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Breaking The Rules Thoughtfully

What Alex Jones and a group of students in Tehran have to teach us about free speech.

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By Craig Axford | United States

In her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi describes her living room as providing “a place of transgression” each Thursday morning where a select group of her female students could safely gather to discuss literature that had been banned by Iran’s Islamic regime. Not only were forbidden books and ideas on the agenda, but those in attendance could remove the veil and headscarf they were compelled to wear outside Nafisi’s small apartment, sometimes revealing jewelry or makeup in the process.

These gestures of self-expression were acts of defiance that served as reminders of the freedom and dignity the regime sought to suppress, especially among Iran’s female population. “It allowed us to defy the repressive reality outside the room — not only that but to avenge ourselves on those who controlled our lives.” Nafisi continues, “For those few precious hours we felt free to discuss our pains and our joys, our personal hang-ups, and weaknesses; for that suspended time we abdicated our responsibilities to our parents, relatives and friends, and to the Islamic Republic.”

A certain degree of defiance is necessary not only to experience true freedom but for anything like progress to occur. In societies that protect the individual’s right to expression, the kind of risks Nafisi and her students took each week over the life of their secret gatherings are difficult for people to imagine. If you’re reading this then imprisonment, torture, or even death for reading particular books or expressing your feelings and opinions probably isn’t even a remote possibility.

But stepping too far outside the collective comfort zone of any culture still comes at a price. The usually unwritten norms of a society still bring some expectation that they will be followed. Shunning, ridicule or even violence can follow in even the most tolerant of communities when individuals or groups start challenging convention too cavalierly.

While a willingness to question or even break the rules is essential to pushing ourselves and our communities forward, not all acts of transgression are created equal. Some conventions really are worth fighting for. The Dalai Lama XIV has offered potential rule breakers this bit of advice: “Learn and obey the rules very well so you will know to break them properly.”

Lashing out destructively is easy. Any two-year-old can and has done it. Lashing out constructively, on the other hand, requires a familiarity with both the problem being targeted and the limitations of the system perpetuating it. Knowing a little bit of the relevant history will also help us understand the context and better appreciate why people often cling to even the most regressive or misguided ideas and policies.

The gatherings described in Reading Lolita in Tehran were undertaken with the kind of awareness the Dalai Lama rightly states is necessary for successful rule breaking. The women were careful to reveal themselves both physically and emotionally to one another only under certain circumstances. With few exceptions, the forbidden topics that were the subject of their meetings were not discussed outside of them. It was understood that rushing into the streets waving their copies of banned books or shouting their disapproval of the regime from the rooftops would not, under the circumstances at that time, actually result in the kind of transformation they craved. The gatherings in Nafisi’s living room were both radical and pragmatic at the same time.

Sadly, freedom of expression is the sort of gift we tend to only truly appreciate when there is some great personal risk associated with it. Because many of us, particularly in Western democratic countries, have been enjoying it at a steadily declining price we have gone from making the mistake of taking it for granted to the even greater error of assuming the personal cost of free speech reflects its value. As a result, we’re now regularly treating it as cheap and disposable.

Alex Jones is an unfortunate case in point. The decision by a number of tech and social media companies to purge their platforms of Jones’ incendiary content has him claiming martyrdom and equating freedom of speech with the right to use social media platforms to express virtually any idea that might find its way into his head. While the women Nafisi writes about treated their Thursday morning get-togethers almost as sacred events to be treasured and protected at all cost, Jones has no sense of responsibility for the content of his rhetoric and demeans freedom of expression by conflating it with being heard. In Jones’ mind and that of his listeners — an audience which apparently even includes the president — the quality of the content is completely divorced from the privilege of having particular platforms from which to broadcast it.

Jones’ and other prominent contemporary figures are unquestionably rule breakers. Indeed, norms are being smashed left and right. Clicks and media ratings have, at least for the time being, replaced reasoned argument as the coin of the realm. But one is hard-pressed to find evidence that these proverbial bulls in democracy’s china shop have anything more than destruction in mind. Their place of transgression is the world as a whole rather than a living room where the larger cultural context is taken into account and the toll of breaking each rule is carefully weighed.

Fifty-five pages into her memoir Nafisi reminds us just how valuable freedom of expression really is. She does this not just by describing the act of engaging in forbidden speech, but the act of eating a forbidden meal with a man she is forbidden to be alone with without her father, brother, or husband present:

I raised my glass of water to him and said, Who would have thought that such a simple meal would appear to us like a kingly feast? and he said, We must thank the Islamic Republic for making us rediscover and even covet all these things we took for granted: one could write a paper on the pleasure of eating a ham sandwich. And I said, Oh, the things we have to be thankful for! And that memorable day was the beginning of our detailing our long list of debts to the Islamic Republic: parties, eating ice cream in public, falling in love, holding hands, wearing lipstick, laughing in public and reading Lolita in Tehran.

Alex Jones and others like him would have us divorce all our acts of expression from the consequences. In so doing they debase the currency of our democracy by placing every lie and conspiracy theory on the same playing field with meaningful debates about social policy, ethics, or the latest scientific theories.

From the most banal day-to-day activities like eating ham sandwiches or holding hands in public to the most popular public broadcasts and widely read social media posts, everything is diminished to meaninglessness in a world where taking into account civic norms and considering our responsibilities to one another bears no relation to preserving the right to freely express ourselves. As the parents of the children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre know all too well, Jones’ view of freedom of speech has very real consequences for the liberty and safety of others living in the same republic that has offered him the opportunity to speak his mind.

Rights don’t mean we needn’t bother putting any effort into identifying the proper time and place to transgress the rules. Rights and responsibilities will forever be two sides of the same coin. Jones isn’t hiding in a living room sharing his views with a handful of friends because to go any further is to risk arrest or torture. He has access to the greatest and most open communications network the world has ever seen. By ignoring the quality of his content Jones has invited individuals and companies alike to distance themselves from him to the greatest extent possible. That’s not censorship. That’s just what happens when you treat speech like garbage that can be hauled to the curb every week along with all the other trash.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him at Medium.com

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