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Freedom in the digital age

By Paschos Mandravelis

Socrates and Jesus are seen today as two of the biggest thinkers in history. At their time, however, their ideas were deemed disrespectful to god and dangerous to “society” – in other words, a threat to the status quo. As a result, they were both sentenced to death; not for something they did but for something they said. Socrates and Jesus, of course, never published a book or kept a blog. Given the technological limitations of that time, their ideas could only be disseminated orally. To be sure, they were not the only thinkers to voice an opinion. However, most of their contemporaries talked rubbish and, as a result, their ideas were soon forgotten.

John Locke has gone down as one of the biggest modern political philosophers. Persecuted in Britain, he published his seminal work, “Two Treatises of Government,” anonymously in the Netherlands. Locke, of course, did not have a blog either. Typography was the technology of the time. We now know that most of what was printed at back then was of little value or consisted of slanderous attacks on political opponents. This was used as an excuse by the ruling class to silence truly subversive speech. Here is a law passed by Cardinal Richelieu in France, January 1629:

“Any printers, book sellers, or binders who may print or cause to be printed defamatory books or pamphlets will be punished as disturbers of the peace, and thereby deprived of all of their privileges and immunities and declared incapable of ever being able to engage in the profession of printer or book dealer...

And in order to avoid the abuses, disorders, and confusions that occur daily through the impression of an infinity of scandalous books and defamatory pamphlets, without the names of their authors, nor the publishers, nor the place where they were printed, because of the great number of book sellers, printers, and binders present in your said Realm, and especially in your good city of Paris where the abuses are so frequent, it will be expressly prohibited.”

Today, technology has brought some old problems back to the surface. The anonymity of blogs and social media irks the elites of the world. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan banned Twitter, China blocked access to certain websites and in Greece, young people get hit with blasphemy charges for mocking religion or certain established politicians. It is true of course that most of what goes up on online platforms is trash. Some of it may even be slander but – like at the time of oral speech or typography – these too will be relegated to historical oblivion. However, rubbish is the cost you have to pay for making space for useful and truly revolutionary speech.

For this reason it is important that one is free to speak, write or publish their thoughts, notwithstanding the fact that he or she who does so is not necessarily in the right or has anything revolutionary to say. By banning ideas that seem insulting to the dominant way of thinking we risk missing out on useful ones; we risk social stagnation and decline. The world moves forward on the back of ideas even if the collateral damage is having to tolerate an even bigger share of worthless chatter.

ekathimerini.com , Thursday May 1, 2014 (20:50)  
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