economic terms.

        “Can you point to some long-lost cultural attitude towards unpopular opinions that was suppressed after Lenin’s invasion?”

        Many Georgians have told me tales the Bolshevik seizure of property after the Russian revolution. I’ve often heard the same stories over and over again – of gold earrings ripped out of the babies ears, of Dukes shot to death trying to defend property. I’d say that these are examples of the suppression of unpopular opinions following Lenin’s invasion – you had to hide your identity and express a phony solidarity with a messianic, cult-like movement.

  2. sarahcobham says:

    Thank you for a really interesting read. I put on an event last month at the National Library called Strong Voices Together. The intention was to build on the interest expressed by my Georgian friends to express their opinions and share with one another through different cultural genres, an emerging identity. One that turned away from old soviet values towards a more open European model. There was an eclectic and interesting mix of people there. Artists, writers, activists, traditional choirs, modern thinkers, philosophers, actors. Everyone had had a programme in Georgian and everyone had a 5 minute slot to present, in any form they wanted, their work, their responses their ideas for Georgia’s future. Everyone was brilliant at that and despite those who ;knew better’ and who kept telling me Georgians would not stick to their 5 minute slot – they all did. Set against a back drop of traditional English tea and cakes it started really well. Just under 100 people there – and a great atmosphere. What happened was interesting. As each person took the limelight and exercised their freedom of speech they were greeted with respect and dignity. Then, that person left. I noticed it immediately. They only came to be heard, not to listen. Then, about 3/4 of the way through a wonderful woman representing the LGBT community got up to speak. I would say 40 % of the people there (all Georgian) got up and left (in disgust I was told afterwards) The presentation was immaculate. It was human, it was powerful, it was not contentious (to my Western way of thinking) and it was an appeal to fellow Georgians to remember one thing and one thing only, everyone is human, has feelings and please to remember that. More people left. I have ranged between all sorts of emotions since that evening and cannot settle on one. A friend of mine said it was a great success because at the end of the evening there were about 25 people left. I totally agree. It was a success because it demonstrated so many things on many many levels. The first one, you have highlighted. I have never actually come across the Georgian way of dismissing everyone else’s opinion by side-lining it and hijacking it to create such a powerful diversion. After my event I was, and there is no other word for it, harangued by a journalist who proceeded to tell me it had been a disaster, that I had been mis informed about the gay problem and that the only reason there were ‘supposed’ gays in Georgia was because the NGO’s had made them up so that they could apply for funding. Some one, I was told, was getting very rich off the lies about homosexuality in Georgia. I was also told I did not have enough information about Georgia (despite being heavily involved in all things Georgian for the past 6 years) in one breath whilst telling me all about the problems the UK faced (and with some authority that was not to be contradicted) in the next. My head is STILL reeling from the doubleplusthink techniques that were used. I admire you that you are still there. I am surprised you have not seen this before now and I wish you luck with exposing it from within. Not surprisingly the feedback from Georgian friends about the event has not been positive. Apparently I lied and tricked them all ( could they not read the programme?) and I am a lesbian (clearly) I think it confused them when I said that using sexuality to label me was not actually an insult and it made no difference to me so… I feel at this point I want to say I am not a lesbian. But if I was in Georgia that would probably have me as a liar, a deviant, a manipulator, an abhorrent violator of nature and some one to be stoned to death or raped into submission. Failing that I could always become part of the increasing femicide statistics currently coming out of Georgia. Interestingly, all the Westerners who attended said one thing to me and that was, ‘Power to your elbow, don’t give up, it is exactly what Georgia needs’ They can need it all they like but if they don’t actually believe in freedom of speech (which I don’t think they do) then I wonder how things will ever change for the better.

    • Umbrella Pogo says:

      “After my event I was, and there is no other word for it, harangued by a journalist who proceeded to tell me it had been a disaster, that I had been mis informed about the gay problem and that the only reason there were ‘supposed’ gays in Georgia was because the NGO’s had made them up so that they could apply for funding. Some one, I was told, was getting very rich off the lies about homosexuality in Georgia.”

      Funny that you were harangued by a journalist – I doubt that no one has made more money off of the supposed conflict about homosexuality in Georgia than the tv stations.

      In general, I support the idea of journalism. Yet, the TV stations in Georgia are so utterly cartoonish and report so little actual news, that I stopped watching them. One of the tv channels virtually promoted the 2013 gay rights conflict for a month. Flashy advertisements, operatic music, and over-the-top images from late 1980s gay rights marches. Make no mistake, if anyone’s on the Kremlin’s payroll, they’re employed in the Georgian media.

  3. Thanks so much for framing the issue so well. I was only in Georgia for a semester, but I began to sense this problem before ever stepping foot there. In reading up on TLG, I came across an English article written by a Georgian man claiming that the program was horrible because Westerners who participated went home and basically slandered the name of Georgia without discretion. However, when I read the interviews he was referring to, my Western mind could not possibly interpret anything said as more than “it was really hard and Georgia has many challenges to overcome, but I’m glad I went.”

    As a matter of fact, if my memory serves me right, it was that very essay that first brought me to your blog.

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