Last week the American Academic, Dr. Emily O’Dell, took a seminar outside of the U.S in search of a environment where she could exercise freedom. After the event, the professor and her colleagues posted a picture with the caption, “So grateful to have the academic freedom of speech in #Algeria to discuss topics which at Yale are verboten (Unless you want to be harassed & physically intimidated, look out!) – – thank you, Algeria, for letting us speak out against war, imperialism, capitalism & racism! Fight on!” The suggestion was that freedom of speech is respected in Algeria than it is in the United States. A Twitter exchange between two academics ensued as follows:
Dr. Golooba-Mutebi: Life and its surprises! So Algeria is a free space for discussing topics which are “verboten” (forbidden) at Yale University (US). No freedom of speech in “the land of the free”??
Dr. O’Dell: Was told cannot do research on Malcolm X, cannot speak out against America’s endless wars, and on and on goes the list of topics not allowed at Yale.
Dr. Golooba: Yet we in Africa think freedom of speech in the US is limitless. And don’t we like using it as an example of what we should be like!
Dr. O’Dell: True.
Dr. Golooba: No end to US hypocrisy…
This discussion affirms that freedom is not limitless anywhere. Secondly, it underscores that much as freedom of speech and conscience are inherent, the extent to which they are applied remains under the control of social forces. If it’s not the legal system that establishes the acceptable threshold beyond which an offender transgresses protected freedom, it is social norms that set boundaries.
Certainly, Dr. O’dell and her colleagues would be breaking no laws by discussing or teaching America’s wars or Malcolm X. However, there’s clearly a value system that has determined such action to be taboo and to place social stigma on anyone exercising speech along those lines. It is considered overstepping the boundaries of acceptable speech. In both the legal and social perspectives, “free speech” isn’t as free as advertised, as Dr. O’dell quickly discovered.
The legal boundaries for “free speech” are in the American constitution. However, the social boundaries are not written anywhere. They are found in the dominant culture, formulated and codified by the American education system, which implicitly establishes a set of common values – a consensus – that people who go through it are expected to subscribe to before they return to society to make meaningful contribution, within those confines and through reciprocal relations.
Any deviation from that consensus invites – legal or social – punitive measures. This is in line with the overarching purpose of education anywhere: to nurture human beings who conform. People conform to laws because they don’t want to go to jail and get stigmatized as outlaws. They also conform to social norms because they don’t want to be stigmatized and turned into outcasts.
So, these legal and social parameters are generally internalized, including those to do with acceptable speech – “free speech.” This internalization means that during speech the mind understands that it is involved in self-governance and, in fact, that it is circumscribed – whether the practitioner of free speech is conscious of this or not. In other words, speech is free but everywhere in chains.
As noted above, the idea of society and its prerequisite for order conditions people into reciprocal relations in general and around freedom of speech in particular. Their conscious may be free within them but how it is exercised is subject to this control and subjecting oneself to this control is to enjoy the freedom responsibly. The freedom of speech and weight of responsibility enables the reciprocal relations between individuals and society: the individual is allowed to be him or herself only to the extent that this liberty does not interfere with another who has chosen to enjoys theirs differently.
By the education system nurturing these value systems and the educated internalizing them, the contours of acceptable speech get institutionalized. Indeed, it is the function of the education system to create a baseline of knowledge for acceptable speech or any other freedoms for that matter. Indeed, anyone who has passed through such a system (graduation) is expected to be in command of that baseline, an instrument for manoeuvring the terrain of free speech with ease.
Significantly, command of baseline knowledge is the license to speak freely without need for anyone to superintend what anyone is saying or the need to monitor what he or she is saying. As long as people conform to this bargain the role of speech controller or monitor is rendered unnecessary.
Free speech and Africa
An education system that is not creating baseline knowledge is not worth its salt. In the area of speech, it invites a dictator the role of speech monitor or superintendent. By definition, monitored speech is not free speech. This structural impediment to the emergence of free speech in Africa has led to casual conclusions that dictators are muzzling free speech. However, even the most sophisticated dictator can only get to the surface of speech because the conscience remains out of reach.
Europeans (and Americans) are not any more enlightened than Africans when it comes to freedom of speech and conscience. It is that while they have put in place a system of education that has nurtured self-governance around speech, they destroyed these very systems for African systems precisely because speech was counter to the interests of colonization. Moreover, the neo-colonial context of African independence means that the impetus to decolonize education so that freedoms including speech may emerge remains elusive. This is the necessary prerequisite in the search for the African conscience.
Since the 1950s as America began to integrate its black population into its education system, it increasingly managed to navigate its deep racial divide by ensuring that blacks subscribe to a set of common values – in reality integrating them into the dominant white culture and imposing a “consensus” upon them. However, the objective was that with a consensus in hand they, blacks and whites, could debate how to continue searching for ways to overcome, if not conceal, that divide. As Golooba noted above, America considers itself “the land of the free” without necessarily having to craft a boundless society that creates anarchy.
A society that has reached baseline consensus understands that it can take certain prepositions for granted. A knowledgeable person distinguishes himself by making a contribution above, not below, the baseline, which makes the opinion “informed” and therefore worthy of respect – “respect my opinion,” are oft-repeated words that carry a silent “informed” between “my” and “opinion” which is implicit and never uttered simply out of humility.
Without the baseline, nothing can be taken for granted. Every discourse begins, and often ends, with disagreement on the basics, incapable of elevating into an informed opinion.
If an opinion is not informed it is a rant, uncoordinated utterances of words whose value cannot be ascertained, which is akin to the gibberish of an infant – an infant needs monitoring.
A regurgitation of basics ensues, rendering the task of ascertaining the value of an opinion impossible. In such circumstances, respect is conferred to the person who has managed to assemble the most diplomas, as proof of intelligence.
A meeting that should last an hour last a whole day because there’s nothing to take for granted; the absence of basics means it must begin by establishing them. Significantly, petty grievances and intrigue take over in private because healthy reciprocal relations for public discourse are yet to be nurtured, internalized, and institutionalized, as a means of self-governance around speech.
Africans self-censor because neither culture nor education is able to provide them a mechanism for self-governance so that they may process their thoughts and conscience into speech. Until culture and education coalesce – decolonizing education – to rescue Africans by framing the mind around a set of values held in common – a common denominator of knowledge – they will keep waiting for someone (call him what you wish) to guide them on what is acceptable in the public space.
It follows, therefore, that the failure of freedom of speech to take root in Africa has less to do with the dictator than with the collapse of education. However, the subsequent vacuum that is created by this failure constitutes a battlefront for the control of the African and anyone with power has the desire to fill it. Consequently, an African leader who surrenders it is considered a democrat and one who occupies it is considered a dictator. “Enlightened” Africans tend to prefer the former to the latter; however, there is no saint; it is about choosing the lesser of two devils.
This is space that belongs to liberated Africans to exercise their freedom of speech and conscience in line with their aspirations. However, the expectation that these freedoms will emerge outside of a decolonized education system is futile. But who wants to decolonize, really?