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The people vs free speech

  • Published at 11:38 am September 13th, 2018
Who gets to define these? BIGSTOCK

When rights are erased, what happens to progress? 

In order for a society to progress, there are some fundamental tenets which are in place -- or ought to be in place -- for people to maneuver around. We often refer to them as “rights.”

Of these rights -- the right to assembly, democracy, freedom of thought, etc -- there is one that has been at the centre of global debate for quite some time: The right to speak freely.

In the West, the struggle has centered around issues of political correctness, where oftentimes the line is blurred between what is offensive to someone and what is ok to say or ask. Matters become confusing when published writers argue that African-Americans genetically have lower levels of IQ than other races, and that is the root cause of their poverty. Is this view reprehensible, or should those sentiments which are hurt by it be forgone for the sake of public discourse and the right to free speech?

On this side of the world, however, the right to speech has been under a different sort of attack. 

Whether it is by the seemingly state-sanctioned violence against journalists, or the apparent online hounding of anyone who chooses to report incidents of crises, or arresting those who have publicly provided reports and commentary of such crises, many otherwise vocal citizens in our country have been made, directly or indirectly, to put their opinions on pause. 

These instances paint a bigger picture of the disappearing space for dissent, and pose the question of whether we are also losing our right to free speech with it.

If public discourse exists to help us reach an understanding when faced with challenging ideas and ideologies, what does a lack of space to safely carry out such conversations imply?

More so, ours is a nation which had its seeds planted on the grounds of having a language being recognized by the state. The incongruity is further baffling when we’re confronted with an administration whose basis of legitimacy is built on the war that was fought to free a people from a repressive regime, establishing democracy in the process.

The West’s case is fascinating in the sense that public discourse between liberals and conservatives has started to resemble almost a clannish fight, as seen by the vehement backlash to the invitation of the aforementioned author to a university campus. Backlash such as this is incongruous with the integrity of the debate itself -- a debate that needs to be one to understand the positions that challenge our worldviews and go against our beliefs.

So is there anything that we, in Bangladesh, can understand from the discourse that takes shape in the bludgeoning of free speech?

That those who want to share their perspectives on matters of the state or on the state have to be silent and censor themselves -- even in the age of unhindered proliferation of social media networks -- shows us that there’s one party whose fundamental right is being impeded by the interest of the powers that be.

And while the West is learning how to be self-conscious when it comes to conversations about differences, in Bangladesh, the people who want to peacefully protest get trampled on by those not-so-peaceful, and those who hold their tongues in fear of losing them altogether, we understand that the silencing of opinions -- and thus, freedom of speech itself -- is only conditional to those who go against the designs of the state. 

But if rights, placed for both the sustainability as well as growth of civilizations, are quietly erased from nations, what happens to progress?

Luba Khalili is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune.

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