Issue 1/2022

Free Speech


Utterly horrifying. Pretty much the only way to sum things up is with the succinct expletive that adorns the cover of this issue in a glistening neon version by Ai Weiwei. Almost nothing has remained the same since the autocratically directed Russian military machine began to overrun the sovereign state of Ukraine on 24th February. That has fundamentally shaken the avowed certainties that have characterised how people (and states) have lived together in Europe since 1989. And, perhaps an even more grave impact, there will have to be profound reconsideration of forward-looking projections about reasonably “free” and peaceful coexistence.
Even if something like a peace agreement between the two states can be achieved in the foreseeable future, it will probably take years or decades to overcome the shocking aspect of the invasion, namely that a country, or rather its ruling autocrat, could take the “liberty” of simply attacking a neighbouring country and its population. And that, irrespective of how liberal the invaded state may actually have been, the liberalism upheld by many there has been radically knocked off course. And, to put it another way, that the fundamental idea of a free, self-determined life has been profoundly shaken by a sudden violent external event.
We originally planned to address artistic freedom of expression in this issue. Events since late February however inevitably cast a different light on that topic or re-contextualise questions associated with it. What constitutes the core of a freedom usually understood as a fundamental right in every democratic constitution if it can be invalidated at any moment by an immoderate military power? What is the value of “free”, and especially artistic, expression when confronted with a rampant war machine, and what can it actually undertake to counter that belligerence? The answers to these questions are inevitably bleak and, despite everything, call for critical reflection on the complicated positioning and the freedom of expression of each individual that is never an a priori given. The construct of guarantees that often goes unnoticed yet frames talk of civil liberties should also be taken into account in any such reflection.
Several articles in this issue demonstrate that freedom of expression was under some pressure in a number of countries even before the war. Herwig G. Höller talked to Russian art activist Darya Apakhonchich about a provision that came into force in Russia in late 2020, stipulating that artists can be convicted as “foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent”. A dark, largely unremarked harbinger of what was to come. Ewa Majewska uses the example of the “hate speech” that is currently permeating many areas to shed light on similar processes now underway in EU Member State Poland. The altered state of play for artistic freedom in Cuba, again as a consequence of legal provisions, introduced in this case in 2018, is explored in a selection of works by artists who have since faced severe repressive measures or been forced into exile. Claire Bishop draws on three striking examples from the recent past to show that interventionist art always addresses varying degrees of freedom too, as a function of the context.
After all, even the “free West” is by no means immune to – purportedly increasingly rigid – regulation of discourse. Since the spectres of cancel culture, wokeness and identity politics have been conjured up, usually somewhat diffusely, “freedom of speech” also feels increasingly threatened. At least, that is what the guardians of unfettered freedom to proclaim one’s opinion, often from very illiberal backgrounds, would have us believe. However, the question of which dividing lines actually run through the broad terrain of public (as well as private) discourse is a completely different matter. You even find yourself wondering if the field of free (artistic) expression has not always been a highly antagonistic, wildly fissured terrain. Many historical examples point in this direction.
In her essay, Ana Teixeira Pinto draws an important distinction, culminating in the question of who exactly usually claims which kind of freedom for themselves, and the extent to which such claims are mostly at the expense of others. The price of this – ethnically conceived – freedom is explored by Ibram X. Kendi, who attributes the campaign against critical race theory that has flared up in the USA to the still massive influence of White supremacism. Finally, Süreyyya Evren plays a kind of advocatus diaboli concerning possibilities for freedom of speech and speculation by attempting to approach the grey areas and border zones of what is ethically acceptable using literary fictions. Ultimately, the overarching problem that arises in this context is whether it makes sense at all to demand agreement on what may and may not be said about whom? Shouldn’t we instead take into account the multiple, often radically divergent backgrounds of speech? After all, it makes a crucial difference from wherei and by whom exactly something is demanded or, as occasionally happens, something is to be prevented. The essays in this issue attempt to reveal these often tacitly assumed coordinates of “freedom of speech”. The aim is inter alia to enable discussion on the prerequisites for discourse that afford scope for clashing views while remaining respectful and solidarity-based – offering room for discussion rather than violent occupation or even elimination.
The horrified outrage that currently prevails in view of the war and all its ramifications across Eastern Europe may sooner or later grow less intense. The urgent need for critical examination of the freedoms affected by these events will however persist.