photo by Ben Williams of Books Live SA
Words have great power. In an explosive and polarized world debates, especially the one around freedom of expression, are too often framed as the West versus the Rest. This is unhelpful, to say the least. Censorship is the lived experience of so many people in the world – from Russia, to China, to the Middle East, to many African countries, and less obviously, because of the post 9/11 Patriot Act, in the United States.
The answer might be a period of silence – but an engaged silence in which one can listen long enough to understand what people across religious or geographical divides are saying. It might help us understand what people right next to us are saying.
South Africa’s miracle, embodied in the person of Nelson Mandela, was one of listening. A range of diametrically opposed views were freely expressed, but the conversational space was held open long enough, with enough willingness to deal with complexity and conflict, to enable a peaceful transition to democracy. The complexity and the conflict are still with us; most apparent in the explosive racial and economic divides bequeathed us by a long and violent history.
The right to freedom of expression is only one half of the deal. The other half is the obligation, the responsibility that a person who speaks freely, to listen. Training oneself to hear is an art, as much as it is the foundation of a society based on reciprocity and mutual respect. Listening – and really hearing – is not easy. Sometimes it requires that we make ourselves understand the language of protest, anger and violence.