Blog post 1

Each of the readings for this module explore a tension and interdependence between public discourse and personal identity. 

To expand on this, let’s start with the first question for this assignment, “What is the societal value of a concept like free expression? Is it a purely public or more personal value?”.  After our readings for this module, I’d attempt to define the societal value of free expression by exploring the interdependence between its personal and public values.  The essay from Bejan “Two Concepts of Freedom (of Speech)” does this directly. Bejan introduces two concepts: isegoria, “an equal right of citizens to participate in public debate in the democratic assembly” and Parrhesia “the license to say what one pleased, how and when one pleased, and to whom.” In the rest of the essay, they explore these two concepts and place them in competition with each other. They then conclude by claiming “the genius of the First Amendment lies in bringing isegoria and parrhesia together…”. Paraphrasing their conclusion, the value of free expression isn’t just an improved public discourse through each individual’s equal right to participate in it. The value also lies in guaranteeing the individual’s freedom to “speak their minds.” Defining this as an equal right means that the marginalized enjoy it inherently and are not (at least constitutionally) granted this right conditionally by the powerful.

The essential freedom to speak our minds leads us to the second question “How does free expression contribute to identity, whether that is public or personal identity?”.  The readings from Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak” and from LaPensée When Rivers Were Trails both assert that free expression, defined as both the ability to express oneself and (critically) the ability to be understood, is an essential component of identity.  Further, both assert that unequal power between the dominant culture and marginalized indigenous groups limits free expression. Spivak in particular explores how limitations on public expression also limit personal identity.

Spivak’s paper wasn’t an easy read, and I’m not sure I have the background or perspective to fully appreciate it. However, what struck me was that the word “can” in the title was meant both as permission and as ability. The subaltern, communicating only through abstractions, can’t be fully heard or understood by the dominant culture. Disconcertingly, they argue that, in this condition, the subaltern is “marked only as a pointer to an irretrievable consciousness”. 

In contract to Spivak, LaPensée provides a compelling contrast between the dominant cultural narrative of the “Oregon Train” and the narrative of the indigenous communities affected by US westward expansion. Through telling this story from the indigenous perspective, and, critically, drawing on indigenous experience and creative leadership, this facilitates an understanding of, or at least empathy with, the indigenous identity through experiences in the game.

Finally, the third question for this blog post asks us to explain “Is free expression worth protecting”? The readings this week illustrated the connections between expression, thought and identity, and reminded me of George Orwell’s book, 1984. While the novel’s themes around “big brother” and surveillance seem to get more contemporary attention, I’ve found its illustrations of how constraints on expression pervert identity to be more alarming. By constraining what the protagonist can say, the powerful contort what he thinks, and eventually his core values, relationships and identity. With this example and our readings for this module in mind, we can see that securing the right to free expression is essential not just for a free society, but may also be a central component of our own capacity to define ourselves, and must therefore be considered a basic human right as well.