From 15th May 2020 till 15th June 2020, EMPOWER Malaysia organised an essay competition for aspiring writers aged 13 to 23 with the theme “The Freedom to Express Myself without Fear”. Selected as one of the Top 20 entries, in her essay, Ong Jia Ying, aged 16, talks about how the preservation of our Freedom of Expression is vital in inciting positive change to our world.

   In a pivotal scene of 1994’s acclaimed comedy film Forrest Gump, a young Forrest, newly a veteran of the Vietnam War, is invited to give an impromptu speech to 250,000 protesters at an anti-war demonstration. Just as sweet but slow-witted Forrest utters his first sentence, the wires of his microphone are unplugged by a senior military official, and he is deprived of his opportunity to convey to the raucous crowd his experiences of war.

   Such attempts to muffle free speech are becoming increasingly condemned in today’s era as more and more countries recognize the paramountcy of freedom of expression. With the gradual decline in discrimination, coupled with the rise of social media, citizens of liberal countries are none too shy to broadcast their views. In particular, passionate activists have seized the opportunity to disseminate — for instance, Swedish teenager and environmental advocate Greta Thunberg. It is a testament to the progress of free speech that Thunberg, though only 17 and without political position, has single-handedly influenced governments and corporations to enact policies with the goal of combating climate change. 

   However, inevitably encapsulated in the advancement of free speech is the enablement of hate speech. Thunberg has her own army of critics constantly raining flagrant abuse. Now equipped with shields of anonymity, internet trolls and cyberbullies too are free to promulgate malice, as are racists, sexists, extremists, and hate-mongering ‘incels’ with their inflammatory ideologies. They are rebuffed, naturally, by the majority of the Internet community, and the war of words continues without end. The reality is that for every opinion there is always dissent, and therein lies the problem: to what extent, under what circumstance, should an individual be allowed to speak their mind? 

   Let us return to our example of Forrest Gump. Upon watching the aforementioned scene, audiences are usually outraged at the military official’s seemingly spiteful actions. Yet, the official’s act of revoking Forrest’s right to speak, although far from blameless, can also be interpreted as out of regard for the maintenance of peace and order. Forrest, having been requested spontaneously to speak, would almost certainly go on to denounce the war by depicting it in all its grisly violence, thus fanning the flames of anti-government sentiment and ferocious divisiveness already raging among the American populace. His statements would spark bloodshed far worse than the Kent and Jackson State shootings of 1970. Undoubtedly, these thoughts would not have crossed Forrest’s mind as he stepped up to the podium.

   What we can gather from this case is the importance of considering extensively the outcomes of and reactions to our words before we present them publicly — a virtue applicable to private conversation and even more so when addressing the masses. In his bestseller How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie divulges the “secret of success” — the ability to get another person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from our own. When propagating an opinion, it is advisable to first predict the responses of our subjects as well as consequent events. This allows us to mentally filter out overly offensive, incendiary or immoral speech while also preparing us for impending criticism. Moreover, we should not assess our subjects’ responses through logical reasoning alone. Dale Carnegie said, “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” In order to make the most of freedom of expression, we should consider carefully all three realms of ethos, pathos and logos. 

   However, what happens when attacks on free speech are no longer confined to verbal threats and online harassment? Assaults on freedom of expression are ever-present; they even pervade our homes, when parents carelessly dismiss their children’s opinions ‘because I said so’. But the prime opponents of free speech are still governments. To this day, it is extremely dangerous to disparage the government in many countries, especially in Iran, where the act will warrant 74 lashes. In Vietnam, peaceful campaigners are tortured and confined in squalid conditions as prisoners of conscience, while in Myanmar, journalists detailing the Rohingya conflict were jailed. News outlets in Tanzania are only allowed to publish issues of government-decreed importance, and China maintains iron-fisted control over access to digital information through censorship and firewalls. More recently, peaceful demonstrators in Hong Kong were subjected to police brutality after protesting against a controversial bill.

   To address the root cause of government obstruction of free speech, let us refer once more to Forrest Gump. Would the anti-war demonstration have reached such a tumultuous extent if the American government had not withheld or deliberately manipulated information about the progress of the war? If federal reports had not lied about the brutality before the Tet Offensive, would the official have to unplug the wires to prevent the shock the crowd would have received?

   Governments must practice transparency so that protesters do not need to fight for it. When freedom of information is upheld, the need to crack down on dissenters is greatly reduced. A quote from former US president John F. Kennedy summarises the importance of openness — “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.” Furthermore, laws in place to prevent provocative discourse must never be abused to repress peaceful dissent. When governments deprive their citizens of their freedom of expression, they effectively fit into the mold of a bully, as the very act is equivalent to the denial of a basic human right.

   In conclusion, it is the duty of both the speaker and the listener to maintain the sanctity of free speech. There is no doubt that the free exchange of ideas is crucial for social and economic development, as well as personal growth. The preservation of this precious right should be given utmost priority in order for positive change to be brought about.

The views, opinions and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EMPOWER Malaysia.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

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