Friday, April 16, 2010

The Eclipse of Free Expression

Part 36 of Prisoners of the Real

A precise blueprint for change would be inconsistent with the need for spontaneity, diversity, and intuitive leadership in sparking a Dionysian revival. A recitation of social goals and transitional objectives would be just one more laundry list, as well as an invitation to later disillusionment. Cultural regeneration can only occur as a result of actions by millions of autonomous individuals and purposeful groups. Nevertheless, Dionysian insights can be applied to the understanding and solution of many problems. Consider, for example, the crisis of freedom as it relates to mass communication and self-expression.

All too often, when confronted with a crisis, citizens in many nations favor expansion of government power over protection of individual liberty. In the realm of free expression, this implies at least a tacit agreement that speech is a privilege conferred by authority. In the United States, self-proclaimed conservatives have long waved the banners of liberty and individualism, defining them primarily as entrepreneurial spirit and free enterprise. Yet their version is a dangerous stew, including large portions of provincialism, hypocritical moralizing, and an obsession with national exceptionalism and power. The result has been aggression, combined with restrictions on free speech and infringements on basic rights when either speech or behavior runs at odds with fundamentalist beliefs or the "national interest." Congressional studies reveal that the response has been as expansive as the systematic impulse of government bureaucracies to expand their jurisdictions and perpetuate their functions. If current trends continue, the combined effect of successive national administrations preoccupied with security and corporate “free enterprise” and a bureaucratic establishment ever ready to assume new powers may well be disastrous for the robust discussion of ideas, the search for truth, and the personal fulfillment of individual human beings.

The nature of communication changed dramatically during the 20th century. Technological innovations made electronic media the dominant conveyers of basic information. Seeing and hearing truly became believing. Yet despite the dangers posed by these powerful tools, ranging from the potential for manipulation of mass opinion and actions to the drowning out of individual voices, the main response of governments has been the imposition of rules that are either discriminatory or ineffective. What government action has absolutely failed to do is slow the consolidation of economic control.

Since the emergence of radio the media environment of the US and, following its example, much of the world has been transformed. Television has turned political debate into a war of packaged sound bites. Blatant commercialism and violent cartoons have altered the perceptions and values of millions of children. Multinational companies and ad agencies mold consciousness, hammering in certain messages and suppressing others. Global management of information now poses as great a threat to self-government as pollution does to the environment.

Even the prospect of a participatory renaissance ushered in by the Internet may be overrated. As media historian Robert McChesney sees it, the ultimate beneficiaries of the so-called Internet Age may be the investors, advertisers, and a handful of media, computer, and telecommunications corporations. Despite the use of computers to mobilize political action and help laudable campaigns, the "information age" is shaping up like a new era of information imperialism.

Looking specifically at freedom of speech and the press in the US, many of the problems can be traced to an obsolete notion about the source of the danger. Although government intrusions are far from irrelevant, they no longer constitute the primary threat; that honor must go to corporate entities, including the institutional media themselves, which have exploited basic rights and snuffed out the personal right to speak in the process. In their effort to guard against government abridgments of speech, Congress and the courts have left most citizens at the mercy of impersonal economic forces whose institutional autonomy and ability to widely disseminate their views have undermined diversity in the marketplace of ideas.

Any voice that isn't "amplified" through broadcast or print is unlikely to be audible. Or, to paraphrase a proverb, if you can't be heard, have you actually spoken?

The evolution of varying standards of speech protection for different modes of communication has given the government some leverage in negotiations with each. Overall, however, the promise of First Amendment protection has led to an assumption that economic entities are entitled to the same rights as human beings. It has even been argued that they are involved in speech that is more vital to democracy than the speech of any individual. The rationale has cut both ways, occasionally justifying refusal of access to the media and, less often, requiring media to air a message.

As a result of this fragmentation of speech rights, most people have had their freedom redefined and largely curtailed on the basis of the medium they wish to use. Those who operate outside the institutional media, though some may consider themselves “netizans” as a result of their access to blogs and social networks, are mainly consigned to the status of "listeners," "consumers," "audience," or occasionally "sources." The progressive mechanization of mass media, combined with economic centralization, has led to a system of mass communication that is impersonal and normally unresponsive. Freedom of speech has become an institutional right, and individual speakers have been turned into interchangeable objects.

Next: Autonomy & Self-Rule

To read other chapters, go to
Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey
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