Free-speech champion Timothy Garton Ash: Are we in a “post-truth media world”?

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He’s rather “robustly civil” himself. (Photo: Christine Baker-Parrish)

Last week, Timothy Garton Ash called for a “robust civility” – he added “that’s the gamble of liberal democracy.” But how does that play out in a social media avalanche of images, tweets, and hit-and-run postings?

Tim was here at Stanford in-between lectures, readings, discussions, and book-signings for his newest, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, and that lauded 480-page volume was the subject of his talk at Cubberley Auditorium Wednesday night.

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Nix the “heckler’s veto.” (Photo: Christine Baker-Parrish)

We live in an age, he noted, where 1.7 billion people are on Facebook. “Facebook is the empire on which the sun never sets,” he said. In today’s world, “one sleazy little video uploaded by a convicted fraudster in southern California” can cause dozens of deaths in demonstrations half a world away – and also result in the offer a $100,000 bounty for killing the filmmaker who exercised his freedom of expression. Such are the asymmetries of our global society, where “a Youtube video is as mighty as a fleet,” he said.

In 2000, president Bill Clinton had scoffed that China’s attempts to control internet freedom within its borders would be like trying to “nail Jell-O to a wall.” China’s reply: “Just watch us.” Today, Tim said, China runs “the largest apparatus of censorship in world history. It’s not true for the long-term, but it’s true for now.”

In the West, we’re living “a market failure in the marketplace of democracy.” Political coverage has become polarized, creating two echo chambers in the “post-truth media world.”

Online shouting earns “eyeballs, ears, clicks,” he said. “If it bleeds it leads, if it roars it scores … reality has overtaken satire …truthiness made flesh.” The sheer scale, intensity, and repetition of a 24/7 news cycle presents us with daunting challenges. He recommended George Orwell‘s essay, “Politics and the English Language” (it’s here) as a counterbalance to cant and a way “to purify the language of the tribe” (which is of course T.S. Eliot).

We’ve already written about his recent words on the cult of “safe spaces” and banning campus speakers in our previous post. (Sample quote: “It is an abuse of language to suggest that anyone can seriously be ‘unsafe’ because someone whose views they find offensive or upsetting is speaking in a room on the other side of campus.”)

This presentation was a more systematic and comprehensive presentation of his thought on the issue of free speech. He outlined ten guiding principles, also on his free speech website here (it’s been translated into thirteen languages to date).

  1. A discussion seminar featuring Timothy Garton Ash (Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution), Joshua Cohen, Faculty, Apple University, and Jennifer Granick, Director of Civil Liberties, The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School on October 6 2016 at Encina Hall. The discussion revolved around Garton Ash's most recent book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Yale University Press, 2016). Photography by: Christine Baker-Parrish

    “Eyeballs, ears, clicks” (Photo: Christine Baker-Parrish)

    Lifeblood: We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers. He put particular emphasis on “and able” – many in the world are illiterate, or without internet access, which can be as effective as censorship.

  2. Violence: We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation. “We don’t accept the heckler’s veto,” he said, nor the “assassin’s veto.” The Charlie Hebdo massacre and the murder of Theo van Gogh have a massive chilling effect of on free speech. Anyone remember Molly Norris? Read about her here.
  3. Knowledge: We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge. This includes considerations of the currently fashionable discussions of safe spaces, microaggressions, hate speech, and so on.
  4. Journalism: We require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.
  5. Diversity: We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.
  6. Religion: We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.
  7. Privacy: We must be able to protect our privacy and to counter slurs on our reputations, but not prevent scrutiny that is in the public interest.
  8. Secrecy: We must be empowered to challenge all limits to freedom of information justified on such grounds as national security.
  9. Icebergs: We defend the internet and other systems of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.
  10. Courage: We decide for ourselves and face the consequences. He cited Pericles: “The secret of happiness is liberty, and the secret of liberty is courage.”

Watch the video below. He wants to hear from you.


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