Courtesy or tyranny?

By Katrina Boguski

Earlier this month, Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov and Maria Ressa won the Nobel Peace Prize. They shared the honour, “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” Both Nobel laureates are journalists, and it was the first time since 1936 that the prize went to a working journalist.
Muratov and Ressa both have done work for high profile news agencies and both have seen a fair bit of blood and ink spilled in the effort to report the news freely. Their beats are a good deal more risky and their stories potentially more controversial than any that might be found in Haliburton. Nevertheless, the occasion of this prize might be an appropriate one to consider how healthy freedom of speech is locally.

Do you bite your tongue a little more frequently than you used to? Do you find yourself replaying conversations in your head to make sure that there was nothing that might be deem offensive by some zealot? Do you find yourself restricting conversations with some people to mundane things like the weather, steering away from controversial topics that might “trigger” one group or another? Do you find yourself wishing you had the courage to say something, but instead fear that it might get you blacklisted or might result in a barrage of online criticism? Maybe these situations are telling us something about the health of free speech even in this tranquil area.
Sometimes giving pause before we speak can be an act of virtue, and taming the tongue can be a sign of having gained much wisdom. Other times, it is a sign of cowardice and a weak moral compass. It is hard to work with a misaligned conscience, especially in journalism. Sometimes journalists bear a high price for their decisions; as a result, one hopes they are well informed by a clear conscience.

Six journalists from Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper headed by Muratov have been killed since the paper was founded in 1993. Journalists working in the village of Haliburton might find their assignments a far cry from the front lines where Muratov’s reporters have been corespondents, yet, the challenge to report the truth is as relevant for them as it is for any other reporter; the temptation to bow down to the golden calf of political correctness can be every bit as strong in idyllic rural towns as it is in major centres.
Many of the efforts to manipulate speech are no doubt intended to have some positive end; often they are aimed at redressing some wrong or correcting some past injustice. However, the point at which good intention gives way to tyranny cannot always be observed.

Our modern culture is one which embraces the most hedonistic pleasures and engages in pursuits that would make even the most free-wheeling bohemian blush. And yet, many people are triggered and offended by statements that past generations would have called common sense. Is the effort to suppress free speech really about politeness and sensitivity, or is it about control? The next time you find yourself biting your tongue, ask yourself that question. Maybe it might give you the courage to speak even if someone will be offended. If you need a little more courage, think about Nobel Laureates Muratov and Ressa. If even the Nobel committee thinks democracy is threatened by the current state of free speech, it just might be.