Since the terrorist attack in Paris on Charlie Hebdo the concept of freedom of speech (or expression) is back in the spotlight. The attack made people in the Western world aware of how important this freedom really is and how much it is connected to our modern idea of democracy. We have seen how millions of people in France and all over the world took to the streets to stress its importance. Media sources often refer to the freedom of speech as though it is a virtually unlimited freedom: that, with the exception of the violation of other human rights, nothing is allowed to stand in its way and that any other restriction must be considered as bowing to the pressure of the terrorists.
Observing this worldwide plea made me think of the triumph felt in the West when the communist regime in Russia came to an end a few decades ago: all at once the capitalist system seemed supreme, nearly sacred, and in the subsequent period the West genuinely felt and acted that way. Until, of course, the financial crisis hit the world. Although the world of the Islamic terrorists has not yet come to an end, we are caught in a similar dualistic battle here (even though – admittedly – there have been some brave attempts to avoid the ‘us against them’ way of thinking.) Since the concept of freedom of speech is felt to be essential to the Western way of living, any outside threat to limit this only seems to strengthen the conviction of its importance.
An unlimited freedom?
But we have to become realistic about the freedom of speech. The way we consider it to be virtually unlimited is, I think, still a consequence of the long struggle within the Western world against the absolute powers of churches and despotic rulers that limited it for many centuries. Having broken free of those chains and opened up to democracy, it is understandable that we protest fiercely when anybody tries to turn back the clock: we simply won’t allow it. The idea of virtually unlimited freedom is also strongly connected to the – still dominant – anthropocentric (and often egocentric) way of Western thinking: of thinking we have successfully cut ourselves loose from the rest of nature, believing ourselves to be independent of it, yet thinking we can fully reign over it at the same time.
The cycles of life
Now that we are gradually rediscovering our place within nature, it won’t be long before we start realizing that it is this same nature that limits our freedom in a profound way. Look around and look within, and we can see how we are fully embedded in many cyclical life patterns and can’t exist without them. We cannot decide to stop breathing or eating and yet live on. We cannot decide to stop sleeping. We cannot change night into day, or winter into summer. We cannot make the economy grow endlessly without avoiding catastrophe. We are rediscovering that at heart we are one hundred percent earth beings, children of Mother Earth, embedded in her many different cycles and matrices, knowing that all living beings – humans, animals and plants – fully depend on one another.
An embedded freedom
We can only mature by going through these cycles, and the more we psychologically and spiritually mature, paradoxically the freer we start feeling. But this is another, more realistic kind of freedom, an embedded freedom. By erroneously thinking that freedom is a concept that allows for a life outside the natural world and yet with unlimited reign over this world, we have turned ourselves into rather small-minded competitive beings – beings who are blind to the fact that they need the embeddedness in life’s encompassing cycles to be able to grow into more compassionate beings, and to open up to a more expanded sense of freedom. Seen from this perspective we may wonder how much (or little) freedom of speech we actually have when this is solely an expression of our hatred.
Including other people
It is good to realise that consciously living within cyclical patterns, within contexts, in the end does not limit the way we live, but expands it. When we feel embedded, part of a larger surrounding world, we also express our freedom of speech in an embedded way. And it is important to know that this more mature freedom of speech aims not to exclude other people – to speak out against people we don’t (want to) understand, which is still often the case these days – but to include them, to build bridges. As far as I can see, this is the only way forward, not just for the Western world, but for everybody.