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Presentation for the 7th Gathering for the Freedom of Expression, Istanbul.

8-10 October 2010

Jayan Nayar

We have heard here many inspiring stories of the struggle for the voice. As we reflect on the many scripts of power as silencing voice, as we recall and dignify the many struggles against the suppression by power of dissident voices, I would like to take a few moments to raise some questions about the assumptions that underpin the freedom of expression, and some implications for likely futures of expression as a rebellious assertion of voice.

My thoughts of this session are essentially concerned with the following question: what does the freedom of expression mean to communities of the rightsless; to communities of the Banned? Let me begin by briefly stating what i understand as the common liberal conception of the freedom of expression.

When we say that everyone has, as a human right, the freedom of expression, we might think of this as an individual right to voice (or silence) within a political society. This is a right of citizenship, to be a citizen, to have voice as a political subject, to manifest oneself in the public space, out of invisibility and silence, voice. This priority of the political subject, the subject with voice, is at the core of the political theory of liberal democracy. Without the freedom of expression, therefore, citizenship itself becomes meaningless. Following from this, we understand the violation of the freedom of expression as having a double consequence: first as a violation of an individual voice, a violation of an individual’s right to full citizenship; secondly, as depriving the polity itself of deliberative richness, an impoverishment of democracy as a collective adieal. This at least is the theoretical underpinnings of the freedom of expression as a human right.

Two assumptions inhere in this account. First that national political society is grounded on the contractual premise and promise of equal citizenship. And secondly, that national political society is maintained by a consensus of equal citizens defining the national discourse. What happens, however, when we open these assumptions of equal citizenship to question?

We may understand History, of the narrative of Humanity, as a progressive march out of rightlessness to rights, to citizenship. But this is a very partial telling. It is a tale told by masters of civilisation. It is a Western tale. It is a privileged tale. It is a tale, significantly of forgetting. It forgets that rights and citizenship were born as mass rightlessness was inflicted. An other telling of the story of Humanity would remember that colonialism, slavery the relegation of Woman and the feminine, the destruction of nature as the idea of modern Man was born, were all the siblings of Human Rights. As the grand idea of rights was proclaimed, so were Bans-as Giorgio Agamben tells us-of the inclusive exclusion of the majority of the human population.

The purpose of remembering the underside of human rights is to remember also that sovereignty as democracy, and its promise of equal citizenship, has in reality been a very brief interlude to the longer narrative of sovereignty as the creation of the rightslessness. The more persistent experience of sovereignty is that of the Ban. Linking this to our present rethinking of the horizons of the freedom of expression, it is importanto to remember that this purported freedom is one of limit. By this I mean, the freedom of the sovereign and the ruled as what permitted to be uttered. The sovereign has no need for the freedom of expression. Sovereignty, the power to name itself sovereign, to name the Ban, to speak the command “kill”, or “pardon”, itself is absolute, the sovereignty of expression itself constituting sovereignty. The notion of the freedom of expression is a concession to the ruled- It is the freedom to speak what is permitted to be spoken under the conditions of being ruled. To be Banned is to transgress the permitted limits of utterance within the prevailing conditions of being ruled.

With this perspective of the original political relationship between the ruler and the ruled, we may see that the past and present of the freedom of expression is also the unfreedom being silenced, of being Banned. Put differently, what is allowed is always coincidental with what is dissalowed. An examination of the disallowed then enables us to better understand the context of the prevailing politics of sovereign domination. It is the Ban that is more telling of the nature of political society than the permission. It is the Banned that exposes the fault-lines, nad the vulnerabilities, of Sovereign Power, for which Power has no answer, except the violence of the Ban, the violence of silencing.

What is Banned, therefore, is the limit of hegemony, the unspeakables of a manufactured political consensus that, if permitted un-silenced, unmasks hegemony and names it domination. The Banned is the truth that exposes the falsehood of equal citizenship. What is banned is the voice that questions the normalities of domination and instigates rebellion. In the days of colonialism, to question the normality of the White Man’s right to rule by the rebellious colonised,was Banned. Therefore, to speak as Gandhi did of Swaraj, or self-rule, or as Fanon did of the right of the colonised to decolonising violence, was Banned. In the days of Apartheid South Africa, to speak of the Freedom Charter, as the ANC and Mandela did, or of Black Conciousness as Bilko did, was Banned. In the days of British patriarchal democracy, to speak of the rights of women to full suffrage, as the Pankhursts did, was Banned. In the days of Latin American dictatorships to speak of the pedagogy of the oppressed, As Freire did, was Banned. In more recent times, this Ban has fallen upon those that have questioned the violent logics of development, of militarism, of corporate destruction of lands and livelihoods. We may replicate the examples manifold, right up to the present. To remember in this way is to remember that the short history of democracy is a long history of illegality of the expression of rightsless of peoples that names the inequalities of the inclusions and exclusions of citizenship. The freedom of expression, seen in this light, is only even a true expression of freedom when it is deemed transgressive enough to be subjected to the Sovereign Ban. And so it remains today.

Allow me therefore to re-state the contemporary political context of the freedom of expression as i understand it. Forgive me the rather cumbersome and inelegant definition.

The freedom of expression is the prescribed space for voice within a global sovereignty of  (neoliberal) capitalism managed and enforced by the territorial sub-sovereignties of police and surveillance states, which enables the celebratory articulations of the rights of capital, the identities of consumptive individuality and the promises of market-led human emancipation. This freedom of expression may tolerate certaub critical citizen-voicings against global sovereignty as it asserts its liberal-democratic credentials, bar any association of such “voices” with organisational movements of rebellion. The freedom of expression is the freedom to remain with voice,obedient under rule.

Allow me also to put forward two propositions that follow from this redefinition:

1. The freedom of expression, as is the case with all freedoms and Human Rights, are not equal rights for all. There are different degrees of freedom that correspond to differentiated citizenship. Some Citizens have sovereign rights to expression, including the right to “express lethal violence on others, sanctioned by legal prosecution, whilst other citizens may have all their rights revoked by law, up to the point of being under the duty of obedient death.

2. For the righsless, therefore, the only meaningful freedom of expression is the right to articulate and effect illegalities.

Let us examine these propositions in the context of current registers of expression:Some citizens have the right to assert the “right to kill”, and to explicitly incite police and military violence in the name of regime change, in the name of “anti-terror”, in the name of national security “encounters”. There are no qualms here about the incitement to violence, no prohibition on advocating what is deemed necessary killing. Some citizens have this right, this freedom of expression. They are celebrated and honoured as spokespeople of civilization, democracy and development.

The majority of citizens in the world, have not this right. They have no right to advocate violence against the rulers and citizens of global neoliberalism. To do so would be Banned as expressions of Terrorism. They have no right to assert the rights of self-defence against militaristic violence, against death squads, against legalised evictions, plunder, even death. This too, in the perverse lexicon of contemporary politics, this would equate with terrorism. Perverse indeed, when the everyday terror of ordinary citizens denied security of life, or lifelihoods by those that wield sovereign power, cannot find expression in the naming of Terror. Perverse indeed, when Terrorism today may mean simply all that is incovenient to the conforts of citizens of global militaristic neoliberalism.

So, when we speak of freedom of expression, if we mean to take seriously the expressions of the rightsless, of the Banned, then we must take seriously, as a fundamental right of the rightsless, the right to illegality as a right of rebellious expression. This can never be conceded by the global sovereigns, this can never be a legal freedom of expression. And yet, it is at the very core of expressiong rebellion. As Enrique Dussel stresses in his Philosophy of Liberation:

“The projecto of liberation…is a real criticism of the system; it is a rupture; it is destruction…In this way, the liberating act…is and can only be illegal, contrary to present laws…It is the inevitable position of liberation;subversive illegality.”

Before i conclude, let me suggest some aspects of the expression of illegalities that are significant to a contemporary politics of rebellion.

1. The idiosyncratic amd vernacular appropriations by communities of struggle of mythical histories, against Histories of domination. The claiming of the power to name oneself, in opposition to the names given by power, and to imagine collective identities of struggle, we increasingly witness, for example through re-made identities and solidarities surrounding indigeneity, land and other earth recources. This rebellious claimings of mythic histories are i believe a critical “silencing” of power’s claim to sovereign hegemony, by the rightsless.

2. The audacities of judgement to name power’s violence and criminality is another feature of increasing expressions of rebellion. Through so many forms- of peoples’ tribunals, citizen’s juries, women;s courts, lok saths, etc-these forbidden acts of judgement by the rightsless take possesion of conceptions of rights, hustice, dignity, liberation etc (conceptions that power claims sovereign rights of definition over) and turs them against power.

3. The transgression of borders-that very precious limit that defines the included and excluded sovereignty- of illegal migration as “emergence” out of Bans, represents another unstoppable and increasingly self-conscious expression of rebellion. To move and to appear, without permission, is to speak presence out of absence. And is not presence itself, the ultimate expression of being?

The three examples i have mentioned so far, may be understood as examples of a growing, and organised,political conscioussness of rebellion as a freedom of expression. There is also a fourth example that bears mentioning. In addition to the organised expressions of rebellion, there are also, always, the rebellious expressions of the largely invisible rightsless. These every-day, hit and run, illegalities remain the weapons of the weak, as James Scott long ago termed it. These are then the expressions of freedom by the rightsless, within the daily contexts of unfreedom. As we contemplate the diminishing scope of freedom of expression as a legal right of citizens, as we think about the likely futures for the freedom of expression, I urge that we forget not the importance of illegality, as voice, for the rightsless.

by kafrodo and efes_dark

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